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don't fear your ideas!
4 min read
I've started 2 companies, and the difference between the two journeys to date really changed my perspective on the importance of vision.
There's a lot of advice on the internet aimed at first-time founders, and it's mostly garbage. The worst kinds of advice are reductionist frameworks that attempt to boil the magic of entrepreneurship and early product to some formula. There are two main problems with this framing: 1) it sucks all joy out of the process and snuffs your creative spark 2) it doesn't work!
If you study the stories of the most iconic companies to come out of venture they all have similarly messy journeys. Of course execution matters. That's table stakes and you can't win without it. But everyone works hard. I'd argue that outlier success is derived from the ideas and opinions at the core of the business.
A good vision is an opinion about how the world should look, why it makes sense, and how to make it real, in a format that the organization can translate to practical execution.
In my first startup, Niklas and I very much followed the standard product discovery advice: choose who you want to serve, do lots of discovery interviews, figure out their top problem, test solutions and messaging, build small things and try to gain traction. We got really good at user research and we certainly learned a lot, but we also wasted a lot of time learning a large number of random & irrelevant things. The process was just slow. And it ultimately led us to a place where we had built a product that worked and solved the need but that neither I nor Nik were particularly passionate about -- so we shut down instead of raising the stakes with another round of financing. We both learned a ton about ourselves and company building in the process, and I cherish this experience as one of the most valuable in my career.
In my second (current) company, Poggio Labs, Matt and I started from day one with a strong vision backed by an opinionated thesis. This was a big idea. Super risky and tough to pull off. But huge if it works. Very much a venture-shaped proposition. I was skeptical coming off the first try, so I was using all of my validation and research powers to try to kill it. However, the opposite thing happened -- the more we talked with potential buyers and amongst ourselves the more exciting and larger the opportunity seemed. We didn't need to scrounge for evidence of an opportunity, it was right there staring us in the face.
Starting with a clear vision has been an amazing accelerator. Perhaps most notably on the product side, but it has also made fundraising 10x easier. We were able to paint a compelling long-term picture for incredible early hires, and we can speak confidently with buyers about what we'll solve for them.
Each of these benefits also have second-order effects. An unexpected thing that's obvious only in hindsight is the effect on team building. This was our first real test after fundraising. I can say with 100% confidence, we wouldn't have been able to hire the caliber of talented people that we did without strength of vision. Our early hires were each fully bought in before joining, and they opted in to joining a product org where they'd be expected, trusted, and empowered to make high level decisions that move the company forward. This only works because of the double-opt-in process around the core mission.
We routinely engage the whole team on how to sequence plans to pull forward outcomes, and we are constantly learning through building and customer feedback. It's "all hands on deck", but since we're aligned on the vision these conversations stay productive and at the right level; it's strategy, not an ongoing existential crisis.
There's no one way that works when starting a company. However, based on my experience, if you can get to high conviction early among the founding team your life will be easier and more fun. If you're evaluating a company to join as an early stage employee, I'd suggest that you optimize for strength of vision.