Letter 45: Things I Have Learned As A First-Time Founder

Oh the mistakes I have made...

I had been planning to write about World Coin this week, as it seems like the thing to talk about. Alas, a bout of food poisoning caught while traveling through India has made the prospect of releasing a vigorously and rigorously researched report entirely.. unappetizing.

So instead I am reflecting on the wildness that has been the last 21 months since I launched my first company. A web3 company. An NFT company. An NFT project. A community. A thing. A thing without a roadmap.

I have made an astonishing amount of mistakes. This is not a bad thing, nor a surprising thing, though. Mistakes are good. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Mistakes mean you tried something for which there was an element of risk, or uncertainty. Something new, usually.

Most of us don’t really make mistakes writing our names, eating a slice of pizza, taking photos with our phones, etc. We make mistakes when we try something that we are not well practiced in, like, oh, I dunno, launching a company at the height of one of the greatest speculative bubbles of our generation.

I write all this to help current founders, future founders, wannabe-founders, and even non-founders. There are hopefully lessons here for all.

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Okay, back to our regularly schedule programming. In no particular order:

I Would Have A Co-Founder

Having a team is amazing, and having a team as amazing as my team, is even more amazing. But there is a fundamental difference between hiring people and paying them and that relationship dynamic, and having someone with as-much-skin-in-the-game as you. Someone who has been there from the very beginning as an equal partner in the entire operation.

Not that you can’t hire excellent people (I have, and am extremely grateful to my team). But it is simply a different ballgame when you own the company, or half the company, and your priorities will generally shift accordingly.

More than that though, being a solo founder can be… lonely. I am fortunate to have a wonderfully open dialogue with my team and we talk honestly about a lot of things that I imagine other founders might not want to discuss with their teams, and I am fortunate to have amazing friends and peers that are also founders that I can chat with about “founder problems”. But at the end of the day, there will always be some things that nobody will be able to understand unless they are in more-or-less my exact shoes, as a co-founder might be.

I can’t actually compare any of this to having a co-founder (or multiple co-founders), and for all I know, in 10 years time I will write another post about why I prefer being a solo founder after having tried the alternative.

But for now, my advice, would be to try having a co-founder before trying to launch your first company as a solo founder. Ideally find someone who plugs your gaps; with experience you don’t have, and expertise you don’t have, and who can wear many hats.

I Would Spend Less Money On Lawyers and Accountants

To be clear: spending money on good lawyers and accounts is some of the best money you can possibly spend.

Good, being the operative word.

Hiring lawyers, accountants, or whatever other professional is not a skill most people have in life. Like all skills, it is naturally one that starts out bad and gets better with experience.

The thing about a lot of these professionals is that they will happily say the right words and take your money and deliver you what they said they would; but they might not necessarily always say that you have a better option, or that you should go to some other professional to get the work done.

This is especially true in web3 where so much of our territory is new. It can be difficult to find trustworthy, ethical, and reasonable professionals who can do great work. Thankfully, it is not impossible, and I have been fortunate enough to find my way to some amazing lawyers, accountants, and other experts. I happily pay them for their work.

Unfortunately, I also paid a bunch of other people for doing a bunch of work that really didn’t need to be done, or could have been done at a fraction of the cost, or even without any cost.

Live and learn. I think this is a fairly common first time founder-learning.

I Wouldn’t Chase Shiny Things

Ahhh to be young and naive, like me, a year ago (I am certainly still naive, just perhaps slightly less so in a couple of areas).

The market is bullish. Things are looking great. Everything seems to be working. People are happy.

A team member has an idea: “hey, what if we created this initiative?”

SURE! That sounds amazing! Let’s do it.

Another project reaches out: “would love to partner with you! let’s set up a call?”

SURE! That sounds amazing. Let’s work something out.

You see what another company is doing on Twitter and like it.

HEY TEAM! Look what these people are doing! Let’s try do that too!

You get the point.

In isolation, none of these seem like particularly dangerous paths to go down. Listening to a team member, taking a call with a potential partner, or finding inspiration from other companies.

And in insolation, none of these are particularly dangerous. If these are one-offs, then great, it’s good to try some things now and then.

The problem however becomes when you start saying “yes” to everything. When you think “oh it’s no big deal if we commit 1% of our resources to seeing if this is gonna work out”.

1% becomes 2% becomes 3% becomes 10% becomes 50%.

It adds up, quickly, and it is cancerous to a company to split your focus so much. Especially for a startup.

shoutout to Daniel Tenner aka Swombat for sharing this w/ me

I Would Stick To 1 Core Focus

This is obviously heavily correlated with the previous point. Chasing shiny things makes it far more likely you’re going to do 20 things averagely rather than 1 thing excellently.

At ZenAcademy, we started out unlike most startups in the world, and also unlike most projects in the NFT space (especially in 2021). We launched a membership token to a community, with no roadmap. It was an experiment from the outset. The only real thread tying us together were a desire from me to create educational content and help people along the way.

In truly hilarious hindsight, it is no wonder things got rough for a while when I almost entirely stopped creating educational content, lol. I was busy chasing other things, and lost sight of the single core mission I had from day 1.

  • Oooo let’s do some art drops, that sounds fun (it really was to be fair).

  • Let’s also look into consulting, perhaps we should be a consulting business.

  • Maybe we could invest as a group, offering deal flow to our members… that could work.

  • Maybe let’s broaden our content from educational, and try and mix in media and entertainment. That seems to work well for other people. Good sponsorship money there! Let’s try it.

  • How about IRL events? Should we host an event? ZenCon? ZenRetreats?

These are all ideas we have had and put varying degrees of effort and energy into (along with literally dozens more), all at the expense of regularly creating really excellent educational content.

One additional enlightening thing about all of the above is that I told our community our plans all along, and was generally met with nothing but excitement. Most of the team was also very excited by all of these ideas and prospects.

I do not think there is anything at all wrong with people being excited by these ideas, but I do think that most people have never run a company and don’t have the insight to see this as “running around like a bit of a headless chicken”. Of the few that did have that insight, almost none would actually communicate it since either they didn’t care enough, or they didn’t care to be contrarian. Totally fine, and their prerogatives, of course.

A few people though did communicate these thoughts to me at various stages, and I am forever grateful to them for that. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, and I thank you for being honest with me.

All this being said, I do not think it entirely bad that we attempted many of these things. There are universes in which we discover that our true calling was to become a consulting firm, and pivot the business to revolve around that, and had we not tried it, we wouldn’t have known that that was not what we were meant to be doing.

We have now come full circle and are building the business around educational content. Shocking, I know. I am, perhaps surprisingly, extraordinarily grateful for all of the things we attempted that did not work. They have given me immeasurably stronger conviction now that what we are focusing on, is the right thing to be focusing on.

The only thing to be focusing on.

Some More Words On Regret

I do not have regrets in life.

Ironic, I know, being the person who wrote about Infinite Regret. I hope though that those who have read Infinite Regret understood my position on the topic, even if I did not spell it out directly then:

To regret is to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over something in the past. It is utterly useless to feel this way, because we cannot change or control the past. So there is no point in having regret.

Even more to the point: even if things had happened differently, there is no guarantee that your life would better for it. The road to somewhere is paved with people that won the lottery and ended up miserable and broke.

You wish you bought a token that pumped to Valhalla, but for all you know, had you bought it, it would have dumped to Hel. Or it would have pumped and you’d have used the money to gamble on something else and lost it all and felt worse. Or spent it all on drugs and overdosed, or some other terrible fate.

Instead of regret, I try to learn from the past. I look at events that have transpired and think about what I might do differently in the future. This is basically the opposite of Regret. Anti-Regret, if you will.

Regret is about wishing you did things differently in the past (which you cannot change / control).

Anti-Regret is taking that feeling of wishing you did things differently in the past, as an indicator to think about how you might do things differently in the future (which you can change / control).

Final Words On Mistakes And Reciprocality

I have made many mistakes, and I am sure to make many more. That is okay, that is life. I am sure you too have made many mistakes, and you too will make many more.

Mistakes are inevitable, and they are good things.

They are opportunities to learn; to improve.

There’s a concept in poker known as reciprocality, which I learned about from Tommy Angelo. The idea is that you don’t make money in poker by doing something a certain way; you make money in poker by doing something a certain way that is an improvement over how others might do it, were they in your shoes.

Everyone gets dealt pocket aces, but some people will, on average, make more money the times they are dealt aces than others would. They are better at extracting value. Or they are better at folding their pocket aces when they are beat.

What I am getting at is: everyone will make mistakes in business, in crypto, in trading, in poker, in life. Everyone will be in similar situations, all the time, all around the world.

Every day there are people straddling the decision of co-founder or no co-founder.

Every day there are people struggling with hiring lawyers and accountants.

Every day there are people with shiny things tempting them.

Every day there are people with new ideas to focus on tempting them.

Every day there are people who feel regret, and who make mistakes.

The people who will truly excel in business, in poker, and in life, are the ones who can face these hurdles — the ones we all face — and come out on top. The ones who can learning from their own experience, and learn from the experience from others.

Sharpening their axe. Honing their skills. Becoming the best version of themself they can, and bringing their A-game as often as they can.

Making mistakes over and over again, getting knocked down over and over again, failing over and over again, but getting back up each and every time and focusing on what can be done next rather than wallowing on that which cannot be changed.

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