As a young founder or someone with an idea, the first thing you are likely to do is to go on to Google and search for all the different avenues available to propel your start-up into the coveted Unicorn league.
You will find accelerators, angels, VCs, networking groups, and other organisations all eagerly offering you workshops, mentorship, and sometimes even funding to help you gain traction and spur growth. However, these organisations that form the bulk of today’s start-up ecosystem are not always the best choice when you want to build your venture.
My name is Martin Simacek, I’m a Senior Data Analyst and the founder of Zasaď život, a technology-driven company focused on tackling the pressing issues of today regarding deforestation, the carbon footprint and climate change.
As a young entrepreneur, it is easy to tackle everything head first and risk drowning yourself in the start-up ecosystem. With limited experience it is often times better to take a step back, put on your arm floaties, and then tread into unknown waters. It is important to note that the experience fuelling this article comes from the CEE, the UK and the Netherlands, so take what I am writing with a pinch of salt, as advice may vary per region.
The Benefits of Escaping the Start-Up Ecosystem as a Young Founder
Escaping the start-up ecosystem can benefit you as a young founder. Recent studies have shown that mid-career entrepreneurs are five times more likely to lead a successful business than founders straight out of college.
In conjunction with the statistic that 90% of all start-ups fail, you are setting off into uncertain waters as a young founder. Thus, it is paramount to carefully calculate each step you take and where you dedicate your time. I will try to outline a few common pitfalls and how to get out of them.
If you do not have a paradigm shift of an idea and have a bit of sense, the start of your first venture will not be a full-time gig. As such, managing your time effectively is a crucial skill to develop early on. With so many accelerator, networking and mentorship options available primarily geared towards young and student founders, it’s too easy to try to branch out and apply to as many things as possible.
This is precisely the kind of approach that can bury your venture. Applications take time, and attendance, once you get in, also eats away at the time you could spend on your venture – especially if you are accepted to more than one programme.
Of course, there are amazing opportunities out there that you cannot miss; I am talking about the likes of Y Combinator, EWOR or Sigma Squared. Apart from some gems like the ones I’ve just mentioned, it is best to operate with the assumption that most founder events are a waste of time and that many of the connections you gain there are useless.
Trust me, you do not need a start-up mentor whose only experience is climbing the ladder of a corporation for 40 years. Instead, save all the time you would have used on these programmes and focus on the critical launch of your venture. It is much better to work on your idea and understand the challenges you are facing first, and then, based on those, to try and find the right people and organisations to support you.
In addition to this, by being very selective about who you network with, you will be able to build a much stronger personal network. Especially in smaller countries, you will tend to find that everyone knows everyone, and being active in multiple ecosystems is actually unproductive.
The Controversial Way of Escaping the Start-Up Ecosystem
One unorthodox way to get out of the start-up ecosystem is to not build a start-up in its familiar form. It is common to see modern start-ups in more laid back sectors (not talking healthteach and the sorts) obsessed with innovation and the need to come up with that next big thing. This often leads to taking existing products and applying it to ultra-niches with just a few customised features to differentiate themselves..
Your start-up doesn’t have to be focused on innovation and originality to succeed.
Apart from the questionable products being sold by start-ups built on innovation, these organisations also tend to be saddled with an abundance of investors. Innovation is costly, and as a result, most founders cannot develop their product without investor backing.
It is this vicious funding cycle start-ups tend to get trapped in that can cause their demise. From pre-seed and seed to series rounds, founders tend to get so caught up in the stress of raising new capital to stay afloat that they forget about the core of their business and the passion that made them start it.
Of course, most founders will need investor backing in some form sooner or later. However, again, taking some time to build your product in peace could be a much more favourable step for you, as it gives you more leverage when you step in front of investors to pitch your product. You shouldn’t feel grateful that someone invested in you; that someone should feel grateful you gave him a chance to be a part of your venture.
My Top Advice for Young Founders
Be wary of organisations offering services and accelerators to start-up founders, especially if they require a fee. Most of the programmes and events out there offer limited benefits to solid and capable founders.
Rather, focus on your MVP and get the ball rolling from the get-go. It is always better to interact with stakeholders once you have a solid product and a few customers on the line.
Moreover, remember that innovation isn’t everything. In your first start-up, it is much better to bootstrap a more fundamental idea than to have a complex idea and be saddled with diluted shares and a plethora of investors. In all cases, I would recommend bootstrapping at least until you have your first customers.
Lastly, no matter what path you take, you are set to be on a steep learning curve as a young founder. Take each opportunity to learn from your mistakes and understand your accomplishments to propel you forward. This will ensure your venture does not fall into the 90% but in the 10% that succeed.