It was only a few short months ago that I jumped out of my steady job airplane in lieu of a parachuteless descent to San Francisco. With virtually no meaningful savings or product development experience, I started to frantically fabricate my company, Pronto Concepts Inc., into a parachute on the way down.
All I had was an idea for a product I thought people would like but I never imagined I could do it alone. I started my journey with a search for a co-founder, only to find out it could have been my biggest mistake.
The typical first step for any potential venture is to congregate a core team of co-founders. This is not done without merit, for there are several reasons for wanting to go at it with teammates.
With these reasons in mind, I set out to build my team. Clueless where to start, I scoured LinkedIn for people with complementary skills. With most of my prior experience being business oriented, I started interviewing engineers and designers. I wanted someone who was accustomed to getting their hands dirty with product development. It was primarily my fear of the unknown that I was aiming to minimize. I met some amazing applicants, even strongly considering some.
As I started talking to my potential business partners, this sought after comfort was starting to settle in. It put my fears at ease knowing I could rely on someone else to accomplish tasks I knew little about. These candidates may have wanted a piece of the pie, but they also wanted to help bake it.
Depending on your industry, there are a variety of different skills and traits necessary of founders. It is unlikely that you will possess all required core skills, and even if you do, focusing on your strongest abilities should position your best for success.
Commonly entrepreneurs either have strong business acumen or are equipped with technical and/or industry knowledge. Naturally we try to fill the gap with our operational counterpart.
The major skills I lacked were industrial design and engineering. I set out to fill this gap. What technical skills does your company need? Interface, user experience, or industrial designers? Software, mechanical, or design engineers? If you are unsure, you can check LinkedIn for similar companies and see what comprises their founding teams.
But technical founders have the best opportunities to imagine the important ideas necessary for innovation. Right?
Well, not always. While their knowledge certainly gives them an edge for understanding the technically complex, sometimes it can hinder. Knowledge can sometimes be like a restrictive bubble that traps an innovator. New ideas can often be scrapped by failing a series of conscious and subconscious litmus tests. A fresh slate to a field denies the opportunity for such tests and allows the ideas to flow uninhibited.
Perhaps you aspire to build an app, but lack coding experience. You can learn how to use basic layout software like Proto.io, InVision, or Marvel. It may not look perfect, hell it may look terrible, but you can at least use these tools to extract your ideas. There is no shame in copying other apps to at least get you started. Even the big guys do it all the time. With little experience, you can handle much of the initial wire-framing that you would expect a technical co-founder to help you with.
If you lack the technical skills to handle even that much, that’s OK. You can get by with a piece of paper and about $50. Look no further than homebaked.co for an excellent example. When CEO, and then solo founder, Chi, wanted to see his vision for ‘the Etsy of home baked goods’, he did not immediately turn to a co-founder. With little design skills, Chi sketched out a few rough mock-ups on paper. Once he had one he liked, he turned to freelancer.com, dropping a mere $50 for a graphic design professional to turn his rough sketch into a professional looking design, literally overnight.
Lacking technical skills and experience to prototype my wine chilling invention. TechShop gave me access to 3D printers, laser cutters, work spaces, and just about every tool you could possibly think of. With some planning, research, and the help from the awesome “dream consultants”at TechShop, I put together a functional prototype of my invention, ProntoBev.
It may have taken me five failed versions to make one that eventually worked, but I was able to acquire the basic technical skills to complete project. Perhaps I wasted some time without a real engineer by my side, but my invention, like most, was not too complicated for a newbie to figure out.
Learning the skills needed to design a great product take years to master. Even with my minor graphic design background, I know little about how people interact with physical products. You may be able to compensate for some lack of know-how with the internet and sheer determination, but at a certain point some things are impossible without the help of professionals.
The skills needed to design necessary parts for manufacturing were far out of my realm. I would have to be knowledgeable about material types, manufacturing processes, assembly, and a host of other complex topics. While I have worked hard to build a basic knowledge-base, people spend years studying and require real world exposure before considered competent. Before considering the capable co-founders I interviewed, I decided to see what kind of bill their replacements would rack up.
I interview 13 product design firms who were asking for all between $2k to $200k for the project. Many of these firms were offering services I really did not need, so I ended up going with one of the cheaper firms. For an initial estimated $9k, they would engineer the entire device.
Many of the reasons I was desperate for a co-founder evaporated with just $9k. To think I almost gave up half my company to save $9k would be a well learned lesson in frugality.
This is just one example of many of which I diverted my temptations to hire a co-founder. I built my “team” full of independent contractors and services. I found an excellent Ukrainian industrial designer, digital marketing geniuses in New York, intellectual property masters in San Diego, a team of marketing interns in Arizona and a Kickstarter protege from right here in San Francisco. I may be solo at the top of this hollow company, but I feel surrounded.
This is the same narrative we see over and over again with founders. It is scary to go at it alone, with every day bringing challenges that have never been crossed before. To dump just one of these hurdles onto a co-founder’s desk could help lessen the effects of entrepreneurial depression.
In the beginning, it is always easy to part with equity for a helping hand. When the finish line is so far away, it is hard to envision your idea as more than just an idea. But if I truly thought my idea, at the time, was worth $18k, it probably was not worth jumping out of the plane in the first place.
Also shared on Medium.
Hi, my name is Alexander Simone! Sometimes I like to pretend I'm an entrepreneur or designer to help enable my true passion for inventing. Being an inventor has been a lifelong obsession and I am just getting started! I am based in San Francisco where I founded Pronto Concepts Inc. We develop innovative products, including the world's fastest wine chiller.