For many entrepreneurs, the first stages of founding a company can be a very lonely experience. It often involves countless solitary hours conducting research, outlining a product vision and piecing together ugly proofs of concept. But what I have discovered and rediscovered with each of the companies that I have founded is that building a company is a highly creative process. Like all creative processes, the moment of inception for any truly great idea is extremely dependent on a community of trusted people to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from.
As Steve Blank says, "No business plan survives first contact with the customer." I believe that the first iteration of an idea never survives first contact with an intelligent network of people you trust. Their feedback will help move your ugly hatchling into something viable much faster than you acting alone. Because that early feedback is so important, the networks that help in those early, creative stages of founding a company are extremely crucial. But getting fresh, quality feedback can be extremely difficult as there is often very little institutional support for those trying to start a business. Academics have universities, writers have editors and writing circles, artists have studio spaces -- where do entrepreneurs go?
Three years ago I co-founded Founders Den, a co-working space for experienced entrepreneurs, for this very reason. I was working from home on my next start-up when I realized that I wasn't getting the feedback loop that I really needed. At the end of the day there is only so much you can learn from your personal network over email or lunch. So, I started an email thread about getting some office space with several of my friends who were also working on their start-ups.
Several weeks and a few sponsorships later we were moving into a space large enough to accommodate 15 to 20 early stage companies. Since then, over 72 companies have come in and out of Founders Den. Some have since garnered $100 million valuations (Wanelo), others have been acquired by great companies such as AutoDesk (SocialCam) and Samsung (Movl).
While knowing that you have been involved in the early success of multiple start-ups is an extremely satisfying feeling, even more satisfying has been watching my current company, August, grow in this environment. We have also had the opportunity to use the products created by other Founders Den companies, such as Streak and Survata, and in turn provide them with valuable feature requests and product feedback.
Having a strong environment for your company to grow is clearly important, but so too is finding business partners that help facilitate the growth of your team members. Too often we think of business to business relationships in terms of goods delivered in a statement of work. What entrepreneurs often lose sight of is the fact that any business that your company works with has an impact on your team and their development. Business practices are contagious and a company you partner with can easily spread those contagions to your team.
When possible, businesses of the same size with the same growth trajectory should conduct business with each other. This ensures that your productivity expectations are aligned. When you need to operate with a company larger than your own, it is incredibly important that company has practices you are comfortable with, practices that you'd like to take in as your own. This way you avoid many of the operational inefficiencies that come with legacy companies.
As children, we all heard the adage "You are what you eat." As an entrepreneur, it is important to be extremely aware that your team, and in turn your company, can often become who they are surrounded by.
When it is all said and done, strong networks create strong companies. Who you do business with and who you talk about your business with matters. No founder builds a company alone, and no company becomes great without great partners.