Four Rookie Mistakes of First Time Founders

My idea

What are the mistakes that kill you before you begin?

1. Operating in “Stealth Mode”

It kills me every time I hear a first time entrepreneur say:

“But what if someone steals my idea?”

It is possible, but highly unlikely the exact person you speak to has the capability and passion to create that pocket transporter you always wanted or the skinny cork tie…or the jacket that charges your electronic devices…and the list goes on. Ideas are cheap. Execution…now that is tough.

I know, I know, but you watched the Social Network, you believe you could be the next Winklevoss Twins and are afraid Marc Zuckerberg will come steal your idea. Well, maybe that will happen if you hang out with Harvard and MIT computer science students and just continuously share your budding ideas… and even then, it probably won’t happen.

Entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to people continuously. If you have ever watched Shark Tank, that is exactly what I am taking about. Start-up founders go to Start-up Weekends and Hackathons and pitch to survive. They do this to attract team members, investors, and win money to continue chasing the dream of turning an idea into a company.

Sharing your idea is necessary to get team members, investors, and most importantly, customers and users. You need these things to survive. Also, sharing your idea and getting feedback is the first form of ‘iterating’, which is a key to innovating with speed. As one successful entrepreneur told me early in my journey, “You are your best from of advertisement for your business…

…Remember stealth mode is self-destruct mode.”

2. Thinking, “Oh, I can do that.”

For first-time entrepreneurs aiming to launch a digital product, is common to think: “All I need a developer”. This actually has some truth to it. They are the ones ‘building the product’ so you do need a developer, or need to become one, especially if the concept is unclear and the solution you need to develop is still in flux…but there is more that you need.

The ideal start-up team has four skill sets (or common roles). Each role focuses on a different aspect of creating a working solution (desirability, feasibility, and viability). A developer provides the team with feasibility to create a working product, but does not focus on the other aspects.

Framework from the Human Centered Design Toolkit from IDEO

First-timers, especially developers, commonly assume they can play the ‘business role’ and/or ‘design role’. Deep expertise in these areas needs to be valued as much as development, as the business role focuses on making money and the design role focuses on assuring the product is what customers will use. The team can develop depth in these other areas over time, but a team can go farther faster if you ‘divide and conquer’, while keeping the group ‘small and nimble’.

3. Not having an Unfair Competitive Advantage

I am guilty of this one. I wanted to create a company focused on the education industry, when I had not worked in education. Yes, I had been through the education system and have a vision for how it can be different, but so do a few million other people on the planet. When you develop a team, you need to think about what unique knowledge, experience, and insight your team has that other teams do not. It is your unfair competitive advantage.

There are many ways to create an unfair competitive advantage and barriers to entry, but early-on the best way is to be an expert. Make sure you have a founder who was formerly your intended customer/user or an expert in the new technology you are deploying. In other words, if you are developing a technology for hospital patients, make sure you have a person on the team who was a hospital patient. You can visit a hospital, even be a doctor, but having member of the founding team with experience as a patient to develop a breakthrough solution gives the team a unique advantage.

4. Not reaching out for help

Ask for help. Ask for help. Ask for help.

Innovators early-on are hesitant to talk about their ideas or ask for help when in reality, the start-up and maker community is more than happy to share knowledge and connections. Ego may also get in the way for first time founders who think they can do it all, but entrepreneurs are usually open to share what they have learned so all of us can be successful. Hey, look at me, I am writing this blog to share my experience and perspective so others don’t repeat the same mistake and we can all innovate at the speed of light.

I have been a Venture in Resident (VIR) in Harvard’s iLab and a team leader working out of Santiago, Chile through the Start-Up Chile program. Both communities were amazing, contributing to my personal development, and evolution of my team’s start-up projects. Those communities provide me the connections and knowledge needed to grow and navigate the ambiguous path of creating the future. They did expose us to experts and investors, but I found the community to be the most valuable part of the experience.

The community either struggled with the same problems, knew someone who had, or at least knew where to go for guidance. I remember having issues with my team and another founder recommended reading a book called Founders Dilemmas which helped us through our disagreements. A spontaneous conversation that was critical to our team, all because another founder from the community was willing to help.

Share your ideas, get feedback, build a kick-ass team (don’t go at it alone), focus on developing an unfair competitive advantage, and ask for help. With a little bit of luck, you will be on your way in no time.

This blog is written by Sergio Marrero.  Reach out to Sergio on Twitter, Linkedin, or his website or learn more about him on the contributors page.


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