I founded SpeakerText during the financial apocalypse of October 2008. We launched the company in January 2010 after burning through just $4k of our cash reserves, the bulk of which was a loan from my dad. Along the way, I learned a few things that I hope other founders and even proto-founders will find useful…
- Sell the Vision, Not the Reality. You may or may not have a working product. Your product may or may not suck. But that doesn't matter. What matters is your vision of what the product will be and how it will change the world. That is what gets people excited. That is what will make people work like dogs for no money and drop everything just to get a product built.
- Treat everyone you hire like a co-founder, but try them out first. In normal jobs, people put up with a lot of grief and bullshit because they're getting paid to do so. In a startup, you don't have that option. Treat people well, be honest, and don't bullshit them. Trust is all you got. That said, don't promise equity upfront. Specify some sort of trial period where the person is to accomplish a specific, delineated task. Make sure you own all the IP created during this trial period, and make no promises for later. After the month or so is over, then sit down and talk equity.
- Yammer is a great tool for fostering camaraderie on distributed teams. Use it.
- Raising money is a waste of time: First build something people want. The word for "visionary investor" is "entrepreneur." If you're an unproven schmo like me, people generally––and investors in particular––will laugh at you and your silly idea. It will take 6 months if not more to raise money, and in the meantime, someone else with your same idea will probably build and launch your product. (If you're a former Google VP, then you can probably ignore this tidbit.) The only––and the strongest––track record you can have is the product you've built and the market feedback you've gotten.
- Need legal advice? Do the Lawyer Hop. Every lawyer will give you an hour of their time for free. Remember that. Need 10 hours of legal counsel? Talk to 10 lawyers. Need to learn about IP, patents, etc.? Call a patent lawyer! More questions? Call another one! Don't feel the need to restrict yourself to a local geography. You can call up America's leading legal luminaries and get an hour of their time for free, every time. This won't work for producing legal documents, but it will work for fundamental questions of "is this legal?" "do I need to patent this?" etc. Also, different lawyers have different perspectives, so the lawyer hop a good way to get a holistic, composite understanding of a particular issue. Plus, when you need to actually hire a lawyer, you'll know what a good one sounds like––and have a fat rolodex of people you've already talked with to draw from.
- Patent lawyers always say yes, except for the good ones. Most patent lawyers, it turns out, are not technical geniuses. Asking them, "Is my invention patentable?" is like asking a car mechanic "Does my car need any work done?" Unless you find a good one, the answer will always be yes. That's how they make their money, but not how you make yours.
- Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. A lot of people "start" companies, but very few actually have the tenacity and drive to bring a product to market, hire people, etc. People will expect you to quit, and part of how you will impress them is by simply keeping at it, iterating your idea/product/vision, and making progress.