Monday, October 22, 2012

Helping Founders: The Good and Bad

I just had a disappointing experience where I wasted hours of my time with a founder of a tech startup who asked for help, offered the leadership position, needs serious funding including handling significant personal debt, but who has compelling technology that could really help a lot of people.

We've never communicated perfectly in the past, and that was repeated this time.

Startup Lancaster has 46 members--all founders of startup tech companies. They're all special, and they're all not special. The world has become flooded with founders of startup tech companies. But I try to help each of them as needed.

Before that, I coached about three dozen other startups and businesses, served on non-profit and for profit boards, and I've always tried to help, and give them the benefit of the doubt. I've backed three films, floated a few nonprofits that were in desperate need, and worked a skidloader just to get the job done.

I show up. I show up when people ask me to show up because they're in need. I'm not always courteous, nice, or considerate, but I show up, and give people my gut advice and the benefit of the doubt.

But I always ask questions to get to the root of the matter.

When the music academy asked me for help when they were spiraling out of control and out of money, the first thing I did was ask for their financials. They refused to produce them, repeatedly. I still tried to help, but they didn't like the questions that got to the root of the issues, and I became persona non grata. Ultimately it shut down in a messy and nasty process (that's another long story).

Some of the founders I've coached or invested in have done well; one now owns a very profitable services company on the west coast, another went on to be VP at a leading online photo company, one's a VC at a major corporate VC, one sold her company for $23 million, others have gone on to raise capital, hire people, etc.

It's fulfilling to see that, and I take no credit at all for their successes because I was just the guy with the drive-by opinion and supportive words--support I wish I had when I was trying to figure things out back in the 90's.

And I have to say, most of them are smarter than I am and more talented in a lot of ways. They just needed some guidance and friendship at critical times, and it turns out that they're simply driven and smart enough to make their own breaks.

I've very rarely charged for my services or time. I'm either generous or an idiot; people who know me know it's likely a combination of both.

Some of us are arrogant or have been. I was. Sometimes I still am. It comes with the territory--you're passionate, driven, believe in your stuff, and you're the keeper of the flame, so it's hard to hear other people comment on that flame, or that the blowing wind threatens it, or that you're running out of gas or candle or flamethrower fuel--whatever.

So when I take half a week meeting with someone and they suddenly dismiss me for doing due diligence, it really bugs me.  Researching their industry, developing business models, and trying to figure out how to float the sinking ship...I get pretty involved.

I ask a lot of questions, try to understand everything, float ideas, look for insights, and try to develop a plan to make things work. What money has come in, where was it spent, and what's left? Pretty simple. How much are you willing to sell, who do you know who would invest, and the guy you turned down, well could we re-approach with terms that suit the company better? What's your debt, what income do you need, what role will you play. Basic.

I try to get information so I can put together a credible picture for investors to cozy up to it and write the checks because we've turned them either into true believers in the idea, the team, or me. Usually it's a combination, and every time it feels like a miracle.

He came to me for help, liked my access to investors but didn't like the questions, and blew me off dismissively. That's his right, and shame on me for not sending a bill.

I'm starting a new policy after this--I'm going to charge for my time. Every month I'll continue to give my time to the startup community here in Lancaster through our monthly Startup Lancaster meetups. You can also buy the book when it comes out, which will be under $30 and hopefully will be helpful.

Anything outside of that, however, will be fee for service. We can work around your budget and circumstances, and you'll get great value for it. There are lots of free resources including classes, blogs, and meetups you can check out as well, but if you want experienced judgment, I (and others) can help.

I love helping startups and appreciate the efforts all of you are making--there's a lot of great ideas, and some good execution. The last thing I'm looking for is thanks--if I've helped you don't worry about that, it's already understood. Unless, of course, you tell me you want me to join you and then end the conversation because you don't like simple business questions.

Finally, I'll add this to the rant: days become weeks become months. If you want to close a deal, start a sales process, keep investor interest, you have to take action, and the more you delay, the more likely doors once open will close.

Read this for more on that. 

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear about your experience Charlie. As a member of the Lancaster Founders Meetup I hope this doesn't dissuade you from continuing to contribute your time and expertise to a group of entrepreneurial misfits who need guidance. I have run meetups before and know how hard it is to even show up when only a couple people RSVP but you do it time and time again. I deeply appreciate your insights and encouragement and hope to have continued access to you through this medium. I was a school teacher early in my career and I'll never forget what my principal told me the first time I had a bad kid totally ruin my first day of class -- he said "you will always have 29 kids in every period who hang on your every word and one dickhead who is so lost that all he can do ruin the experience for everyone else. " I hope this dickhead doesn't ruin the experience for everyone else. Keep giving...karma always shows itself eventually.

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