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A Note to Non-Technical Founders: 10 Things I look for in a Start-Up


Dear Non-Technical Founder,

I’m thrilled to be talking with you – not because you’re you, but because I love start-ups. Even after my 5 start-ups, the birth of our first child, and my wife telling me I could no longer work full-time in start-ups, I still love it. That’s probably how you got my name. You know I’ve raised money, designed and launched new products (lot of them), that I specialize in web-based software as a service (SAAS) solutions. And you know I’m addicted to start-ups. Maybe you even know I regularly coach and help a set of them every year – from Southern California to San Francisco, from Dallas to Atlanta to Chicago. And if you know all that, it makes sense that we’re talking – even if it’s not face to face, because you likely know I’m a virtual teams kind of guy.

But I want to clarify some things up front. Because it’s likely (and excuse the cheesy picture, but sometimes I need to really grab your attention) that you’re going to tell me about a multi-million or even billion dollar market. Market potential is nice. But it’s not the only thing I care about. So let me lay out the 10 things I do care about.

10. A Track Record of Focus

If you don’t have a track record of doing one thing for a long period of time, even during the hard times, I’m not interested in helping, getting involved or bringing resources to the table. Start-ups are brutally difficult. I know the stories all sound like overnight successes, but they come after years of hard work. If you have tons of great “big picture” ideas, maybe a start-up isn’t the right place for you.

9. Passion, for more than Money

If you spend most of our time talking about money – how much we could make, how much potential there is, how much you could charge per customer – then for me, it’s not a good match. I know you’ll find others motivated differently, but I’m never worried about money. If you’re doing the right thing, in the right way, the money comes.

8. A Story, not just a Market

I want to know what attracts you to the space you’re in. And for me it means I want to know the story – the compelling reason why you’re not doing something else. We could all go and do something else. I’m doing something else right now. Even with my spare time. So I need more than just market details and statistics.

7. Good Timing

I know, it’s not something you can control. But I regularly help 6-12 people/organizations a year. Many last more than 12 months. So I don’t always have a lot of slots free. So if I tell  you it’s not a good time, but it looks like I’m interested, then don’t be afraid to circle back.

6. A Tailored Request

If we start talking and it’s clear that you just need tech advice or a quick way to produce an engineering prototype, what you’re really telling me is that you could work with anyone, not just me. If that’s the case, why not go look at oDesk. I’m looking for a reason that you’re talking to me. What’s the connection? Show me you’ve done your homework and put some effort into this. If not, why would I trust that you will put in the other hard work when necessary?

5. Answers

While I worked for QuantumShift, we raised over $100MM. It was a ton of meetings where I was asked every question under the sun. Some were logical and I could predict. Others were out in left field. But when you’re asking for someone else’s money, they can ask you anything they want. So now we’re chatting…and guess what? I have questions. Come prepared. And please, seriously, don’t get offended that I have so many. It’s all part of the process.

4. A Market I care about

I know I told you it wasn’t about the market, but that was when I was telling you I didn’t care about market potential. But I do care about the market itself. Is it something that gets me excited? Something that I have some history with where I can add value? For three years I had a Hollywood guy calling monthly to pitch me on investing in different movie concepts. Guess what? I like movies but I can’t tell what will and won’t work (I liked Armageddon with Bruce Willis). That makes me dumb money. I hate being dumb. So let’s see if there’s a good match.

Now, even if all that matches, we’re in a pretty good spot. Because honestly, those are the seven spots where most of my objections appear. Do you notice what’s missing? I don’t need the perfect product idea. First, there’s no such thing. Second, I can help you iterate until you get it. So if that’s all you’re coming with, these seven factors will likely limit our ability to work together.

But I still have 3 more – and these are unique to me.

3. Company Name

I know this is crazy, but did you know that the research has shown pronounceable names have better IPOs than start-ups with unpronounceable tickers or names. Read Subliminal.

2. WordPress

It’s not that I can’t develop other kinds of products, but I just don’t feel like it. So I’m looking for opportunities where I can leverage WordPress as a platform. When there’s a good fit, I’ll let you know. When there’s not, I can let you know and even potentially recommend someone else.

And lastly…

1. You

I’m going to guess that you’re a business guy. You’re a networker. You are an idea guy. Someone who is a vision caster. That’s great. You likely know this already, but there are a lot of you out there. There are less technical people out there. And even less that cross the technical/marketing, I-can-stand-in-front-of-a-room-and-speak barrier. But I don’t want to partner with someone who’s insecure about it. Or who is over-the-top boasting about accomplishments all day. I need to like you. And I’ll be honest if I do or don’t.

And if we don’t end up working together on something, just know this: It’s me, not you.

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