I founded WePay with Bill Clerico in August 2008, with the simple goal of making it easy for groups to collect and manage money online. We were accepted in YCombinator in May 2009, and raised just under $2 million from August Capital, Max Levchin, and a few other well-know angel investors last December.
I can’t say much about running a company post-financing because we have only been doing it for a few months, and to be honest, I haven’t really had the opportunity to reflect on it.
However, I have taken some time to think about some of the things I have learned over the past year and a half (from conception to financing), and I’ve decided to share a few of them here.
A quick caveat: I’m fully aware that every one of the following points I’m about to make has been made before, multiple times, by people smarter than myself. There’s this great quote in Frost/Nixon that goes like this: “In boxing, there’s always that first moment, and you see it in the challenger’s face. It’s that moment that he feels the impact from the champ’s first jab. It’s kind of a sickening moment, when he realizes that all those months of pep talks and the hype, the psyching yourself up, had been delusional all along.”
It’s one thing to know how strong the champ can hit, and something quite different to feel it.
That’s kind of what it’s like to start a company: “Yeah, yeah … I know it’s going to be hard – everybody has told me it’s going to be hard – but I’m ready for it, and I can handle it.”
Trust me, you’re not, and no matter how much you think you know about what it’s going to be like, when that first jab comes, you’ll begin to truly understand for the first time.
Paul Graham says that good startup founders can be described in two words: relentlessly resourceful. I agree, but I would add two words of my own: arrogant and naïve. Arrogant enough to get in the ring, and naïve enough that you still think you will win after you feel the first punch.
The following are the five things that I “knew” (or should have known) before starting a company, but didn’t fully understand until now.
1. If you are not full time, then you are at a huge disadvantage
Going full-time was one of the best early decisions that we made. More than anything else, working full time on your startup makes it MUCH harder to quit. Once you burn the ships (quit your job, drop out of school, etc.), you’ve officially committed. I can name at least five times I would have quit if I wasn’t working full time, or if I had other options. In fact, if the timing had worked out differently (better or worse, depending on how you look at it), I would have gone back to law school after a year-long deferral.
Working full time on an idea also gives you a degree of credibility. Or rather, not working full time takes away almost all credibility. If your idea is so great, why haven’t you committed to it? Why should I invest and risk my money, if you’re not even fully committed.
For us, part-time was not an option. That being said, if you don’t need credibility or require anybody else’s commitment (time, money, etc.), then part-time may be a viable option.
2. Picking the right cofounder is the most important early-stage decision you will make.
It’s almost cliché to claim that picking a cofounder is like getting married. Picking the right cofounder is more like finding your soul mate.
You need to find somebody that you cannot succeed without, and they need to feel the same about you. You need to contribute something so unique and valuable that your cofounder would have a very difficult time building the business without you. I have watched a ton of early-stage startups (run by some very smart people) fail because the cofounders didn’t complement each other well. Three very smart people and a business plan, does not a business make.
I recently saw a post on Hacker News, where somebody created a three-column spreadsheet. Column 1 = “I am”; Column 2 = “I am looking for”; Column 3 = “I am working on.” Literally 99% of the rows read something like this: “I am a business guy/entrepreneur/mba/professional; I am looking for a technical cofounder; I am working on a website/new kind of social network/etc.” Everybody wants a technical cofounder because you can’t build an Internet company without one (I guess you could outsource development, but as it turns out, that rarely ends well).
And even more worrisome, is that people often think to themselves: “if I could only find somebody that knows how to program, then everything will be okay.” Building a web-app is far more complex than us non-techy folk could ever imagine, and believing anything else is a sure-fire way to waste a ton of time and money. Believe me, if you are “building a website that will do X”, then 99% of the early-stage work happening in your company will be building the website that does X.
If the only thing you are bringing to the table is an idea, then you have nothing to offer. Think about what only you can offer a potential technical cofounder before you start looking for one (i.e. contacts with potential customers or partners, deep knowledge of a particular industry or space, access to capital, etc.).
Bill happens to be a close friend, but that’s not why he’s a good cofounder (it may be necessary, but it’s certainly not sufficient). Nobody in the world has Bill’s exact skill set, and looking back on it, that skill set is exactly what we needed. In regard to the close friend part, that’s a given – you’re going to be dragged through hell on the way to building a successful company, so you probably want to pick somebody that makes hell a little less painful.
Paul Graham says that startups die because founders quit. Your cofounder should be somebody that refuses to quit, and somebody that inspires enough confidence in you, that you will refuse to quit as long as they are still around. I can’t count the number of times that was all we had going for us.
3. Traction is the only thing that matters
Well, maybe not the only thing, but it matters a whole hell of a lot. Getting people to use your product and consistently growing the size of your user base is perhaps the single most important thing an early-stage company can do. In fact, some would argue that it is the definition of early-stage success.
VCs never really invest in ideas. They say they invest in great teams or great founders, and I believe that this is often the case. A great team with a [decent?] idea is sometimes enough. But I’m pretty sure that “great team” or “great founder” has a very, very limited definition; namely, somebody with a previous exit (IPO or acquisition), or deep and wildly impressive domain expertise. Unfortunately, by definition, no first time entrepreneur has either of these. They have ZERO credibility. So how do first-time entrepreneurs gain momentum and raise money? They build something that people like and use. If you can do that, then you just have to convince VCs that you can keep doing what you’re doing (building something useful and getting people to use it).
This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me for a very long time: the only thing that you should try to do early on is to build something that people use.
4. Unless you’re part of the Silicon Valley in-crowd AND you have traction, you’re not going to raise venture capital
When Bill and I first founded WePay in Boston, we spent a lot of time thinking about the VC industry, hanging out with other first-time and unfunded entrepreneurs who talked about VC firms and partners as if they were celebrities and close friends.
There were dozens of networking events with workshops on how to raise venture financing, create a decent pitch deck, pitch effectively, etc. There were even more events that gave entrepreneurs the “opportunity” to get in front of VCs and angel investors. We saw the same group of young, networking entrepreneurs every time.
We thought: “hey, this must be what starting a company is all about.”
We had this incredibly naïve notion that if you came up with a great idea, you could raise a few million bucks with a few slides and some undergraduate-style market research. There was huge credibility gap that we had little chance of overcoming. We spent a lot of time tweaking and refining our pitch deck, meeting with VCs, networking, and thinking we were making progress. We thought VCs loved us, despite the fact that we rarely got a second meeting.
Luckily, during that period, we also got a lot smarter in the payment space – learning about payments in general and forging partnerships. If it wasn’t for that, our first 6 months in Boston may have been a complete waste of time.
When we finally moved to Silicon Valley, two things happened: we built a product, and we got a foot in the door with the in-crowd. I think one of YCombinator’s greatest accomplishments is its ability give young and un-connected entrepreneurs almost instant access to the Silicon Valley elite.
With a product, some promising feedback from early users, and some healthy Silicon Valley buzz, fundraising was a profoundly different experience than we originally thought it would be.
5. Customer Acquisition is tough
I’m not sure what it’s like for companies that don’t charge users, but for those that do, acquiring customers is a pretty significant challenge.
I’m convinced that customer acquisition is the most overlooked and understated challenge faced by first-time entrepreneurs. At least it was for us.
How can our product not grow virally? It’s fulfilling a real need. I know I would use it. All my friends say they would use it. The idea is earth shattering, and it solves a problem that everybody has! Customer acquisition? HA! The product will sell itself!
I have seen a lot of successful approaches to customer acquisition, but every one of them was a difficult uphill battle, carefully planned, and masterfully executed. Some social networks recruited celebrity early-adopters that brought their followers along with them. Some clever startups sell their product before they build it (in other words, they lock up some early marquee customers – usually through personal connections, or previous employers). Other companies have huge marketing budgets, or aggressive and experienced sales-forces (but that’s obviously a lot tougher for bootstrapped or early stage customers).
We have taken a multi-channel approach, but each one of those channels has required a ton of thought and relentless execution. Customer acquisition (at least in the early days) should not be taken for granted.
Check out the company Rich and Bill started. WePay is free to sign-up!