The most important thing is that the team and the idea are a good fit for each other.
Here is a guy that is so easy-going and approachable, you simply feel compelled to sit down and have a chat with him as soon as the opportunity presents itself. And this is exactly what we did during the 2014 StartUp NEXT Conference in Sofia last month. Rob Fitzpatrick, or Rob Fitz, as he casually introduced himself to us, is one of the amazing people behind Founder Centric. An educator with a PhD himself and a line-up of companies behind him, Rob feels there is much need in educating young minds about entrepreneurship and founding your own business. His book, The Mom test, is a unique twist on consumer behavior theories and teaches start-up businesses and marketers alike, the importance of learning and adapting your products based on customer feedback, the right way. While we had him, we picked his brain on topics, such as starting your own business, the importance of the team and how to know when you have a winner idea in your hands.
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Could you please introduce yourself? What are you currently involved with?
Rob: My name is Rob Fitz. I am currently with Founder Centric. I was running startups for about 7 years. Took part in YCombinator with my first startup. At that time I was doing my PhD and then I heard about startups and got excited. I pitched my idea to YCombinator and they told me that it was a horrible idea, but they loved our team. They gave us a chance to pitch them another idea by the end of the meeting. It was a 10 minute meeting with 7 minutes remaining, so I asked them to help and by the end of the meeting we had an idea and they invested in us. We spend around 4 years on the first startup, but we couldn’t make it work. After that I did agency and consulting work, I built software for universities. I really enjoyed the education side so after sometime we created Founder Centric to work with startups, universities, governments, write books and create better education programs from young and new entrepreneurs.
What is your opinion about the startup ecosystem in Bulgaria?
Really great place, everyone is excited, amazing technical talent and great founders.
Rob: I have worked with Eleven and LaunchHub a couple of times in the past two years. One of my partners (Salim) liked it here so much that he decided to move to Sofia, so we get to meet here during our team retreats. To be honest, it is a hard question, because obviously I am an outsider. I come in for a couple of days, I meet some teams, everyone seems excited, but is it still not that familiar to me. When I moved to London five years ago, the startup scene was even smaller than here, in Bulgaria. The beginnings of the startup communities in London happened with parties that involved startupers and VCs, then Startup Burger nights and after-parties at my office. This was how we were building our community and everything I see here in Bulgaria looks similar and it is amazing. Really great place, everyone is excited, amazing technical talent and great founders.
In one of your previous speeches, you mentioned that Customer Development can always cover up for the drawbacks of Product Development, so what are some common drawbacks of Product Development that Customer Development can capitalize on?
You might think that you don’t have time to talk to your costumers, but you need to make sure you are doing the right thing
Rob: At least for me how the startup process goes is you know “I am going about my life and all of a sudden a great idea pops into your head.“, you get really excited, run to your desk and draw a sketch of the product and you go “Oh, it looks amazing! It is going to be so cool!”, so you sit at your computer and build the first website or at least the landing page and you realize that you don’t know if you are building the right thing yet. So you get excited from the product and this is what you need to start your business. You have products at the starting point, but then you need to take a step back and think “Who needs this? What do they care about? Where can I go find one these people?”. For example, in our first business we were aiming towards the big brands but realized that we didn’t even have their contacts and couldn’t even talk to them. Another point is that sometimes you have some great ideas but you realize that you need around two years to build that, but after talking to your clients and having meetings with them, you realize that you simply don’t need this feature or product and it is not worth spending two years developing. I read once this article about a Nobel prize winner who said that something he noticed is that young scientists, the people who never win the Nobel prize, they always work with their doors closed. They think that they are very busy and have loads of work to do, so nobody should disturb them, so they close the door and just focus on their work. They get more done in a year, but they get less done in a decade. What happens to them is that they end up doing the wrong thing. Same aspect can be considered with startups, you might think that you don’t have time to talk to your costumers, but you need to make sure you are doing the right thing.
Considering your previous experience with startups, what is more important: The team or the idea?
The most important thing is that the team and the idea are a good fit for each other.
Rob: In my first company, we had a really good idea and we had a really good team, but it was the wrong team for that idea. Our team was really good at building consumer products and we were very creative, we were great at design, at interaction and art. We ended up building a company that depended on enterprise sales. Good idea, good team, they didn’t fit each other. You cannot evaluate either without looking at both parts. So right now we are involved in education and we are using all of the strengths of the team, it is something we are good at, so it is good for us.
What is the best way to get insights from customers?
What you need to do is, whenever you show them your product, you need to ask them for something. Asking for commitments will bring you more value because it would require the customers to sacrifice something, as a result you will have valuable data.
Rob: As you get more advanced you have a product. If you just show the product to someone, you would just get compliments and opinions. What you need to do is, whenever you show them your product, you need to ask them for something. As an example, if you tell a person “Hey, look I am writing a need book, do you want to check it out?” the person would go “Yeah cool, really nice!”, but if you say “Hey, look I am writing a new book, would you like to pre-order it for 10 euros?” they would go “No, I don’t like it that much.” Or they can go “Yeah, actually I really want that, here are my 10 euros” as a result if I tell you anything and don’t learn from the interaction there is no use for me, because there is a difference between a compliment and real data. Asking for commitments will bring you more value because it would require the customers to sacrifice something, as a result you will have a valuable data.
What are a couple of factors that you consider before choosing a startup to work with?
I put a big accent on the founders when I choose who to work with.
Rob: We help anyone we can. We do not charge the startups, because they don’t have enough money. Usually we charge the investors. I personally help startups, when I really like the founders. One of the startups that I am helping right now, I have no idea what their product is, because it is way too technical for me to understand. I just love the founder. I am mostly his emotional advisor, because he addresses more questions on how to run the business with me. I put a big accent on the founders when I choose who to work with. One of my business partners was a client of mine. I chose to consult his company only because I like the founder.
What would be your main suggestion to fresh out-of-college students, who want to start a company instead of going into the corporate world?
Rob: The first advice is learn how to make money. Even if it is not attached to a business you care about. Being a freelancer or a consultant is really useful because you learn how to serve clients, how to charge people money, how to present yourself professionally. So for the fresh out-of-college people, I would suggest not to think of it as starting your own company, but more of being a freelancer. You can control your own time and money and this will give you time to figure out a scalable startup. Building one is really difficult and requires a couple of tries, so if you are out-of-college, you are broke and need experience this would be the right way to go. So first step – learn how to make money.
The second piece of advice is do side projects. I learned more from side projects, than anything else. I launched a card game campaign on kickstarter and it gave me so much knowledge in campaign management, community management and others. I also had projects when I worked for a month and decided that I will not do this again, so I threw it away. If you are young, you learn so much from side projects. At some point you realize that the idea is bigger than the side project, so then you start building something more, this is how Founder Centric got started and my first company too. You just need to be willing to try stuff, have fun, learn.