A Guide to Founders’ Focus by Stage

The following is a guest post by Yassine El Kachchani, CEO & Co-founder of Hidden Founders.

I’ve had a lot of discussions with would-be founders last year while working at Hidden Founders. What I noticed was that an alarming number of them ask the wrong questions and subsequently have the wrong focus.

This habit of not making sure that the question in mind is the right one and is the most pressing one seems benign in the early days. After all, doing this will just help you better grasp your product and come up with a plan for it, right?

This is wrong on so many levels. Time is the only asset you have when you are early stage. If you spend it on the wrong priorities, your overall progress will be shy. A fast-paced competitor launching months or years after you will crush you. You will become irrelevant in no time.

Keep in mind that a startup progresses through stages. And since founders have very limited resources, everything that needs to be done at any particular stage derives from identifying the most important question and prioritizing it.

So why do first-time founders fail every time at prioritization? I think one of the reasons is founders’ state of mind the very moment following their decision to give entrepreneurship a go. In a fraction of a second, they make a huge switch: from fear and hesitation to high excitement. While it is indeed a big decision, it has a psychological cost attached to it: this roller-coaster can sometimes give the founder the sentiment that the hard part of building a business (namely quitting their job) has been done. Next, they blindingly keep their eyes on the prize, which usually means having a running operation, and forget to pay attention to the tiny milestones and small achievable hills to get there.

Clarity is key here. Founders need to empty their head from all the future what-if’s and focus on one, and only one, milestone at a time if they want to achieve it. Future goals should stay blurry and melt in the background. Once milestones are defined and the spotlight is on the first one, the next exercise is to list and rank current stage-related questions, and then divide attention accordingly.

As an attempt to help our Hidden Founders applicants (and anybody who is about to start a startup), I tried to compile a generic list of questions I believe founders should ask at each stage. Obviously, it is far from being a go-to list or a fits-all-scenarios list. It is barely something to use if a founder is willing to challenge his pre-conceived master plan.

A stage can go from a few weeks to a couple of months depending on the founder’s speed of execution. Transition from one stage to the other usually requires that the previously prioritized question has been answered and validated. It also requires that the prerequisites for the next stage are ready.

Stage 0: Is this a true MVP scope?

The striking thing in my opinion about the Lean Startup methodology introduced by Eric Ries is the number of people who say they read the book and understand what an MVP is and yet still fail to scope it well for their products.

Seriously, why build such a big scope when:

  • You are not sure there is a Market for what you are building
  • You are bootstrapping your venture with your own money and can’t afford outsourcing
  • You don’t have a CTO co-founder
  • You probably won’t get 5 users to try your product the first week you launch

I’d guess MVP-ing is an exercise that needs practice. If that is true, the least a founder can do is to be careful: avoid assuming that what you came up with initially is a correct scope and verify it with experienced people from your entourage. Everything that you will be doing after this MVP scoping stage is dependent on how correct the answer to this question was.

Stage 1: Is he/she the right person to fill that position?

A product idea is the main prerequisite for everything happening next. It gives birth to what we call a pitch, which will be the starting point to every conversation.

Conversations at this stage are usually with people who are likely to contribute to a startup’s early success. Co-founders, lead engineers, and growth people are the first to jump in. If one of them is not the right fit for the young company, irreversible harm can be caused.

A bad fit won’t be productive. They won’t over-deliver and most importantly they will negatively affect the others. The exact opposite of what you should be looking for: someone joining early and being a driving force for all the fast coming future set-backs and challenges.

By failing to give priority to this HR question, a founder is basically gambling with the already slim success rate a startup has.

Stage 2: Does the user come back?

This stage is where the industry gets to test the founder. Think about it, until now, all a founder had to do was define a proper scope and be a smooth talker. Now this stage is where they get to be the most vulnerable and share their solutions with the market.

By putting a good users’ feedback loop, analyzing everything that orbits around the product, and failing multiple times till getting to a spot where users are coming back, a founder gets to earn a spot in the startup world. A well-deserved spot.

This is the only way to prove the product is needed, and in my opinion the true start date of the company. Can you seriously think of a more important question at that stage?

Stage 3: Is this the right architecture?

At stage 0, a founder focuses on building a product and getting it to market as fast as possible. He is not supposed to answer any technical dependency questions. But at what I refer to as Stage 3,” a founder should take the time to review the foundations.

The goal now is to avoid building upon a bad architecture and progressively covering technical debt. Anything that can potentially harm your product’s future iterations and new releases should be subject to a meticulous review.

What can possibly over-shadow product stability insurance after a founder has made something people want?

Stage 4: Do users tell their friends?

If a founder came up with a solution to my problem, it is already a big win for him and I both. If he/she can make me love how they properly solved my pain to the point that I am telling everyone I know about it, they will win a fast-tracked ticket to the billion dollars club.

Cracking the viral loop for any product is crucial. For a startup without deep pockets, acquiring users organically is not optional, it is the only way to stay alive and in control of burn rate. It also enables the company to eat up market share at high speed and boost positioning vis-a-vis the competition.

This stage, a founder has a great team and a solid product. When these two go public early-on, they tend to attract unwanted attention. My reaction as a founder would be to find ways to increase my growth exponentially in order to signal market authority.

And no, Is a Ping Pong table going to attract better talent and boost hiring?,” is not a more important question at that stage.

Stage 5: Can we scale?

Scalability is a founder’s nightmare. It is that problem they have in mind from day one that may or may not occur but knowing that chances are the company will fail before ever hitting it helps the founder sleep.

Think about it, most young founders never had the chance to live and experience large scalability issues and overcome them, hence their fear of the unknown.

What a founder gets as an output from the previous viral stage is fast growing traffic and unprecedented load. This leaves no time to think about anything else than whether the product will crack under pressure or not. The good news is, stage 3 helped ease on the current mission: our ideal founder did review product architecture and did tackle technical debt. Now focus goes to the infrastructure.

Stage 6: Where is the money?

This is the fund-raising/monetization/bootstrapping stage. Anything that involves cash injections. If a founder makes it to this stage, I am positive he/she doesn’t need this post anymore. Any further advice on how to prioritize would be irrelevant.

All that’s left is congrats and good luck wishes.

Clarity Stop

By the way, these are the hardest questions to crack in my opinion, so if you came up with answers for any of these in less than 24 hours, you might want to reconsider.

Keep in mind that business is personal and unique to every founder. These questions and their stage-ranking is probably going to be different depending on a founder’s skills, past experiences and the industry they’re trying to disrupt.

If founders simply manage to get clarity while executing upon their vision, they will be unstoppable and ahead of their peers in each and every stage.

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