Different types of risk

The idea that founders take on “risk” is a misleading generalization. It is far more informative to separate the specific types of risks that founders assume, including:

– Financing risk: You can’t raise money at various stages because you haven’t hit accretive milestones or your space isn’t appealing to investors.

– Product risk: You can’t translate your concept into a working and compelling product.

– Technology risk: You can’t build a good enough or, if necessary, breakthrough technology.

– Business development risk: You can’t get deals with other companies that you depend on to build or distribute your product.

– Market risk: Customers or users won’t want your product.

– Timing risk: You are too early or too late to the market.

– Margin risk: You build something people want but that you can’t defend, and therefore competitors will squeeze your margins.

At the early stage, the main way to mitigate these risks is to recruit great people as cofounders or early employees. You shouldn’t recruit people that will give you a high likelihood of reducing these risks. You should recruit people that give you an unfair advantage. You should try to win the game before it starts.

Startups are hard, and risky. But if you lump all the risks together, you are playing the lottery. Talented entrepreneurs identify specific risks and do everything they can to overcome them.

Between failure and Facebook

Recently, a friend was trying to recruit a programmer to join his early-stage startup. The programmer had just graduated from college and his impression of startups was shaped mostly by popular media. His main concern, he said, was: “What if we end up being the next MySpace instead of the next Facebook?”.

Of course, for those of us immersed in startup world, creating the next MySpace would be considered a huge success. MySpace was once the most visited website in the US and was acquired for $580M. It flamed out later under its corporate owner, but that happens to a lot of great startups.

Mainstream culture seems to depict startups as either being complete failures where everyone loses their shirts or else huge hits like Facebook. But the reality, as usual, lies in the middle: in 2010, according to Dow Jones, there were 522 venture-backed exits with a combined exit value of $53 billion – implying an average exit price of around $100M.

The best thing about startups is you get to work with great people on interesting projects, and can be successful by conventional metrics, even if no one outside of tech has ever heard of you or what you’ve built. There’s great stuff between failure and Facebook.

Recruiting programmers to your startup

Here are some things I’ve learned over the years about recruiting programmers* to startups. This is a big topic: many of the points I make briefly here could warrant their own blog posts, and I’m sure I’ve omitted a lot.

– The most important thing to understand is what motivates programmers. This is where having been a programmer yourself can be very helpful. In my experience programmers care about 1) working on interesting technical problems, 2) working with other talented people, 3) working in a friendly, creative environment, 4) working on software that ends up getting used by lots of people. Like everyone, compensation matters, but for programmers it is often a “threshold variable”. They want enough to not have to spend time worrying about money, but once an offer passes their minimum compensation threshold they’ll decide based on other factors.

– Software development is a creative activity and needs to be treated as such. Sometimes a programmer can have an idea on, say, the subway that can save weeks of work or add some great new functionality. Business people who don’t understand this make the mistake of emphasizing mechanistic metrics like the number of hours in the office and the number of bugs fixed per week. This is demoralizing and counterproductive. Of course if you are running a company you need to have deadlines, but you can do so while also being very flexible about how people reach them.

It is sometimes helpful to think of recruiting as 3 phases: finding candidates, screening candidates, and convincing candidates to join you.

– Finding means making contact with good candidates. There are no shortcuts here. You need to show up to schools, hackathons, meetups – wherever great programmers hang out. If your existing employees love their jobs they will refer friends. Try to generate inbound contacts by creating buzz around your company. If you have trouble doing that (it’s hard), try simple things like blogging about topics that are interesting to programmers.

– Screening. Great programmers love to program and will have created lots of software that wasn’t for their jobs or school homework. Have candidates meet and (bidirectionally) interview everyone they’ll potentially be working with. If the candidate has enough free time try to do a trial project. There are also more procedural things that can be useful like code tests (although they need to be done in a respectful way and they are more about getting to know how each side thinks than actually testing whether the candidate knows how to program (hopefully you know that by this stage)).

– Convincing them to join you. This is the hardest part. Great programmers have tons of options, including cofounding their own company. The top thing you need to do is convince them what you hopefully already believe (and have been pitching investors, press etc): that your company is doing something important and impactful. The next thing you need to do is convince them that your company is one that values and takes care of employees. The best way to do this is to have a track record of treating people well and offer those past employees as references.

A few things not to do: you will never beat, say, Google on perks or job security so don’t even bother to pitch those. You’ll never beat Wall Street banks or rich big companies on cash salary so don’t pitch that either. You’ll never beat cofounding a company on the equity grant, but you can make a good case that, with the right equity grant, the risk/reward trade off of less equity with you is worth it.

Finally, I’ve long believed that early-stage, funded startups systematically under-grant equity to employees. Programmers shouldn’t have to choose between owning a fraction of a percent of an early-stage funded company and owning 50% of an unfunded company they’ve cofounded. Naval Ravikant recently wrote a great post about this:

Post-traction companies can use the old numbers – you can’t. Your first two engineers? They’re just late founders. Treat them as such. Expect as much.

Making those first engineers “late cofounders” will dramatically increase your chances of recruiting great people. This is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for getting the recruiting flywheel spinning where great people beget more great people.

* As someone who personally programmed for 20 years including about 10 years professionally, I preferred to call myself a “programmer.” Some people prefer other words like “hacker” “developer”, “engineer” etc. I think the difference is just uninteresting nomenclature but others seem to disagree.

Showing up

Mark Twain famously quipped that “80 percent of life is showing up.” Running a startup, I’d say it’s more like 90 percent. For example, I frequently hear from founders how it’s hard to recruit programmers. It is indeed hard. But great programmers are out there, and can be found in places where other people simply aren’t showing up.

Back in 2005 when I was starting SiteAdvisor with Tom Pinckney (one of my cofounders at my last two startups and non-graduate of high school) we were trying to recruit great programmers. At the time, startups were certainly not the hot thing, especially on the East Coast. We were based in Boston so decided to spend time at MIT where we figured there must be smart programmers. We went to places like the Media Lab and basically just sat ourselves down at lunch counters and awkwardly introduced ourselves: “Hi, my name is Chris Dixon and this is Tom Pinckney and we are starting a company and would love to talk to you about it.” Most students ignored us or thought we were annoying. I remember one student staring at us quizzically saying “startups still exist?” Most of our trips were fruitless. At one point after a failed trip we were on the Redline back to our office in downtown Boston and joked, depressingly, that we felt so out of place that people looked at us like time travelers from the dot-com bubble.

Our first breakthough came after a series of trips when a particularly talented programmer/designer named Hugo Liu re-approached us and said something like “hey, actually I thought about it and your idea doesn’t suck.” Then his friend David Gatenby talked to about joining us. We eventually recruited Hugo and David along with a brilliant undergraduate Matt Gattis. We had finally broken through. Matt and Hugo now work with us at Hunch along with some of their friends from MIT they brought along.

People who say recruiting is easy are probably recruiting bad people. People who say recruiting is hard are right. People who say it is impossible just aren’t showing up enough.