About a year ago I left a great job and ventured off to found Solidus Labs. Admittedly, as a first time CEO, there have been many ups and downs. Even though I’ve led teams in the past, I was humbled by the amount of learning and growth I’ve experienced.
Here we are a year later, and people in my network have been asking me what would I do differently and what are some of the most important lessons i’ve learned. In this letter, I would like to share them openly.
Just to be clear, I won’t be discussing Solidus Labs’ tech or any developments. This is my own personal reflection after a year in the role. There are many other thoughts and lessons, far too many to include in one post — but I’ll start with these.
Don’t Rush It
Being in stealth mode has its benefits. Do your research and make sure you have all your materials ready before launching officially and making public statements. Oftentime the finger is too light on the trigger. When the tough questions begin to come — and they will — you want to make sure you thought everything through, your logic is solid and you have good answers.
So make sure you cover your bases and that you’re ready to present your idea as best you can — have a deck, business model, basic proof of concept (POC), etc. Once you launch, if your idea is valid, be certain that competition will follow and you’ll need to sprint ahead. If you prepared everything you’ll need in advance, you won’t have to scramble with that investor deck or business plan. And if your idea isn’t valid — even better, fail fast, pivot, or move on.
As a follow-up on the previous paragraph, you also don’t want to linger too much. Research is important, but there’s nothing like learning by doing. Implement a lightweight POC and see what your potential client has to say. You can research all day long, but nothing compares to demoing a product and receiving raw feedback for a POC — even if it’s negative. An untested idea on paper can only take you so far.
The Network Effect
Initially, I had a hard time uttering the words “I’m the CEO”, especially during Solidus’ research phase. We were pre-product and pre-clients. Calling myself CEO almost felt like I’m fooling people.
BUT, you’d be surprised how helpful your network becomes once you put yourself out there. Once someone was able to force these words out of me and I identified myself as the CEO of a young FinTech startup, my network turned up. Friends, former colleagues, even distant acquaintances put me in touch with other founders, CEOs, VCs, angels, incubators, mentors and so on. Most of the time these connections came from the most unexpected conversations. The point is, it’s important to be modest, but be sure to mix in a degree of audacity. One of my close friends, and now a colleague, calls this attitude “modacity” — modest audacity.
Ask For Help
You won’t know how to do it all. Neither will your co-founders or first joiners. It’s important to have a strong founding team, but keep on scouting for the people who can help you to grow as you scale. Nourish those relationships consistently.
Don’t Be Greedy
To get those right people on board, you’ll need to somehow compensate early joiners, and in a startup that usually means equity. I’ve seen startups take a greedy approach about their equity. Many of them fail, since they can’t get the right people to join, or make them feel like they’re a real part of the founding team.
I’m happy to share the cake and have a smaller piece if it means that value is created. Needless to say, do your due diligence and be positive the person is relevant and qualified for the role.
Delegate, Trust, Let Others Lead and Own Their Respective Spaces
Slowly but surely, a number of excellent people joined you. Now, it’s time to learn how to focus on high level company goals and let go of some of the details. Trust your lead engineer to know which DB schema to use, trust your UX expert to know where to place a certain button. No one likes a micro-manager. Trust them to also raise flags when they need help.
It’s important to take a step back and make sure the big picture components fit together — product, runway, next financing round, industry trends, next year's goals, hires, investors, etc.
Be Attentive To Your Team
It’s easy to get distracted with the endless e-mails, documents, and meetings. But, always be attentive to your team. Especially the first joiners. They took a huge risk joining the ride; do not take that for granted. Listen, absorb, and make sure you have regular check-ins. They are your biggest advocates. Make sure they know and feel they are not renters in the company, but owners.
Working With Friends
I happen to work with a couple of my very good friends. Working with buddies has many great advantages — we have incredible trust, they know I have their interests covered in board meetings, and I know that they would do whatever it takes to push the company forward.
Delegate, trust, and let others lead
However, just like in any startup, the ‘down’ periods can create tension. You will have to professionally confront friends at times. This can isolate you and create distance. The solution is communication. Always communicate what each side feels and why. I would love to hear from anyone who may have faced similar situations.
Always communicate expectations with your cofounders, early joiners, clients, investors, advisors, and other stakeholders. I can’t stress enough how being clear about expectations can save you trouble in the future. It can range from agreeing on roles and responsibilities when forming the company, through the product and what it can do, to compensation and budgeting issues. Be straightforward.
Take Care Of Yourself
Last but not least, during my first 6 months of the grind or so, I stopped climbing and running — two of my go-to sport activities. I just couldn’t find the time and sometimes, peace of mind.
As a person who works out regularly, I felt mentally drained and physically tired. You don’t want to be there, so make sure you find a time in the day where no one can bother you, to get some exercise done. My wife helped me in this case, and got me to start working out early in the mornings and so far, I’ve been able to keep it up. More than just about fitness, these 6am morning workouts allow me to get to the office after a few quiet hours, at home. Those hours allow me to scan through important emails and plan the day. Even more importantly — I feel good. Morning might not be your time of choice, and exercise might not be your quiet place, but make sure you find out what works for you.
Bringing It All Together
These are just a few of the insights that come to mind after a year as CEO. As more come to me, I’ll continue to share them.
I do feel like many first-time entrepreneurs are concerned to admit the challenges they encounter, concerned about appearances. Obviously, I don’t feel that way :) I would be happy to hear from others who have been, or currently are, in similar situations and what you’ve learned during your first year. Let’s make this a conversation.
Let’s keep moving forward,
Founder & CEO @ Solidus Labs