by Christine Wong
The best way to find out what it’s really like to launch a tech startup – and get advice for your own startup venture – is to get the goods straight from someone who’s been there themselves.
So here are the top startup secrets I took away from a great panel session at the recent Mesh marketing conference held in Toronto. Here’s the cast of characters from the panel “Tales From the Trenches: Stories From Startups,” which was moderated by Mesh organizers Mark Evans and Stuart MacDonald.
Andy Yang: heads up Toronto-based accelerator Extreme Startups.
Heather Payne: founder of Toronto non-profit/social enterprise startup Ladies Learning Code.
Evgeny Tchebotarev: co-founder and COO of Toronto-based photo sharing startup 500px, which is growing insanely fast and trying to give Flickr a run for its money.
Oleg Gustol: co-founder and CEO of the aforementioned 500px.
Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana: co-founder of Empire Avenue Inc., an Edmonton startup whose social networking game is modeled after the stock market.
Aliza Pulver: co-founder and chief buying officer of HomeSav.com, an online shopping club that’s been likened to Groupon for home decorating fanatics.
‘Overnight success’ is a myth
Gustol: He and Tcheboratev toiled for eight years before finally getting 500px to the sustainable, competitive level it’s at today. As Evans pointed out, “There are no overnight successes.” To which Gustol quickly replied: “No — but there should be!” a bit of wishful thinking that generated big laughs.
There’s no life like startup life, literally
Gustol: “We couldn’t pay our bills for months. I had no life.” It’s really freaking hard to run a startup. And time consuming, as Yang adds: “Get your affairs in order because you won’t see your family.”
…but you still need family
Pulver: Ok, so you won’t see them very often because you’ll be so busy. But don’t abandon friends and family completely. They’re the best sounding boards you’ll ever find to test ideas, products and services from a user point of view, Pulver says. Plus, who else is gonna make you dinner when you get sick of living on pizza, chips and pop?
Tech expertise trumps biz smarts
Yang: “We have a strong bias towards technical (ie, tech) founders.” Why? No matter how business savvy you are, a tech startup needs technology to succeed. If you don’t have the tech chops, hire someone permanently who does. You’ll save time and money over the long haul because you won’t have to keep outsourcing development.
School isn’t real life
Payne: “Very little of what you learn in business school actually prepares you for running a business.” This coming from a woman who’s a grad of both Ivey business school and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The power of no
Yang: “Learn how to say no. You have to set boundaries. (For me), every minute I spend with someone else is a minute away from my wife and daughter.”
One founder vs co-founders
Tchebotarev: “It’s always great to have a partnership,” he says of being a duo with Gustol. But Payne prefers the flexibility to make the key decisions quickly herself: “I have a great team but no partner…There isn’t this whole managing by committee (thing).” Yang professes he has “a strong bias towards single founders” but adds that an ideal startup structure can be comprised of three people: a clear leader with two very committed followers who have complementary core competencies. So the jury’s still out on this one.
Know that your odds suck; statistically, most startups fail. If your startup is successful, expect glitches to keep cropping up along the way. Gustol: “Even when things go right, there’s things going wrong.” Kind of like doing a $100-billion IPO one day, getting married the next, and then facing a class-action suit from investors a few days later.
Be best, not just first
Gustol: You don’t have to be the first to market in order to succeed; you can survive and thrive by being the best in your niche. A big part of 500px’s success is that its customer service has been winning raves while Flickr has been racking up complaints lately. “The (user) community appreciates that,” Gustol says.
When to let your startup die
Yang: “When the founders just don’t feel that passion anymore.” “Doing this sucks so badly sometimes that it better be something you really (bleep)-ing care about,” warns Payne. When in serious self-doubt, get out. In the immortal words of the pre-surgically reconstructed Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.
Just do it already
Wijayawardhana: “You can never ever learn by reading. You have to do it.” ‘Nuff said.