February 25, 2013

When Founders Founder

This post isn't about anyone specifically; it's about most founders, I suspect, including me. I say that because I talk with dozens of founders, and many of them will see themselves in this post.

This past weekend, about 40 people gathered in Lancaster for Startup Weekend Lancaster, sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation. I was an organizer, coach, and a judge. The people were impressive--smart, talented, driven, committed.

I was honored to be a part of it, and it sparked a lot of thoughts along the way--including the rest of this post.

When Founders Founder
Things get murky. They get murky at the beginning, when you're not sure of exactly what your model should be. Your pricing. Your positioning. Even your product.

You're not sure of the pain you're easing, or even if there is pain. Or you've identified a pain that nobody else sees or feels, but you know it's there.

Teaching others about the pain they have but don't feel seems daunting (it is), and the path forward isn't clear.

And then you get past that initial murkiness and carry a sense of purpose and focus that comes with the clarity that only real market feedback gives you; you've earned real traction, real dollars, and you feel great.

Murkiness 2.0
And then it happens. You founder. Things get murky again.

The calls slow down. People don't respond to your emails. Adwords drive dirtier traffic for some reason, leading to more noise and much less signal.

You got the first article, and then nothing. Reporters have moved on. They get it. They just aren't interested anymore.

The dopamine hits slow down to a crawl. You feel less excited. Maybe even panicked. Why don't they get it?

You're foundering.

This is one of the toughest places to be. You believe in what you're doing (do you still?), but the future you've painted for yourself and everyone around you is no longer clear. You get down on yourself because you can't seem to carry the load, you haven't delivered, and you can sense that other people know that.

And it feels like shit. You're a shit. Your product is shit. Everything looks like shit.

And then someone comes along and says maybe you're not cut out for this. Why do you even think this will work? Why would you possibly invest all this time and energy into something that clearly isn't working?

Mmm. Rough stuff.

Introspection can be useful. Some of you have passion without conviction. Some of you have passion and conviction, but you're reading the market wrong.

Most of us thrash around, trying to find something that works, someone who will listen, an angel that will solve our problems, maybe with a check and a magic strategic plan that will pull us out of the swamp (or whatever murky metaphor).

Get Out of the Swamp
So what do you do?
  1. Ease up on yourself. Don't beat yourself up. Or stop beating yourself up. It isn't productive and doesn't serve anyone.
  2. Make lists. After you've stopped beating yourself up, make lists. List everything you think is going wrong. List everything you think is going right. Then list all of your strengths and assets.
  3. Do a gut check: why are you still pursuing this? "Because ..." Find that voice again, that passionate conviction that focused you on your path in the first place. Can't find it? Why are you still pursuing this? Found it? Great--let's find a clear path forward.
  4. Get out of the building (thanks, Steve Blank). Go talk with customers. Talk with prospects. Listen. Don't ask leading questions. Just listen. Do your research. Repeat it. And keep doing it.

    Feel that energy? If you don't feel it after talking to 30 new prospects, customers, or lost prospects, then you might be right to feel bad about where you are. But I suspect you'll learn something and feel a new energy that you can only get from that market validation. 
The direct path to answers doesn't always exist. But you'll find your way by getting out of the building, talking with people, listening, learning, and refreshing your core purpose. 

You'll feel it--the dopamine hits are back. You remember what success feels like.

Giving Up
If you don't feel refreshed after that, if you give in to the negative voices in your head that say you can't do it, or it just isn't working, if you don't feel that passionate conviction about your mission, then it might be time to take a break, and revisit the question in a week or two.

Or simply stop. But don't stop before you get out of the building with an open mind, without bias, without a preconception of how thing should be or will be if only you can catch a break. 

Make Your Own Breaks
Nobody's coming to save you--you have to make your own breaks. The best way to make your own breaks is to get out and talk to the people in your market--they will show you the way. You can do it.