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Real Founder Lessons: Three Pieces of Advice for Early-Stage Founders

by David Payne

My name is David Payne and I’ve been working on startups for the better part of twenty years in NYC, SF, London and (now) Atlanta.  My best-known startup in Atlanta is Scoutmob, but my most recent project is Switchyards, a consumer-focused startup hub in downtown Atlanta.  Both were co-founded with my long-time partner and friend Michael Tavani.  

A few years ago, as Scoutmob began to get more established, I started formally advising some local startups (in addition to lots of informal coffee meetings at Octane Westside).  As I began to spend more time with founders, I found that early-stage founders typically had very similar questions and concerns. As I ran across a podcast that answered some of these common issues, I would file it into my “founder lessons” Evernote as a reminder to email it out the next time that topic came up.  After emailing my finds to dozens of founders and tweeting some others, I decided to expand upon this topic through my blog, Real Founder Lessons.

When Hypepotamus approached me about a monthly column based on my Real Founder Lessons, I was thrilled to pitch-in because I’m such a big fan and supporter of all that they do for the startup ecosystem in Atlanta.  So each month I’ll be taking my best blog post from the month and expanding on it for my Hypepotamus column.

For my inaugural article, I want to give Hypepotamus readers a good flavor of my thinking by answering the question “What three pieces of advice do I give most to early-stage founders?”  So here are my three most common nuggets of advice for early-stage founders.

1. Share your best startup ideas with lots of people.  This is the link that I emailed out dozens of times that first gave me the idea of creating a blog.  At minute 16:13 of this video, the founder of LinkedIn describes how he shares his best ideas with lots of people so that they can tell him the biggest hurdle that he’ll face when launching.  Then he spends his creative energies solving that one problem.  

At Switchyards I’m meeting 1-2 new startup founders per day and the most common problem I notice in the “idea stage” is that the idea is good, but the founder isn’t fixating on figuring-out why this product doesn’t yet exist in the world.  Every idea you’ve had has been considered by hundreds (if not thousands) of others across the country.  There’s a real reason that a solution hasn’t emerged.  The best founders identify this key friction early and spend their limited resources reconciling it before building their product.

2. Build a 10x better product. Probably my single biggest lesson from Scoutmob was that starting with a much better product makes everything much easier.  When we launched Scoutmob in early 2010, Groupon was the main player and was still very new.  At that time, Groupon was a deal-a-day that you had to purchase on your computer and print a physical voucher because they didn’t have a mobile app.  Plus you only got one offer per day that you had to pay ahead for.  When you first heard of Scoutmob, we were the first mobile app in the industry, there were a hundred offers on our mobile app and you didn’t pay for any of them.  By all comparisons this was at least a 10x better product and that difference allowed us to grow to millions of consumers across the country without a single marketing employee or spending any money on paid customer acquisition – Scoutmob grew 100% word-of-mouth.  

If you are building a product – particularly one for consumers – do your best to make sure it’s an order of magnitude better than what exists.  This is necessary to drive ongoing usage and word-of-mouth growth, both necessary ingredients to consumer startup success.

3. Expect a new startup to take 18 months to find product-market fit.  The most painful and frustrating part of a startup is how much time it takes to generate any meaningful traction.  You start the journey full of excitement that the world will be much better off when they just experience your product.  Then you hit some common hurdles in building your product or you actually launch and the results come in less that you expected (which is the vast majority of the time).  This is the point that separates good founders from great ones.  

I keep a list of startups that pivot sometime between month 9 and month 18 because it happens so often.  I would guess that 90% of startups are something very different if they are still around 18 months after launching.  So if you are an early-stage founder, please give yourself at least 12 months to have your real aha moment about your business model and expect a major pivot between month 9 and 15.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, but the startup ecosystem in Atlanta is still small compared with everything else happening in Atlanta and compared to other startup hubs around the country.  If you are earnestly supporting the local startup ecosystem in a pay-it-forward way (without expecting anything in return), I can’t thank you enough for your efforts.  Atlanta will become a major startup hub over the next decade and those seeds are being planted right now by all of us.  If I can ever be of help, please email me.

David Payne is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Switchyards, a consumer-focused startup hub in downtown Atlanta. You can read more about his startup journey here. Follow him on Medium and Twitter.

Image Credit: Bhargava Chiluveru, Chil Studios

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