Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Christian Reber, CEO and co-founder of Berlin-based 6Wunderkinder. It’s part three of a series, cross-posted from his own blog, in which he draws on his experience to offer advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in Europe and beyond. You can follow him on Twitter, where he is @ChristianReber.
So far I have shared with you 6 simple steps to start your own tech business (don’t miss part 1 and part 2). I have primarily shared my thoughts on how to find your way into an entrepreneurial environment, and how to identify a good idea and to start really simple.
At this point, you should have a clear idea on what you want to build, and the problem you want to solve. So today I want to talk about purpose and style. There are very different ways to start a business, but more importantly there are different motivations.
7. Think like an athlete – Define your mission
When I talk about entrepreneurship, I often talk about athletes. Athletes always train with a clear objective, like participating in a competition, or more specifically winning it. If you want to be an entrepreneur, think like an athlete and define your own mission.
Why do you want to build a business? What’s your main objective as an individual? What do you want your own career to look like in 30 years? Don’t be small-minded! Widen your horizon and think how you want to influence the people around you, and maybe even change the world. Define the purpose of your business, and you as an individual.
When I think about my company, I often think about it like a football club. If I want to compete with other world-class football clubs, my motivation can’t only be winning. It also has to be passion – for what we are creating and the hard work that must go into making our goals a reality. I need world-class trainers, mentors, medics and most importantly, a world-class team.
Attracting world-class staff can be done through money, but there is also a further important factor that increases your chances of winning talented people – and that’s culture.
It’s not just the money that defines the success of your business, but also your very own approach of doing things. If you define your style of how you want to build up a team, you can boost the quality of your team without money, and you can build a self-motivating environment for ambitious people.
Define how you want to motivate your employees every day to produce high-quality and industry-leading results. It’s one of the main reasons why companies like Google, Facebook or Apple attract world-class talent and are able to keep it. Or if you like the football analogy, it’s the reason why clubs like Barcelona, Manchester or Bayern Munich are consistently successful. Yes, money plays a role, but it’s also their unique and strong culture that holds everything together.
I regularly watch documentaries about different trainers, to understand how they motivate their teams. It’s unrelated to the startup world, but I can highly recommend to watch “Being Liverpool”. When you watch it, replace Liverpool with your own business, and you will understand what I mean.
At 6Wunderkinder, our motivation is a combination of passion for what we’re doing (creating the best productivity software in the world) as well as our strong and endless will to build up an impressive team and business. My mission as an entrepreneur always was (and still is) to build a world-dominating design-driven software company. A company that goes beyond a one-hit-wonder, and is able to iterate and improve from success to success. That’s what drives me and motivates me.
I think an issue many talented entrepreneurs and European founders (especially German founders) have is, they don’t think big enough. They have great ideas, but they often don’t have the ambition that is necessary to build something big and long-lasting. One reason for this is fear. Fear to be seen as naive or even crazy. When I was 18 and started my career in Berlin, I was often expressing my ambitions in public, and I personally experienced that “roll-eye-moment”. You will have that too, and honestly, fuck it.
Ignore the naysayers, stay true to yourself, build the company you want. Finding the right mission often is a long process that requires a lot of thinking and learning. If you want to attract great talent, your mission is key. People want to understand why they should join your company, and it’s often an emotional decision.
Try to be the next Steve Jobs, the next Elon Musk, the next Bill Gates. Dream of building a huge company, a billion-dollar business that can last for many years. A company that can employ thousands of engineers and designers, acquire companies, and support a creative working environment. If you ask me, that’s exactly what Berlin (and Europe) needs – ambitious, creative and successful billion-dollar businesses.
8. Prepare to fail, 95% do
That’s a tough one, but it’s so important. Starting a global tech business with international, well-educated and highly-skilled people, generating millions of revenue per month, is incredibly hard. You will experience unbelievable lows, including running out of money, or seeing important people leaving or shutting down a business you worked so hard for. Remember, that’s precisely your job. Being an entrepreneur means taking risks, because without that you will never be truly successful.
It’s important you understand the risks, and start managing them. If you blindly run into a new adventure, these lows will hurt much more than they should. The better you do your homework, the more likely your company will be able to survive. I wish I had prepared better, because there were so many moments I was on the verge of giving up.
This is what happened to me, while starting 3 different businesses:
1. I launched a product, and everything went wrong.
Building something for weeks or months, and then launching it is an amazing moment. It’s fun, and well, you are incredibly excited. You expect a lot of interest from press, great traction from users and pure celebration. But that’s the case for only tiny amount of startups. Launching a product means you need to be incredibly prepared, for downtimes, bugs, or the worst part: nothing. Prepare for the case no one cares about your product, be unemotional about making fast and bold decisions.
2. I ran out of money
With Wunderlist we always had great traction, but starting our business wasn’t that easy at all. Before we got our first round of serious funding, we were pretty close to not being able to pay our team. I managed that by simply being completely transparent about our financials (I still am). Thankfully it never became a real issue, because everyone was aware and could prepare. Be honest and transparent – people will honor your courage as well as your determination to stick at it.
3. I (almost) burned out
The success of Wunderlist was as overwhelming as the failure of Wunderkit. Both times the pressure on me (and my team) was enormous, and I often didn’t deal with it the way I would have wanted to. It’s incredible what pressure can do to people. I worked around the clock, I forgot to eat, I never exercised, I hardly slept, I completely ignored the warning signs my body was giving me, and I often didn’t behave appropriately.
Those times almost lead to either a mental or physical burnout, but luckily I had great mentors that always helped me. Be disciplined, listen to yourself and the people around you!
4. I couldn’t deal with people leaving
For me that’s definitely the toughest part. Many founders don’t deal well with people leaving, but I am probably one of the worst. I started my business with close friends, my girlfriend, and most people I now work with I know better than any of my best friends. I’m fascinated by businesses that act like families, and this is certainly the type of environment that makes me happy.
Our culture is definitely challenging for many, it’s ambitious, often intense, but we truly care about each other (more than most). We build and foster our own talent – we don’t just pay people to work with us.
When we’ve been through tough times (like the shutdown of Wunderkit), I experienced for the first time that terrible moment when people decide to leave you and your team. They each had different reasons, and in a few cases it was a better result for each side. But in most cases I would have loved to continue working with those people, simply because we had become friends. My reaction was often intense (and for sure inappropriate).
Learning to deal with those moments is a process, and it takes time. Try to become professional, and always be prepared.
Startups fail. It’s normal. Learn to deal with it. Our German culture can’t deal appropriately with failure (or success) yet, but it is improving, more and more. Founders need to leave their comfort zone, they need to take huge risks to become successful.
9. Find the right co-founders and advisors
Starting a company isn’t easy. However, there is a way to help manage risks and to deal better with day-to-day challenges – and that is by having great co-founders. Having the right co-founders is incredibly important. You deal with them every day and you will fight, win and lose together. It’s hard to find them, because you will only know you’ve made the right choice, after you start or complete your adventure together.
Founders don’t necessarily need to become managers also. I started my company with 5 friends – one developer, one user interface designer, one visual designer, one marketing person, and a finance person. I was the most experienced developer at that time, and after we had built the first version of Wunderlist I quickly focused primarily on the business side.
We were a junior team, everyone with just a few years of experience. We had never built a Mac app before, nor a iPhone app, but we had 3 years of experience working together as an agency, building websites and designing brands and products for various clients. This team helped me to start our business incredibly fast. Within weeks of starting the company we already launched a product.
This is totally unique. It worked for us, but, that doesn’t mean it will work for you. Finding co-founders is hard, and I would never recommend to hire a co-founder – usually you start a business with people you know for years (as there is already an existing level of trust there and you also know they are capable of fulfilling their duties).
For a tech business I recommend to start with a founder/management team of 4 people:
- A product person
- This person should be obsessed with the product details and strategy. They should be able to hire great designers to help build a better product. They should constantly think about the little yet big details of a product. They also (ideally) should have experience in building different kinds of products and understand not only how it’s designed, but also how it’s made (technically).
- An engineer
- This person needs to be incredibly skilled in engineering, and should ideally be an experienced CTO. They should know how to hire engineers, how to define a scalable architecture, how to build up a strong engineering culture – and how to build a maintainable product.
- A marketing/sales machine
- The next person (most companies forget) is an experienced sales/marketing founder. The person in this role should be able to define a world-class brand and develop it globally. They need to build up a strong team that can tell great stories to attract new customers, while keep the existing ones interested.
- A business/finance person
- Having a financial mastermind is an incredible asset, and reduces the risk of making financial mistakes in the beginning enormously (e.g. agreeing to the wrong investment terms). I would never start a company again without having someone taking over that role.
Also, traditionally 1 of those 4 people should take over the leading role. There are ways to build up a company without a leading role, but I think it’s more than healthy to ultimately give someone the authority to make the final call. It helps you keep up the speed.
When it comes to equity, be fair. Everyone should invest the same energy and the same amount of time. Also think about your first employees, it’s normal to let employees participate in the companies financial success by giving away virtual stock options (I will talk about that more next in the next part of this series). Make sure you hire an experienced lawyer for setting up the company. If you decide to start your business in Berlin, I can recommend working with Lacore, but feel free to search for “Laywer” in the Berlin Startups group.
In two weeks time (Monday, 26 August 2013), I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how to raise the first round of funding, developing and maintaining your company culture as well as preparing yourself to become a CEO.