An Honest Reflection on Founding a VC-backed Startup in Under 10 weeks

In early January 2020, I found myself lying next to a swimming pool in Bali, cold beer in hand, ready to hit ‘send’ on an email effectively handing in my 3-months notice. A tough moment considering I had loved my role, the responsibility I carried, the people I worked with, and the mission we were on. I knew, though, this is what I needed to do to escape my comfort zone. Fortunately for me, I had already lined up an opportunity to head up operations for an up-and-coming Series-A startup back in London. All seemed smooth-sailing. Until, I arrived back in London, sunkissed from a glorious Summer holiday to a world sent into a mass frenzy thanks to the global pandemic.

Once the pandemic had come into play, the world was smothered by uncertainty. Yet for some reason, I felt the urge to meet this with even more uncertainty. After a few conversations with my close circle of family and friends, I had come to the conclusion that a Series-A startup was too ‘established’ and what I really wanted was to try my hand at starting my own venture from scratch. That’s when I decided to join, one of the world’s most active early-stage VC firms investing at the ground level. The only small catch to join the Antler cohort — I had to move to Norway to do so. What seemed petrifying at the time, turned out to be one of the best decisions I could make. After all, I firmly believe one should always try to seek out and embrace uncertainty until it becomes familiar. Thankfully, my fiancé Gigi also possesses a ridiculously high-risk tolerance, and so with very little deliberation, we found ourselves on a plane to Oslo.

How The Antler Oslo Program Works In A Nutshell

A cohort of ~50 technical, commercial, and domain founders (across Property, Energy & Mobility) are brought together for an initial 10-week period. Each aspiring founder has their early startup journey de-risked slightly with the hands-on support from a phenomenal program team, as well as a small stipend to help keep the lights on, literally.

The founders are put through their paces taking part in intense 24-48 hour sprints where they’re given a series of problem statements by large corporations and told to pick one, and then develop and present a solution to an audience and panel. Then, at the end of 10 weeks (Phase 1), the teams that are formed pitch their startup idea back to the Antler Investment Committee to await their fate with a yes or no investment decision. If it’s a no, these teams drop out of the program having gained a ton of experience and ready to move on to their next challenge. If it’s a yes, these teams automatically enter Phase 2 of the program made up of another 12 weeks of hands-on support from the Antler team and a Demo Day where the portfolio companies pitch their startup to a room full of some of Europe’s most seasoned investors and companies.

After countless lectures, breakout sessions, founder dinners, and an unhealthy number of coffees, I had got to know pretty much everyone in the cohort and had settled in smoothly. Then, after 4 gruelling weeks of building countless slide decks, late nights, and nerve-wracking presentations to large audiences, I finally found my co-founder and partner-in-crime — Harry. It made complete sense; he had the technical background that I was lacking, I brought the business acumen to the table, had worked together on a number of sprints (one of which we won), and simply click on every level. Plus, Harry had also led the software team that built the first autonomous racing vehicle in the Nordics — the guy’s a legend!

The only obstacle left— we had absolutely no clue what idea we wanted to work on. The typical route that other founders seemed to be taking was to first find an idea to work on and only then begin forming a founding team. For us, we weren’t all that concerned. We set up a chat with Antler and told them not to worry, and that “for us the team was primary, and the idea secondary”. With that, we got the go-ahead to join forces and we went straight to the drawing board to spitball ideas.

“For us the team was primary, and the idea secondary”

After sifting through a list of maybe 60-70 ideas, we were beginning to run a little dry. We had formed a rough checklist that our idea needed to meet for it to work. It needed to:

  • be addressing a problem that > 100 million people run into
  • pass the ‘toothbrush test’ (i.e. happen at least once a day)
  • be scalable
  • be capital-light (at least at the beginning)
  • have a recurring revenue model (ideally)
  • be geography-agnostic
  • be run as a remote-first company
  • be able to tap into the international talent pool

One day, Gigi and I were walking around Sognsvann, one of the most beautiful lakes in Norway. She was a bit stressed about a growth meeting she was meant to be running the following day. She wasn’t quite sure what format she needed to follow or how to structure the meeting’s agenda. And that’s when the penny dropped. Running a meeting is pretty easy, but running an effective meeting is far more nuanced and a problem I had personally faced. Without hesitation, I got hold of Harry to tell him that we had found a problem for us to look into. To my surprise, it didn’t take much convincing. In fact, he deeply resonated with the problem in his previous roles. To make sure we weren’t delusional and just desperate to decide on an idea, we spoke to a handful of people to gauge just how widespread the issue really is — turns out, people really don’t like meetings!

After countless hours validating with potential customers, sound boarding with industry leaders and really honing in on what the key pain points were, we had fleshed out our brand spanking new venture. Shepherd is a SaaS tool helping companies and their teams bring structure and precision to meetings, in an easy, collaborative and accessible way. Shepherd has now raised over $360K in funding and now busy with private beta testing. Sign up here for early access.

For those looking to start their founder journey or join an incubator or accelerator program similar to Antler, here are my top 6 tips to line yourself up for a strong start:

1. Team is Primary, Idea is Secondary

At the heart of any company, whether it’s a large corporation or struggling startup, is its people. One of the things that I’m most grateful for joining Antler is teaming up with my Co-founder, Harry, when I did. We were aligned in every sense that it was difficult to imagine us failing early on with whatever idea we decided to work on. We knew we had already overcome the biggest challenge most companies face — finding the right people for the job. We had flipped the typical Antler process on its head by securing our team before finding our idea. We knew whatever idea we chose to pursue, we’d make a plan to make it a success. Take the time to find your match, even if it takes a little longer than expected because at the end of the day starting a company is like committing to a relationship. You’re bound to go through ups and downs together, so you might as well enjoy being in each other’s company.

Harry, CTO (left), and Jamie, CEO (right) during an early presentation to the rest of the Antler Oslo 2 cohort

2. Ensure Founder Alignment Early On

In our early discussions about potentially teaming up, we went through a very interesting ‘track-out scorecard’ exercise to ensure we were completely aligned. We each answered a series of about 45 questions independently to see if our expectations were in line with one another (in terms of working hours, desired founder’s salary, preferred place of work, etc.). We took this exercise seriously and spent between 3-4 hours thoroughly dissecting each question before moving onto the next. For those in early discussions with potential Co-founders, I’d highly recommend drafting a document that you can both reflect back on at any time to remind yourselves (and each other) what your thinking was going into your founder journey. My recommendation would be to divide the document up according to the following categories:

  1. Working style & preferences
  2. Conflicts and decision-making
  3. Business idea (If you have one)
  4. Roles & Responsibilities
  5. Funding & equity

Then under each category, you would list a series of questions (~8 per category), indicate the level of agreement for the answers to each question (a. need to discuss more; b. fully agree; c. do not fully agree but will make it work), and include any necessary comments. Here are examples of the questions you should ask during this exercise:

  • “Success for me in three years from now would be…”
  • “How do you prefer to acknowledge and resolve conflicts?”
  • “Optimal work hours for me are…”
  • “What is the one thing you will not compromise to build this company?”
  • “How are you planning to split equity? Why?”
  • “What is your approach to fundraising? How much will you raise?”

The most important part of this entire exercise is to do this independently before exchanging answers. This way you’re bound to really gauge true founder alignment.

3. Be Ruthless When Killing Ideas

One of the primary causes of death in startups is not saying ‘no’ when you should. This rule applies to deciding on which idea to pursue. We witnessed several other teams around us umming and ahhing over which idea to pursue, ultimately wasting precious time. While it’s important to be measured, it’s just as important to move quickly and not grow attached to any one idea. In the space of a week, we must’ve killed well over 60 business ideas. We made sure to give every idea a fair chance but to not be disheartened if it didn’t make it through the gauntlet. We still maintain our belief that speed counts for an incredible amount and we need to avoid compromising on moving and making decisions quickly.

4. Validating Ideas Ain’t So Easy

Although I’m no product expert, I figured validating ideas would be fairly straightforward. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In our early customer interviews, I found myself more often than not falling into the trap of asking leading questions that would prompt the user to say exactly what we wanted to hear, deeming the interview pointless. I quickly had to learn how to observe the user and really listen to what it was they were saying — a lot easier said than done.

The next big challenge we faced when validating our ideas was which ones do we toss to the side, and which do we pursue. There’s certainly no hard or fast rule here, but what I will say is give yourself a deadline to work towards; e.g. “by next week Wednesday we will have spoken to X number of people about our 3 ideas, and the one that is most well-received will be the one we pursue.” *A caveat here is that we also filtered ideas according to a handful of other criteria listed above.

5. Learn To Tell A Meaningful Story

I cannot stress this enough. In fact, we had to learn this the hard way. We had pitched Shepherd to about 15 people across VC funds and thought-leaders in the tech industry and had only received positive responses. One day we had a late-afternoon meeting with one of Norway’s most prominent investors to gauge her thoughts on Shepherd. During the call, we clearly failed to tell a story about our why and how Shepherd can really make the lives of millions of people and companies that much easier by making creating a better meeting experience. Not too long into the call, she interrupted “can I be completely honest? If I were in your shoes I’d probably start looking around for new ideas”. Ouch! That hurt.

Looking back, the reason she said this was crystal clear — we failed to tell a compelling story. This was a huge wake-up call and we’re now incredibly thankful for this experience because it gave us a nudge to be better storytellers. As a result, we’ve now managed to convert this investor into one of our biggest believers.

6. There’s No Substitute For Speed

“Speed of iteration beats quality of iteration” — Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify

By nature, I like to move quickly. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not moving quickly you’re not moving at all. When first partnering up with my Co-founder, Harry, we asked each other the question “what is one thing you will not compromise on?”. His answer to me was “ethics”. When asked the same question, I without hesitation said “speed”. Now of course, with speed comes an increased margin for error, but it can also mean more progress. At the early stages, you can’t afford to take your sweet time.

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Jamie Gotz is the Co-Founder & CEO at Shepherd, an Antler portfolio company from the OSL2 cohort.