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.
13. Find advisors and mentors to build your business
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Throughout this series I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m lucky to have mentors and advisors on my side, helping me to define a strategy for building 6Wunderkinder and Wunderlist. In retrospect, after working on it for nearly 3 years, and going through some intensive ups and downs, I can truly say: having these people around me is one of the biggest reasons it all still exists. To be even more clear, without these people, I’m convinced it would have never started in the first place.
Back when I was thinking about starting a new company, I was running an agency business. Together with my co-founders, we started by building a simple web app based task manager on PHP called Lunchbox. We planned to launch it as a Web app you could use for a monthly fee with no plans for a mobile app, nor a desktop app – it was a really old school concept for building a Software-as-a-Service task management web app.
We had no money to start the business on our own, so I posted a simple status message on Xing (the German equivalent of LinkedIn): “Who’s with me to build the next-generation project management app?” Minutes later a guy I met months earlier at a tech event reached out to me – Frank Thelen. An entrepreneur himself who was running his own photo-print business in Cologne, and had also invested in a few German tech companies. We had a call, and I explained the idea to him.
A few days later, he and his partner Marc visited us here in Berlin. We demonstrated the prototype, and presented a few design concepts. We met for a few hours, went out for lunch, and they decided to invest in our idea.
Together, we took our prototype, defined a product roadmap and started building it. Because those guys made investments in other tech companies, they had a lot of experience in critical success factors of software businesses. Together, we turned Lunchbox, which again was a simple web-based SaaS app, into a cross-platform productivity app named Wunderlist.
With their initial investment we were able to focus on developing Wunderlist for Mac and Windows, and launched version 1.0 in November 2010 (just a few months after we registered the new business). With the launch being a great success, we then decided to raise capital from a German government fund called Hightech Founders Fund.
Without posting this one message, and without the experience of Frank and Marc, Wunderlist would not exist. We would have never started the business, we would never have built mobile and desktop apps, and we just wouldn’t have executed it the way we did. Not only because both guys invested in the company, but because they worked with us on business strategy, product, design, marketing and technology. Together, they allowed us to start this company in a big way – they were investors and mentors.
Now that the company is three years old, we’ve added many more, including Atomico, Earlybird, T-Venture, and even a few individuals who are helping us to define the right strategy for a specific segment of the company, whether it’s product, technology or anything else. Mentors became crucial for me. They help us reflect and decide. Every time we’re not quite sure about the next step we should take, we ask for advice. Every time we need a partner to ping-pong some new ideas, we ask for their feedback.
Mentors are a great way of widening your horizon when you start a business, and I believe every founder should have one or more. Actually, most successful tech entrepreneurs have incredible, experienced and strong mentors – Meet Behind-The-Scenes Mentors Of 15 Top Tech Executives.
I’m incredibly grateful for the support of our mentors who most definitely saved us years of learning everything on our own. I’ve become a strong believer of mentoring. And while connecting with our first mentors was luck, nowadays when we decide to get an advisor for building or growing a specific part of the business, we create a list of people who would be super helpful, and we connect with them.
When people talk about mentors, they often use the term “advisors” as well. There is no official explanation for it, but I would clearly define 3 different types of supporters you can add to your company:
- People or organizations who invest in your business, with the clear goal to have a great financial return. At the early-stage, investors are also often your mentors, but it can be hard to connect with investors as much as you can connect with individuals who respect you and are simply interested in your personal success. Investors are usually more interested in building and scaling up the business and less in your personal development.
- People who help you grow not only as an individual, but as a leader. Mentors invest in your business and more importantly, in you. Especially as a young or first time founder it’s incredibly helpful to get mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs.
- People who can add strategic value to your business (e.g. if you want to enter new markets or work with big corporations)
You can offer both advisors and mentors equity in exchange for support, but be careful not to create artificial interest. They should be interested in you and less in your company. They are not employees, but first and foremost they help you to succeed as an individual. At an early stage, be sure, he or she commits to at least spending some hours each week working with you.
Advisors can be very helpful, but sometimes can also be the opposite. Choose them very carefully. Make sure they deeply care about your success.
14. Be ready for constant change
I learned many painful but great lessons over the past few years. One was how to deal with constant change. When you decide to build a technology company, you are faced with one of the fastest moving industries on the planet. Technology changes so quickly, and along with it, markets and people.
When we started, Facebook and Twitter were exploding, transforming the way companies handle marketing. Apple had just created a gigantic app market, making the development for mobile incredibly important. There was almost no Android, no Mac App Store, and no iPad. The market was moving so quickly, we had to constantly adapt our product strategy.
Being in a constantly changing environment like the tech industry makes it really difficult to forecast trends and developments, and requires a massive focus on flexibility. When you are building a product, be ready to change essential parts of it within weeks, if not days. Be ready to expand and to tackle new opportunities quickly. And more so, make sure your team is ready, too.
Constant changes in startups happens everywhere. You are constantly adjusting and optimizing internal processes, adapting your development strategy due to changing markets, modifying a fundraising strategy because of a financial crisis, replacing managers because of bad performances – this list just goes on and on and on.
From a pure software perspective, within the last 10 years there has been an incredible change. 10 years ago, building software was fundamentally different. Software was very business focused (e.g., Office), complex, and feature-driven. Building such products was complicated, and required years of development.
Then suddenly, software went mobile and got simplified. Within a few years, the requirements of building a great software product completely changed. Today, software is winning by design, intuitiveness and availability – not just by features. Mobile devices and apps made software a mass market phenomenon and changed the way software is built entirely.
Identifying changes in a market, and knowing when the time has come for a strategy shift becomes critical for any kind of tech business. Many startups fail because the technology stack doesn’t fit the requirements of the market, or because the key platform changed completely.
Make sure to not only build your product in the most flexible and scalable way, but also invest time in creating a company culture that embraces change in order to use the full potential of your team, no matter what the new challenge is going to be. The more flexible you run your product and company, the more likely you will have a chance to win.
15. Work hard and be nice to people
Being mindful while maintaining just the right sense of urgency is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of experience to give people the freedom to learn and more importantly, to fail.
Our industry is full of young millionaires, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s very easy to meet people with bad intentions, people who don’t care about anyone but themselves. Define your personal values, think carefully how you want to be successful, and how you want to celebrate it.
Becoming successful will change your personality, either in a positive, or in a negative way – it’s your decision. When Steve Jobs got asked what his biggest weakness was, he answered: “I think all of us need to be on guard against arrogance, which knocks on your door whenever your are successful.” For myself I found that through by honest and sharing my knowledge I am getting a lot back every single day. Follow this simple rule: Work hard, take risks – and always be nice to people.
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