I’ve been in the tech startup ecosystem for around 8-years now and in that time I’ve sat through countless startup bootcamps and fireside sessions where successful entrepreneurs offer their sage advice to young, novice entrepreneurs about how to get started, how to raise money, and how to succeed in tech. I always felt a little out of place that none of that advice applied to me or my experience.
There are many reasons for this I suppose. As a Black-American I represent less than 2% of the types of tech founders who get backed by VCs. I represent even less, of the norm of the founders who go on to exit. Also, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. In fact I didn’t even go a to a ‘real’ college. I went to an art school. I never finished. I never formally studied tech. I taught myself how to code on an IBM PS2 in rural Georgia in a single-parent household. I never considered a career in tech until I took the leap and just did it. I also, never took venture capital. Instead I bootstrapped myself through several business (Appfrica, MetaLayer, D8A) until I became an angel investor myself.
All the while, I was getting advice from startup accelerators and experienced entrepreneurs and couldn’t help but get the impression that my path was some how wrong or less than. It’s not that the advice they gave was completely wrong, it just needed contextualizing. My experiences were different, and often my goals were different than what I was told they were supposed to be. As a result, my story never quite matched that of the other people who were building companies beside me. Hopefully other founders out there, minority or not, will read this and know that it’s okay to follow a slightly different path. As I say on my Twitter page:
Here are some examples of some of the common advice you’ll get as a founder:
What they’ll tell you: “If you need startup capital, do a friends and family round. Those closest to you will take a risk on you before anyone else will.”
What you’ll say to yourself: “I’ve already tried that a dozen times. None of my friends and none of my family understand what I’m trying to do, much less have the money to invest, or the liquidity to invest and wait several years for a return.”
What I tell people now is that, yes, if you haven’t asked already you’ve got nothing to lose by going deep into your network to see if anyone has the capital to invest in your product or idea. So do it.
But don’t be discouraged if you come up empty handed. Your friends and family might not be able to give you capital but they can give you something: introductions to colleagues, a couch to sleep on if you can’t make rent, co-sign on a loan or rent application etc. If you know they don’t have the money, tweak the ask to be something they are able to comfortably give to support you. Your friends and/or family do want to support you, but their own extenuating circumstances may prevent it from being cash. Be flexible, let them help you.
What they’ll tell you: “The best way to raise capital is to have rich friends.”
What you’ll say to yourself: “Thanks for that advice. Unfortunately, everyone I know still ride the bus to work….and no, not the damn Google bus.”
This is also true. If you’ve got some rich friends who believe in you, problem solved.
However, in my experience even the wealthy friends, advisors, and mentors who I do know rarely invest in me. They’ve invested in other peers from different backgrounds and other ventures of different types but never mine. The only thing I can assume is that the things I work on aren’t as interesting, my pitch isn’t right, or my timing is bad. Whatever the case, there’s always a reason why I’m not not the best investment option for them. You may feel the same, or you may have no rich friends (not surprisingly a common problem).
So double down on yourself and your ability to sell. Don’t rely on other people’s money if you don’t have to. I would argue, that there’s virtually no business idea under the sun you can’t get some traction on even if you lack capital.
What it will force you to do is get really good at ‘the lean startup’ model so popular these days. No product? Make the best web page that you can possibly make explaining what your product is going to do, with videos, a newsletter, a blog etc. Ramp up your company’s social media presence to try to build some credibility in the space. Form partnerships with potential customers or other companies who can help you get traction. There is an endless list of things that can be done to help you get more market validation, which you’ll need to have conversations with investors. I found, and what you may find, is that in doing all this you’ll find a quicker path to revenue than investment.
What they’ll tell you: “There’s three types of companies. Lifestyle businesses, services business and product business. The only one investors are interested in at an early stage is the product business.”
What you’ll say to yourself: “What’s the difference? I just want to be able to pay myself every month.”
The implication in the above statement is that the only way to succeed is to raise capital from a VC who can guide you on the path to wealth and fame.
First, honestly if you want to be able to pay yourself every month — without any risk to the alternative — go get a job. By definition as an entrepreneur you’re taking a risk no one else has taken before, to validate a way of approaching the market no one has ever pursued before, to (hopefully) earn the types of returns others can only dream of.
Get used to failure and high-risk scenarios. Those are your two new best friends.
Second, success looks like different things to different people. Where I come from, being able to pay yourself doing your own thing is a huge accomplishment. In fact, it’s unprecedented. So a lifestyle business or a service business certainly meet the criteria of success for most people I grew up with. They key here is to know what your definition of success is and pursue that. Knowing what success is the key to knowing how to achieve it.
If you want to want to open a shop repairing computers, do graphic design and app development, or offer some other type of service. Do it. It will pay the bills. It will pay the rent. You’ll drive a nice car. But those aren’t typically the type of investment opportunities VCs are looking for, so don’t waste your time talking to them about such startups.
The reason VCs avoid these kinds of businesses is because they take much longer to grow, there’s usually no guaranteed recurring revenue, and to scale they need to hire more people at every level of growth. All of that accounts for thin margins usually due to high overhead. Subsequently when it comes time to exit, the multiples are much lower. It doesn’t mean those aren’t viable, lucrative businesses. It just means they aren’t what most VCs are after.
Those are services companies. Many of these are also lifestyle businesses, which simply means people do them to maintain a certain standard of living.
If you can build a business where you pay yourself $60,000 a year and have few employees would you be okay with that? $80,000? $120,000? That’s all great - pay yourself and be happy. You didn’t ‘lose’ in the game of life because you built a company that can take care of yourself, your family, and your other responsibilities while paying yourself nicely and being your own boss. You won.
You may not be in the 1% of wealthy people, but you’re likely in the 10% of businesses that don’t fail within the first few years of launch. Shoot for that 1%. The 1% of businesses that survive more than three or four years, that have employees, and that are more or less your dream job. You won, you just won a different battle than the one the Angel Investors, VCs, and Startup Accelerators encourage you to fight.
What they’ll tell you: “That’s bullshit! High-tech! Recurring revenue! GROWTH!!”
What you’ll say to yourself: “Okay, I’m in.”
If you are building a company that is meant to be high-growth, tech-first with low margins, recurring revenue and you want to fund it equity or debt then yes, now you’re on the same page as all the investors and accelerators. Still, there is more than one way to ‘win’.
One is to do everything text book startup-style. Build a great product, get some traction, do an angel round, a seed round, Series A, Series B and so on until you Exit and retire on a yacht.
What no one tells you at the beginning is that there are so many variations to this ‘path’ its ridiculous. For instance:
- You could become a ‘zombie’ company. Which means you get your first few rounds of institutional capital but then you are never able to find an exit. You’ve still got great revenue and great staff but all your investors money is still tied up in your business because maybe you’re still to small to sell or go public. Again, it depends on where you come from. Some people would kill for this as an opportunity. For others, it’s literally their worst nightmare.
- You could do an angel round and never get to Series A. What they call the ’Series A crunch’.
- You could ‘acqui-hire’ away yourself and your team. Essentially, selling the company on the cheap for guaranteed jobs at a bigger company.
For some people, each of these is a type of success, for others it’s not. Don’t mistake other’s people’s definition of success for your own. Know what works for you and fuck what a millionaire investor tells you because he’s playing a different game. To him success looks different. He’s spread his money around lots of high risk companies on the off chance one of them does IPO or exits with a huge multiple to make him even richer. He’s waiting for that and if you aren’t doing that, then yes, you are in fact wasting his time. But unless you take his money you’re not defined by his definition of success.
Ultimately, you don’t have to take anyone’s money. You can bootstrap. Some people will view that as a slow painful way to build a company. Again, for some people slow and painful is all we know. So that’s not actually a setback…it’s the default. Again, know your definition of success.
Bootstrapping will definitely cost you things, like the rate at which your company grows and being able to hang in certain circles. Other VC-backed startups will scoff at you as if your company doesn’t matter. You might not be on the conference circuit. You might struggle to get intros to high profile customers etc.
However, bootstrapping will afford you very different opportunities. You have the benefit of building the company you want to build your way. You can pay yourself whatever you can afford. You can grow however you want and you can always (if you still want to) take on VC money later.
This is basically what GitHub did. They built the company they wanted, their way, by bootstrapping and took on VC when they chose to it. They knew what their definition of success looked like and they crushed it.
What they’ll tell you: “There’s a unique culture in Silicon Valley. Get into it. You should spend more time socializing with other founders and learning from them.”
What you’ll say to yourself: “You mean…assimilate?”
There’s a great post entitled "The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt is its own culture” that I encourage you to read. It goes into this much more eloquently than I have time for here.
Assimilating into a culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s necessary. However, don’t forget that your diversity and perspective is an asset. It’s an opportunity to see and do things in the tech space in ways few others may have considered. That might lead to new insights about customer segments, or just bringing something new to the table. People don’t know what they don’t know. By definition being the minority of a group means you’ve brought a number of things to the table that weren’t there before.
I fucking hate ping-pong. There, I said it.
That’s the kiss of death for the 40% of startups whose offices have fuse ball tables, arcade games, and ping-pong tables in each corner of their space. I’ll likely never be hired by any of those companies, or acquired by them. I’m just out because for them, ping-pong is a cultural value.
However, I’m still a founder. I still love tech and entrepreneurship as much as these guys. I’m still trying to create value out of nothing like them. I’m still going to do it. Culture doesn’t have to define us. It’s a tool to use to bond with different people, but it’s not the only way to bond.
So without compromising your own uniqueness, by all means associate with everyone in the tech ecosystem. But know that people rejecting you because of ‘cultural fit’ has very little to do with you and everything to do with them and their insecurity about something that has nothing to do with you.
It’s no different than being the last guy or girl to get picked for sports on the field or the person who never got invited to all the cool parties in high school. It may make you an outlier. For a while…but eventually there’s quite a few people who share the same reason for rejection and all of a sudden there’s a new culture that you’re a part of and someone else isn’t. Funny how that works.
Beyond all this, what everyone will respect (if they don’t respect your culture) is success. Succeed your way. Let people respect that. Forget culture. You are a culture of one.
What they’ll tell you: “Tech is a meritocracy. Stop worrying about being discriminated against.”
What you’ll say to yourself: “Are you serious.”
Yes. They are serious. This is because no matter what occurs in the world of tech it can be rationalized. Smart people are really good at convincing themselves they aren’t doing the same things less smart people do.
‘It’s not inequality. We just work harder and create more value than everyone else so we’re rewarded for it.’
‘It’s not sexism. Women just don’t like tech as much as guys do. They get discouraged too easily. They aren’t as focused.’
And so on.
The reality is, in Silicon Valley and the broader tech ecosystem that emulates it there are mostly good people, a few with a loose moral compass, and a few down right bad people (what compass?). It’s no different than any other random grouping of people in life. Some people are going to be dicks. Those people will discriminate.
You can’t worry about this. I’ll repeat it, stop worrying about being discriminated against in tech. No one can do anything about someone not liking, not trusting, or fearing you. Even if you forced them to hire everyone they have bias against. The fact of the matter is you’d still be discriminated against….only secretly.
What you can do is focus. You need to do that any way as an entrepreneur. You can build a company that’s undeniably cool, undeniably valuable, and undeniably important. No one can take that from you even if they never invest in you, put you on a stage, or on the cover a magazine. You will have still have done it and before long others will want to do what you did instead of what the other guys did.
You’ll still win. You’ll just do it your way.