Starting a startup is awesome. If you are reading this, you are probably interested in doing that, or at least being a part of one. I remember just how exhilarating the feeling was when I first started Zinnia. Thinking, planning, and dreaming about the idea took up a lot of my mental energy (but in a good way). Having been through that experience for the past two and a half years, and now that it has come to an end for me, I’d like to give you some advice on my experience that I hope you find valuable.
Align yourself with like-minded people
I will forever be thankful and indebted to my co-founders Andy Holz and Ben Lueders. I mean, how crazy is it for three guys that have no association or experience in the floral industry to up and decide to start a flower business together? Not to mention one that aspired to change the way that people bought any occasion flowers for their friends and family. So why did it work (even in the slightest)? I think it was partly because Andy, Ben and myself held a set of core beliefs centered around the Gospel that helped us endure and persevere, especially at the moments when things got hard.
We came from a place and belief that all of life is Coram Deo (from the latin phrase meaning “before the face of God”). Simply stated: the Gospel changes everything, including how you work. When we came to moments of decision where our options weren’t always clear, I always had a sense that no matter what the outcome was, Andy and Ben were my brothers and they had my back. It felt as if we could endure almost anything. And we did.
So what does that look like for you? I’d encourage you to not make a decision about who you want to start a business with in haste. Take time to think about your founding team. You are going to spend a lot of time with these people. Do you know how the they like to be communicated with? Are a they a good listener? When times get hard, how do they react? If you don’t know the answers to these types of questions, you should before you get started.
Technical Aptitude is Imperative
When I think back on Zinnia, it is incredible to me how naive that I was. Zinnia was ultimately a software play. The core parts of the idea all were software based. We intended to be a marketplace, where buyers could connect with vendors that were setup to fulfill Zinnia arrangements (with Zinnia taking a small percentage of each sale).
I thought that the scope of my experience from PayPal and with online payments would be enough to carry though to the technical expertise necessary to execute the idea. Boy was I wrong.
Make sure there is a member of your team that understands how software works. Either that, or go create something that doesn’t require software. Seriously, you’d be better off starting a carwash than making this mistake. I remember how off put I was when one potential investor told us that they don’t invest in software startups that don’t have a technical co-founder. “I’ll show them” was all that I could think to myself. I now understand why that was their policy.
There were so many moments I wanted to fix problems that were happening as we were building our application, and I just couldn’t do it. Don’t make this mistake. If you are dead set on creating a product or a company that requires software to work, find someone that knows what they are doing to join you or go acquire the necessary skills on your own. Go to code school. Use Udemy or LinkedIn Learning. Sign up for a program like One Month Rails. Seriously, do something.
The best idea here is to go find the best person you can at creating the specific type of software you are trying to build. Don’t just assume that some $15 per hour developer that you found from another country on Upwork has the ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat and they will be able to magically make your idea come to life. It just doesn’t work that way.
Don’t Slack Everything
Slack is a great tool. It really is. I love it. I probably use it more than any other application on my phone. But I also probably misuse it more than any other as well.
Do you have a hard problem that you are trying to solve? Don’t slack about it. Are you having trouble trying to perceive if something that one of your team members just told you was because they were upset? Stop sending them Slack messages about it.
Slack can quickly turn into a great way to avoid hard conversations and communicating with the clarity that you need to, especially on really important topics. I recommend that you go analog with any and all important decisions. Get in a room together and iron things out. Are you separated by distance? That is fine. Pick up the telephone and talk through things. Don’t use Slack to hide.
Ultimately, I think that part of the reason why I wasn’t able to make Zinnia successful is that I wasn’t “all-in”. I thought that I would be able to successfully moonlight the idea into existence, while still being able to hold a separate 9 to 5 job during the day. This just didn’t work.
I’m probably being a bit too self critical here. I did leave a great job at PayPal to join an accelerator and spend all of my (working) time on Zinnia. Looking back, I realize just how crazy that was. Thankfully, I am blessed to have a wife and family that have allowed me to pursue my passions.
But I just wasn’t able to see that through. If you have obligations like I do, think long and hard about what you are doing. Are you willing to take your bank account to zero? Who else are you responsible for, besides yourself? Are you willing to go beyond 40,50,60 hours at week at times to work on your idea? Ask yourself these types of questions before you get started. You need to have the intestinal fortitude to give a yes answer to those types of questions.
For the record, I wish Zinnia nothing but the best. I am grateful to be able to say that I helped get it started. It was a blast. Sure, there were days that I wanted to pull my hair out and where I questioned nearly everything that I was doing. But I believe I came out of it on the other side a more refined version of myself.
So go start something great. Give it everything that you got. Just understand that the sheen will wear off quickly. It is those that persevere who will be fulfilled.