Being a founder is hard. Period. It is often a lonely and thankless position as you progress through the struggle. Since you are often floating in unchartered waters with no land in sight, it's difficult to possess the conviction to point the ship in one direction. It can be difficult to talk to your board, investors, advisors, and employees about the struggles that you face. You feel alone. And you know another storm is coming.
BUT it doesn't have to be that way.
You can lean on fellow founders. Forget the Lean In movement. I call it the Lean On Movement.
Bad joke aside, think of it as a support group of people that you trust, can learn from, and hopefully instruct as well. I don't think it's useful to join founder groups where you don't know the other founders because it's key that you can talk about problems that are best left confined to a small private group. Recurring hot topics are:
I'm running out of money. Can you intro me to some investors?
Do I cut the burn or do I raise more capital?
Do you have a good 409a valuation expert?
Can you intro me to this potential customer?
Can you help me find a technical co-founder?
Should I put my company on AngelList?
What's a fair equity package for a potential hire?
How should I structure my board?
What's a typical advisor package?
Here are 5 good reasons why you should help a fellow founder out.
1. It's important to pay it forward in the startup economy.
I have been helped by countless people who often do it purely because other people have helped them. In a world where quid pro quo is the norm, it is truly refreshing when people help you simply because they want to help. Founders are constantly facing rejection: from customers, investors, new hires, business partners, etc. Most founders that I've met have offered invaluable advice around mistakes that they've made in the hope that I avoid them in the future. One founder correctly advised me not to purse a particular customer target vertical and his advice saved me about 6 month of agony. Another founder made introductions to several investors that eventually participated in my company's financing.
Community is an important part of the startup culture and it makes our tough existence a little easier.
2. By helping others solve their challenges you build a network that can help you solve YOUR challenges.
Many founders have incredible experience and knowledge to share. If you are able to build a large enough group of founders with whom you can share, you can find valuable advice and proprietary info that would save significant time and the brain damage associated with banging your head against a wall trying something that doesn't work. By building a network, you can create a list of specialists to address nearly every problem you can think of. For example, there are founders in my network that are experts in marketing tech selling to enterprises, wizards in raising capital, and others that understand product performance and how to make smart decisions based on demonstrable data and analytics.
However, it's important to underscore that like any relationship, TRUST is absolutely critical. Most people will never share dark secrets about how their business is going sideways or proprietary data unless they can be assured that the info won't end up on a blog post. This brings me to another point: while information that is found online can certainly be helpful, it is never as helpful as having a one-on-one discussion with a trusted fellow founder. When a strong bond based around confidentiality, trust, and transparency, it becomes a great way to provide advice and to get the help that in many cases you desperately need.
3. It's healthy to vent and actually admit that you're not "crushing it."
Sometimes, there are challenges that you don't want to share with your investors, board, employees, advisors, etc. Perhaps it's just a crazy idea that you want to explore to get initial feedback or maybe you have an issue with one of your stakeholders and you don't want the word to get out.
Regardless, founders need to have emotional outlets where they can vent their frustrations in a positive way without being judged. For me, it's often a cathartic experience to "let it all out" and clear your conscience. When I'm stressed and without an emotional outlet, I tend not to be particularly creative or constructive. Being able to vent one's frustrations is one of the best ways to move on and get back to that zen-like state when your best creative thinking emerges.
4. You can learn from the mistakes of others
It's generally pretty rare that you are the first to encounter a particular problem. As I mentioned earlier, whether it's raising capital, trying to improve your sales conversions, or negotiating equity packages, there's almost always another founder that has encountered a similar problem. However, sometimes you can also learn what NOT to do by learning from others' mistakes. For example, one common mistake that many of us have made is to allow an investor that has passed on your company to introduce you to another investor. It's like saying "the investment isn't good enough for us, but it's good enough for you." Huh? (I discuss this in more detail in an earlier post entitled "The Best (and Worst) Ways to Meet a VC.")
Probably the most important benefit of learning what NOT to do is that it will save you TIME. In a world of limited resources, time is a founder's most precious asset. I have been lucky to have been the beneficiary of avoiding pitfalls that others have fallen into and have saved in some cases months of time as a result. I have also freely shared my own mistakes (there are many of them) so that other founders could benefit.
5. It feels good
I love it when people ask me for help for several reasons. First, it makes me feel like I have some expertise or information to provide that is of value based on my experience. Second, if I'm in a position to actually help someone else, things can't be that bad for me. Finally, I can't explain it properly, but there's actually an endorphin rush that comes over me when I feel like I have done something to advance the world in some tiny way. I'm sure there is some psychological term for this like when you volunteer your time for a charity or make a donation, but you get the idea. It just feels good to help and it's good for your psyche.
And on that very note, I hope that this post has been helpful and provided enough reasons for you to go out there and build your very own Founder Network. Don't be afraid to ask for help provided you are willing to provide help as well. So, go out there and lean on your fellow founders... and let them lean on you.