by • January 2, 2013 • FoundersComments (11)940

3 rules for new founders

Lean is good for companies but bad for people. It doesn’t help with that potentially lengthy period when you’re still trying to find an idea with legs and don’t yet have funding or revenue. Here’s how I’ve been handling that bit:

  1. Protect your downside
  2. Work on whatever’s interesting
  3. Tell people how it went

For me, protecting one’s downside meant learning how to make money and doing paid work a few days each month. For some other folks, it means stockpiling cash. In all cases it means avoiding personal debt and liability. Just ensure that a failure of this project won’t stop you from being able to do the next one.

I’ve learned that I’m terrible at predicting whether an idea is going to be good. But looking back at the projects I found interesting enough to work on, it feels like they’ve each built on the learning and opportunities created by the earlier ones. When predicting success is hard, “interesting” is a fine heuristic to follow.

Financially unsuccessful projects are close to worthless unless you tell people how they went. Firstly because you don’t learn from your failures until you try to describe them. And secondly, because unannounced projects can’t create new connections and opportunities.

So that’s my take: protect your downside, work on whatever’s interesting, and tell people how it went. Do you have a different take? Would be interesting to hear if so!

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11 Responses to 3 rules for new founders

  1. StartUpJerkFest says:

    agreed. get as much mileage as you can out of everything you do. blogging about it is like a long tail :)

  2. A great thing for new founders to do when starting up a business is to rent the commercial property for their business rather than buy it. This will save the business a lot of money in the short term and is definitely something that I would recommend.

    • Scumwatch says:

      Commercial Property Petebo smuggles illegal drugs across international borders and wants to do bad things to your dog.

  3. Why focus on projects you find interesting? I thought the lean approach was to “get out of the building” and talk to customers. Is doing so incompatible with finding interesting projects to work on?

  4. Waylon says:

    Wise words. I think we spend way too much time working on boring things, in all areas of our lives.

    It doesn’t just make our lives suck, either. It means that when we actual produce something, no one is interested, not even us.

    Human curiosity has been finely tuned by millions of years of evolution. We should start listening.

  5. Barry Steyn says:

    Thanks for this post. It seems like everyone who is affiliated with YC is seen by people to be invincible. It is great to know that this is not the case.

    BTW – I really like

  6. Betasve says:

    Very wise words. I admire ones will to explore new opportunities and work hard no matter the fear of a bad outcome.

    I am just wondering Rob, what do you think is the optimal period to wait for a startup to begin gaining some profit? I know it pretty much depends on the startup, the industry, the country, but what is it in your experience?

    Thanks in advance for your answer.

  7. Tom Psillas says:

    Yes, I remember the days when there was no cash, no hope, and long hours working a day job, while figuring out what works in our startup. is now generating revenues and is being courted by the sharks; Google, FaceBook, IAC, and others. They want it to become their search 2.0.

    I feel like the Bachelor on ABC where I got to pick which deal to take. So, I better go buy some roses to hand out this week and the rose that does not go to one of my company’s suitors, I will gladly giv e to my beautiful wife, Lisa.

  8. Jeff Till says:

    HI David,

    On #3, there’s an interesting article in Reason this month on Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan guy.

    He explains that the capitalist system in aggregate gets smarter not because of successes, but learns from failure. E.g., every plane crash that occurs reduces the chances of the next plane crash because we learn. E.g., every time a restaurant fails, the community of restaurants learns what not to do.

    I can’t find a link since it is in the print edition, and/but that’s the gist anyways. You could see how failures would inform the individual and small communities of businesses as well.

  9. Nick says:

    I’m looking back on this from a link I posted while in a startup 12 months ago.
    Since then I’ve been in two more startups and had the usual roller coaster ride of ups and downs.

    Reflecting on this post I find it’s 100% on the money.

    I’m good at execution and chipping through tasks to an ultimate goal. But like Rob I find I’m crap at predicting what’s going to work. I just don’t have the heuristics for it.

    To keep the dream alive I need to a) keep my interest fresh b) keep food on the table and a roof over my head. Once something is rolling it should almost become self sustaining – the momentum takes over. Before then it’s a frustrating blend of promise, heart stopping risk and inconclusive feedback.

    Keeping your powder dry is good feedback.