10 ways to avoid becoming a start-up founder

It’s all rather like hard work, and so best avoided at pretty much all costs.

In last week’s article, I announced the start-up, Profian, for which we’ve just got funding, and of which I’m the co-founder and CEO. This week, I want to give you some tips so that you can avoid the same fate that befell me: becoming a founder, a role which is time-consuming and stressful. Just getting funding can take (did take, in our case) months of uncertainty and risk, and then, when (if) you get funding, there are the responsibilities towards your employees, your investors, government, the law and all the other pieces that whirl around your head (and into your inbox). It’s all rather like hard work, and so best avoided at pretty much all costs. Here’s my guide to doing that.

1. Avoid interesting work

Probably the biggest reason that I fell into the trap of starting a new company was that I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than working on Enarx, the open source project for which Profian is custodian, and on which we will be basing our products and services. I’d had other responsibilities in my previous job, but Enarx was what I cared about the most, and the idea of giving up working on it was unconscionable – I just had to do it. So started the quest to find a way to continue working on Enarx, and to do it full-time.

2. Don’t be passionate

It’s also probably best to avoid getting too excited about what you do. That way, you can give up after a while, and stop bothering your family and friends with your annoying obsession. Most importantly, investors are much less likely to give you money (not to mention customers much less likely to buy your products and services) if you’re basically luke-warm about the whole idea.

3. Work with dull people who you dislike

If you have the misfortune to enjoy spending time with your co-founder(s) and founding team, you’ll have less interest in working with them, not to mention working through complex and sometimes awkward topics such as how to split equity, who can absorb upfront expenses before funding comes through, when it’s appropriate for either or any of you to take some holiday (and for how long), and even more important questions like what colour your logo should be, and what font family best defines your brand. If you don’t like your team or co-founders, or find their company uninteresting, you are much more likely to give up on working with them, hence avoiding getting too far down the start-up road.

4. Ignore customer need

You may not have actual, paying customers early on (we don’t, yet), but at some point, you are probably going to need to get some. And one of the things that investors seem completely fixated on, in my experience, is how you’ll get revenue (very customers). The investors seem to think that you should listen to customers and gear what you’ll be producing to their (the customers’) needs and requirements. This suggests that your vision for the company should be diluted – nay, adulterated – by the market, as opposed to what you want, and what you think should be happening. In the very worst case, your investors may require you to talk to actual people from actual possible customers. If you can ignore their views, you’re much less likely to have to accept funding, and can give up much earlier.

5. Assume you know best

Related to our last point, if you know best, then you don’t need to take advice from anyone. Possible investors love providing their expertise and experience, and there’s a wealth of material in blogs, wikis, podcasts, news articles, LinkedIn posts and beyond which allow you to tap the collected wisdom of thousands of people who’ve trodden similar paths before you. The excuse you can give is that they can’t all be right, so rather than listening to the various advice you’re offered (for free!), reading, listening to and watching the various sources and then taking the time to sift through them all and work out what’s relevant and useful, you might as well assume that you know best (and always have done), and keep plugging away at what you’re already doing. This is almost guaranteed to remove any chance of funding (let alone anyone wanting to work with you).

6. Set your pitch deck in stone

Before I started on this journey, I’d heard about pitch decks: they’re what you show to possible investors to try to interest them in working with you. They should be short, punchy and lacking in extraneous information. I could have suggested long, waffly decks with random cat pictures and irrelevant market sector data, but I think that an even safer way of avoiding attracting interest for your start-up is to create a one-off pitch deck right at the beginning of the process and then never to change it. This is related to the previous point about knowing best, but the pitch deck is such an important tool in the journey towards creating your start-up that I felt it was worth its own section. As you learn more (well, assuming you do – see last point) and get more advice, the way you present your great idea for the company, if not the idea itself, will change. Having a pitch deck which reflects this new, improved thinking, will only aid you on your path, and as we’re trying to avoid such a dangerous move, you’ll want to have a single pitch deck, crafted at the beginning of your quest, and completely immune from improvements or changes of any kind.

7. Tell investors what you assume they want to hear

This one is a little counter-intuitive. You might assume that telling people what they want to hear is a sure-fire way to ensure that they give you money, and will therefore make you more likely to end up as a founder. But no! If you tell people what you think they want to hear, rather than what you actually believe, investors will either see through you (most of them have met many, many founders and heard many, many pitches – they’re not stupid) and reject you, or you’ll end up with a bunch of investors who actually think you’re doing something completely different to what you want to do, and things will fall apart as soon as it becomes clear that you’re not aligned. This is likely to be around the time that you’re getting into the nitty-gritty of your business plan or agreeing final terms, and is a pretty safe way of guaranteeing that everything will implode just in time to stop you having to becoming a founder.

8. Reject support from friends and family

I mentioned, right at the top of this article, that the journey to founding a start-up was long and stressful. Well, there’s a possibility that, from time to time, friends and family will want to discuss things with you, and offer you support to get through the hard times. Taking this sort of support significantly reduces that likelihood that you’ll burn-out before the process is complete, as they may help you to keep some perspective, provide emotional support and generally keep your mental health on an even keel. Crashing and burning because you’ve failed to accept support offered by people outside the process, who can see things in a different light, where the entire world isn’t bounded solely by just incorporating the company, getting through the funding round, hiring your first employees, filing initial tax returns, setting up bank accounts and the rest, is an easy way to avoid becoming a founder. As an extra bonus, failing to involve your close family (spouse, partner, etc.) in the decisions about financial risk, likely time pressures, etc., is a recipe for family break-up if ever I heard one.

9. Remember it’s all about you

Who knows best? You (see above). Who’s running this show? You, again. Who’s this all about? You. Other co-founders, employees, investors, customers (again, see above) are incidental to the main event, which is you, the “hero founder” who will carry the company through thick and thin, providing the vision and resources to succeed, no matter what. This is the attitude you need if you want to alienate everyone around you (including family and friends, see above), and cause all your possible allies to desert you. Working as a collaborative team is so trendy and 21st Century: who needs support and buy-in when you have the drive to make it all happen yourself? Well, the answer will be you, as you won’t have any funding, employees or customers – but that’s what we were trying to avoid in the first place, right?

10. Don’t take any time off

You can fail to do all of the above, ignoring my advice and setting yourself up for a collaborative, well-funded, supported, successful company and still fail with this one, simple trick: make your entire life – every waking moment, every dream, every action, every thought and every word – about the start-up. Find no time for anything else. Become unhealthily obsessed with the company to the exclusion of all other. And you will fail. Taking time off would help recharge your passion, give you insights into other people’s views, allow you to accept support from friends and family and give you a sense of perspective: all things we’re trying avoid in our quest not to become the founder of a start-up. Refusing to take time off might seem like a way to concentrate all your efforts on succeeding, but in the longer term, it’s the opposite.

Summary

I find that writing “how not to” articles is a useful and fun way to provide a different perspective on sometimes important topics. I can’t pretend that the road to start-up foundership has been easy, nor that I’ve avoided taking some of the advice above, but it’s certainly exciting and worthwhile. And I wish I’d seen this article, or one like it, before I started.

Eat, Sleep, Wake (nothing but…)

At least I’m not checking my email every minute of every hour of every day.

If your mind just filled in the ellipsis (the “…”) in the title of this article with “you”, then you may have been listening to the Bombay Bicycle Club, a British band. I’ve recently seen them live, and then were good – what’s more, it’s a great (and very catch) song. “You” is probably healthy. If, on the other hand, your mind filled in the ellipsis with “work”, then, well we – or rather, you – have a problem.

When I wake up in the morning, one of the first things I do – like many of you, my dear readers, I suspect – is reach for my mobile phone. One of the first things I do on unlocking it is check my email. Specifically, my work email. Like many of us, I find it convenient to keep my work email account on my personal phone. I enjoy the flexibility of not being tied to my desk throughout the working day, and fancy myself important enough that I feel that people may want to contact me during the day and expect a fairly quick reply. Equally, I live in the UK and work with people across CET (an hour earlier than me) to Eastern US time (5 hours after me), often correspond with people on Pacific US time (8 hours after me), and sometimes in other timezones, too. In order to be able to keep up with them, and not spend 12 hours or so at my desk, I choose to be able to check for incoming emails wherever I am – which is wherever my phone is. So I check email through the day – and to almost last thing at night.

This is not healthy. I know this – as do my family. It is also not required. I know this – as do my colleagues. In fact, my colleagues and my family all know that it’s neither healthy nor required. I also know that I have a mildly addictive personality, and that, if I allowed myself to do so, I would drown in my work, always checking email, always writing new documents, always reviewing other people’s work, always, always, always on my phone: eat, sleep, wake…

In order to stop myself doing this, I make myself do other things. These aren’t things I don’t want to do – it’s just that I would find excuses not to do them if I could. I run (slowly and badly, up to 5 kilometres) 2-3 times a week. I read (mainly, but not exclusively, science fiction). I game (Elite Dangerous, TitanFall 2 (when it’s not being DDoSed), Overwatch, Civilization (mainly V, Call to Power), and various games on my phone), I listen to, and occasionally watch, cricket. And recently, I’ve restarted a hobby from my early teenage years: I’m assembling a model airplane (badly, though not as badly as I did when I was younger). I force myself to take time to do these things. I’m careful to ensure that they don’t interfere with work calls, and that I have time to get “actual” work done. I keep block of time where I can concentrate on longer tasks, requiring bouts of concentration. But I know that my other work actually benefits when I force myself to take time out, because a few minutes away from the screen, at judicious points, allows me to step back and recharge a bit.

I know that I’m a little odd in having lots of activities – hobbies, I guess – that I enjoy (I’ve only listed a few above). Other people concentrate on one, and rather than interspersing blocks of non-work time into their day, have these blocks of time scheduled outside their core working hours. One friend I know cycles for hours at a time (his last Strava entry was a little over 100km (60 miles) and a little under 3 and a half hours) – an activity which would be difficult to fit in between meetings for most working routines. Others make the most of their commute (yes, some people do commute still) to listen to podcasts, for instance. What’s in common here is a commitment to the practice of not working.

I realise that being able to do this is a luxury not shared by all. I likewise realise that I work in an industry (IT) where there is an expectation that senior people will be available at short notice for many hours of the day – something we should resist. But finding ways of not working through the day is, for me, a really important part of my working – it makes me a more attentive, better worker. I hesitate to call this “work-life balance”, because, honestly, I’m not sure that it is a balance, and I need to keep tweaking it. But at least I’m not checking my email every minute of every hour of every day.

Intentional laziness

Identifying a time and then protecting that time is vital.

Over the past year[1], since Covid-19 struck us, one of the things that has been a notable is … well, the lack of notable things. Specifically, we’ve been deprived of many of the occasions that we’d use to mark our year, or to break the day-to-day grind: family holidays, the ability to visit a favourite restaurant, festivals, concerts, sporting events, even popping round to enjoy drinks or a barbecue at a friend’s house. The things we’d look forward to as a way of breaking the monotony of working life – or even of just providing something a bit different to a job we actively enjoy – have been difficult to come by.

This has led to rather odd way of being. It’s easy either to get really, really stuck into work tasks (whether that’s employed work, school work, voluntary work or unpaid work such as childcare or household management), or to find yourself just doing nothing substantive for long stretches of time. You know: just scrolling down your favourite social media feed, playing random games on your phone – all the while feeling guilty that you’re not doing what you should be doing. I’ve certainly found myself doing the latter from time to time when I feel I should be working, and have overcompensated by forcing myself to work longer hours, or to check emails at 10pm when I should get thinking about heading to bed, for instance. So, like many of us, I think, I get stuck into one of two modes:

  1. messing around on mindless tasks, or
  2. working longer and harder than I should be.

The worse thing about the first of these is that I’m not really relaxing when I’m doing them, partly because much of my mind is on things which I feel I ought to be doing.

There are ways to try to fix this, one of which is to be careful about the hours you work or the tasks you perform, if you’re more task-oriented in the role you do, and then to set yourself non-work tasks to fill up the rest of the time. Mowing the lawn, doing the ironing, planting bulbs, doing the shopping, putting the washing out – the tasks that need to get done, but which you might to prefer to put off, or which you just can’t quite find time to do because you’re stuck in the messing/working cycle. This focus on tasks that actually need to be done, but which aren’t work (and divert you from the senseless non-tasks) has a lot to be said for it, and (particularly if you live with other people). It’s likely to provide social benefits as well (you’ll improve the quality of the environment you live in, or you’ll just get shouted at less), but it misses something: it’s not “down-time”.

By down-time, I mean time set aside specifically not to do things. It’s a concept associated with the word “Sabbath”, an Anglicisation of the Hebrew word “shabbat”, which can be translated as “rest” or “cessation”. I particularly like the second translation (though given my lack of understanding of Hebrew, I’m just going to have to accept the Internet’s word for the translation!), as the idea of ceasing what you’re doing, and making a conscious decision to do so, is something I think that it’s easy to miss. That’s true even in normal times, but with fewer markers in our lives for when to slow down and take time for ourselves – a feature of many of our lives in the world of Covid-19 – it’s all too simple just to forget, or to kid ourselves that those endless hours of brainless tapping or scrolling are actually some sort of rest for our minds and souls.

Whether you choose a whole day to rest/cease every week, set aside an hour after the kids have gone to bed, get up an hour early, give yourself half an hour over lunch to walk or cycle or do something else, it doesn’t matter. What I know I need to do (and I think it’s true of others, too), is to practice intentional laziness. This isn’t the same as doing things which you may find relaxing to some degree (I enjoy ironing, I know people who like cleaning the kitchen), but which need to be done: it’s about giving yourself permission not to do something. This can be really, really hard, particularly if you care for other people, have a long commute or a high pressure job, but it’s also really important for our longer-term well-being.

You also need to plan to be lazy. This seems counter-intuitive, at least to me, but if you haven’t set aside time and given yourself permission to relax and cease your other activities, you’ll feel guilty, and then you won’t be relaxing properly. Identifying a time to read a book, watch some low-quality boxsets, ring up a friend for a gossip on the phone or just have a “sneaky nap”, and then protecting that time is worthwhile. No – it’s more than worthwhile: it’s vital.

I’m aware, as I write this, that I’m in the very privileged position of being able to do this fairly easily[2], when for some people, it’s very difficult. Sometimes, we may need to defer these times and to plan a weekend away from the kids, a night out or an evening in front of the television for a week, or even a month or more from now. Planning it gives us something to hold on to, though: a break from the “everyday-ness” which can grind us down. But if we don’t have something to look forward to, a time that we protect, for ourselves, to be intentionally lazy, then our long-term physical, emotional and mental health will suffer.


1 – or two years, or maybe a decade. No-one seems to know.

2 – this doesn’t mean that I do, however.

Taking some time

I’m going to practice what I preach, and not write.

I’m going to practice what I preach, this week, and not write a full article. I’ve had a stressful and busy few weeks, including needing to spend some extra time with the family (nothing scary or earth-shattering – we just needed some family time), and I think the best thing for me to do today is not spend time writing an article. Let me point you instead at some I’ve written in the past.

On self-care:

On security:

On trust:

Keep safe, and look after yourself, dear reader!

Bringing your emotions to work

An opportunity to see our colleagues as more “human”.

We’ve all seen the viral videos of respected experts, working from home, who are being interviewed for a news programme, only to be interrupted by a small child who then proceeds to embarrass them, whilst making the rest of us laugh. Since the increase in working from home brought on by Covid-19, it has become quite common to see similar dramas acted out on our own computer screens as colleagues struggle with children – and sometimes adults – turning up unexpectedly in front of the camera. We tend to laugh these occurrences off – quite rightly – and to be aware that they are often much more embarrassing for the affected party than for the rest of the participants. In all of the situations that I have witnessed where this has happened, the other members of the video conference have been shown understanding both of the fact that the incident occurred at all, but also of the frustration and embarrassment of the affected party.

This is all as it should be, but I think that we have a larger lesson to learn here. The emotions evidenced by this sort of incident are obvious and, what is more, it is usually entirely clear what has caused them: we have, after all, just seen the drama unfold in front of us. What I think I am also seeing, partly due to the broadly shared experiences of lock-down, is a better understanding that there are frustrations and emotions that occur due to events which occur off-camera, and that people need to be given space to manage those as much as any other, more obvious issue. Taking time at the beginning of a call to ask a colleague – or even someone from a different organisation – how things are going, how they’re coping, and what’s on their mind – has become much more commonplace than it was when most of us spent most of our time in offices. An acknowledgement of the impact of these trials and tribulations that everybody is facing has become much more acceptable in a work context, because the separation between the work context and the home context is become, for many, so blurred that that are almost indistinguishable.

What is astonishing about this is that we all know, and have always known, if we are honest with ourselves, that these trials and tribulations have always been there. What we seem to have believed is that because there are two separate spaces for most people who are not remote workers – the work environment and the home environment – then everybody should somehow magically be able to compartmentalise their feelings and emotions into corresponding separate boxes.

This was always a fiction, and, more, a self-evident one, which only ever worked in one direction. All families and partners know that there are occasions when a frustrating day at work will leave someone annoyed and upset on their return home. Equally, we expect to celebrate work successes when we arrive back with our families. But while telling work colleagues about the birth of niece, or the arrival of a new puppy, has been seen as just about acceptable, “burdening” them with news about a sick child or the impact of a major flood in the bathroom, both of which may be a major stressor in our lives, has often been seen as “unprofessional”.

Yesterday, my wife and I had to take our dog for emergency surgery[1]. Not only did this have an impact on my ability to attend a meeting, but I was also aware that my ability to function fully at work was impaired. I’m very fortunate to work at a company (Red Hat) where the culture is strongly supportive in dealing with such emergencies, and so it was: colleagues were ready to go out of their way to help, and this morning, one in particular was very forgiving of a rather confused technical question that I asked yesterday evening. I’m pretty sure that the same would have been the case outside the Covid-19 lockdown, but I was cheered (and helped) by their reactions. My emotions and ability to function in this case were due to an obvious and acute event, rather than a set of less visible or underlying conditions or events. Instances of the latter, however, are no less real, nor any less debilitating than instances of the former, but we are generally expected to hide them, at least in work context.

My plea – which is not new, and not original – is that as we fashion a “new normal” for our working lives, we create an environment where expressing and being honest about all parts of our lives – home, work and beyond – is welcomed and encouraged. I am not asking that we should expect colleagues to act as unpaid councillors, or that explosions of anger in meetings should suddenly become acceptable, but, instead, that we get better at not pretending that we are emotionless automata at work, able (and required) to compartmentalise our home lives from our work lives.

There are benefits to such an approach, not the least of which are the positive mental health effects of not “bottling up” our emotions[2]. But an opportunity to see our colleagues as more “human” can lead to better, more honest and empathetic relationships, as well as an increased resilience for businesses and organisations which are able to flex and bend to accommodate tensions and issues in people’s lives as the norm becomes to “chip in” and support colleagues who are struggling, as well as celebrating with them when they are joyful.

There are tensions here, limits of behaviour, and support structures which need to be put in place, but a honest and more rounded person, I believe, is a better and more understanding colleague, and leads to better, more diverse and higher-functioning workplaces.


1 – to fix a slipped disk. Initial signs are that the operation went well.

2 – I want to acknowledge and note that mental health issues are complex and need special management and treatment: something I have neither the expertise nor space to address in this article. I am, however, strongly in favour of more openness and less stigmatising of mental health issues, by which the vast majority of us will be affected – first or second hand – at some point in our lives. I know that I have.