Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants myst catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.

On passing the ball

As a teenager, I was not good at sport. I was neither strong nor particularly well coordinated. I didn’t see the point either. My family didn’t care, and the French schools I attended did not attach much value to physical prowess.

There were moments of shame and embarrassment when I was picked last for soccer or basketball team, or was first out on races and jumping contests. I could cope with it. I made it to the top bracket in some disciplines: 60m race, 400m race, disk throwing. They taught me that I had potential, if I could only play to my strengths. They were not popular, unfortunately, and we rarely practiced them.

Things changed in Grade 11, when we spent a term practicing volleyball. Fandom for a Japanese anime made me first interested in the game. I enjoyed its rhythmic structure. Each team is allowed three hits of the ball. Typically, the second is a pass to the front player, who jumps and smashes it over the net into the others’ camp.

I discovered I was very good at this middle touch. I was aware of the movements around me, precise enough in placing the ball, and happy to let a team-mate hit and score. My reputation as a good ‘passer’ quickly spread, and after a month, I was picked first in team selection.

I have not become a sports person. I neither watch, nor practice. There are many reasons for it. One of them is boorish worship of the last step. Score a goal, and you get all attention; passing the ball is hardly celebrated. Middle players are deploying complex strategies, interpreting complex patterns of movement in real time, building the ground for the final hit. Success is impossible without them. But kickers get the crown.

When good collective action, strategic passes and subtle decisions in the mid-field are discussed, replayed, and celebrated more than goal-scoring, then – maybe – I will start watching.