The three things we ask of our founders

July 27, 2020

It maps very closely to what we at Assembler Labs ask our founders. We started out by not being very intentional about this -- showing it implicitly through our asks, our conversations, and our feedback. (In fact, I think our first two founders wouldn’t be able to tell you these are what we ask of them, though if you asked if we cared about these things, they’d say yes immediately.)

Going forward, our goal is to be very transparent and intentional with founders about this. These are the three things we find critically important for founders to do, especially in a studio setting, to be successful.

Do what you say you’re going to do

At its core, being a founder is about getting shit done. In fact, it’s about getting more done than anyone thinks possible. Which is why it’s critical that, if you say you’re going to do something, you do it.

This also breeds trust in a studio setting. I promise you we’ll do everything in our power to give a founder the highest likelihood of success, but if we can’t trust that you’ll do what you’re going to say to do, we won’t have a very long or successful relationship.

One note on doing what you say you’re going to do: you can’t sandbag in a startup. In a BigCo, it works to say “I can only get this one project done this quarter,” then meet it, and get high marks on a performance review. But in a startup, you need to get 10 different things done this quarter. So you have to set aggressive goals and hit those goals.

Developers (especially those from BigCos) do this worse than almost any other function. Because many developers have been trained that writing code is a creative exercise, and as such, it’s done when it’s done. But what they fail to recognize is (a) constraints often breed creativity, so setting an aggressive deadline for yourself is usually a good thing, and (b) speed is a competitive advantage.

Taking it a step further: the goals need to be based on what is required to win, nothing else. Then you have to do what you say you’re going to do.

Be coachable

No founder is perfect. In fact, most have many huge flaws. And all make mistakes, frequently. Luckily, we’re in a sick and twisted version of extreme baseball, as Jeff Bezos explains:

“We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.” - Jeff Bezos

So failure is okay. Mistakes are okay. Because the outcomes can be so big. But founders must still be coachable. Part of the reason why studios work is taking all of the accumulated experience of the studio over many businesses, hundreds or thousands of ideas, and multiple founders and applying that to avoid the same mistakes.

Being coachable is about being able to take critical feedback. We’re not shy about delivering feedback, which means the founder must be not shy about receiving the feedback.

Being coachable isn’t just about us delivering feedback, though. It’s also about the founder acting upon that feedback. Making changes, quickly -- or being upfront and saying they don’t believe that change is for the best and here’s why. But taking the feedback and not doing anything isn’t being coachable and is unacceptable.

A final note on being coachable: the coaching doesn’t just come from us in the studio. It must also come from yourself. If a founder isn’t constantly learning and show passion for the industry and for the process of startups, they’re not fully coachable.

There’s a wealth of information available on startups today. It’s almost insane and unbelievable. We live in amazing times. Founders should find it so easy to read (Twitter, books, articles, etc), listen (podcasts), and watch (YouTube, conferences, movies, tv shows). They just have to do it.

Put in the time and the effort

Which brings us to our last point: you have to put in the time and the effort. There are no shortcuts to building startups.

There’s a “pure number of hours” aspect to this, which is always hotly-contested. At Assembler Labs, we focus on output first, but we know that output is highly correlated with number of hours on the input. If you don’t believe this, tell us how you plan on making up for it. If the business requires the speed of working 60-80hrs/week regularly, but you’re only willing to put in 40hrs, we want to know how you’re going to get the same output in a shorter time.

The follow-up question will be “why aren’t you willing to put in more hours?” This question honestly has less to do with the hours themselves, and much more to do with understanding whether or not you’re all-in. Mentally and physically, our entire energy is in our studio and the companies that we spinout. We believe it’s required, and it’s also what we love. We only want to work with people who feel the same.

It’s likely that putting in the time and the effort will mean pushing yourself harder than you’ve ever pushed before, most especially if you come from a BigCo. It will require changes to your life. We expect you to take it upon yourself to make those changes. We’ve seen this mean moving in with roommates, moving out from roommates, going out less (not a problem in COVID times), etc. We don’t want to prescribe your life, of course, that’s on you. But we know it takes serious effort and may mean making changes. If it does, we expect you’ll put the effort in to doing so.

Closing thoughts

These are three really simple things we expect of founders. Just do what you say you’ll do, be coachable, and put in the effort and time. That’s it.

In practice, though, they are grueling and extremely difficult to navigate and implement. We expect hiccups along the way. We screw these up ourselves regularly, and fight to get them back.

Starting a startup isn’t easy, and we don’t try to make it seem glamorous. We loathe startup theater: the things that look cool (going to endless conferences, tech bro culture, etc) but don’t actually move the needle. I’d rather meet fewer potential founders extremely hungry to succeed than more founders who just think startups are cool.