10 Impactful Lessons From A First Time Founder

startups are hard
startups are hard
This is my “building a startup” outfit

September marks my 1 year anniversary at Sounds Sphere. As I start to reflect back, I realize I’ve learned a TON and want to pass this along to anyone to whom it might be helpful.

A while back I tweeted that working on Sounds Sphere is simultaneously the most challenged and most in alignment I’ve felt working on a project. 

10 lessons from a first time founder

From an educational perspective, I appreciate the past year more than my entire time at college. I’m energized, I’m determined, and I feel alive with Sounds Sphere.

In this article, I’m going to lay out each lesson I’ve learned + a “what I’m doing now” section below each lesson. It helps me to synthesize and connect ideas this way so maybe it will be helpful for you too. I surely would have found this post beneficial 1 year ago before I started. Here are 10 lessons from a first time founder. Enjoy!

#1 Build It & They Will Come Doesn’t Work

build it and they will come

Ideas are like assholes – everybody’s got one. I fell victim to this trap and thought that because I had a great idea all I needed to do was build. Granted, I did have some validated learning, but not enough.

I also had no idea how to write copy that clearly explained what my company did (I’m still working on this). So initial traction was unsustainable and consisted of various “spikes of hope” after running paid ad campaigns.

What I am doing now:

Having as many conversations with prospective customers as possible. Solving problems for customers and then telling stories of their success. Focusing on providing value first while building trust & authority. 

#2 Have Good Code

have good code

If there’s one thing I would have done differently it would have been not to skimp on hiring good developers. I went with the cheapest option and paid for it. Even after switching to a second team, I still hadn’t learned my lesson and paid for it again.

For the 6 months after our beta release I felt hamstrung by technical debt and slow responses. I would ask for something to be done and it felt like I was paying my team to learn how to do it. 

If I could have done it differently, I would have hired a senior development team right off the bat. I would have consulted with someone that knows code to make sure the team I was hiring was talented enough to build what I was asking. 

Because I am a novice when it comes to software development, I was suckered into believing the first two teams were talented, but I should have enlisted help to validate that belief.

What I am doing now:

I’m currently working with a superstar team that costs 3x as much as my previous 2 teams, but provides 10x more value. It’s a 180 degree difference from what I was used to. I’ve learned the value of talented engineers and appreciate having high quality code.

#3 Doubt Creeps In Like Water

doubt creeps in like water

You know how water takes every opportunity to find the lowest ground and fill every crevasse? That’s how doubt has manifested in my experience over the first year. Running Sounds Sphere is difficult, unpredictable, and draining at times so doubt has a foothold to get my mind rev’d up. 

At first I was unprepared. After the honeymoon phase was over post launch, and customers weren’t beating down the door to work with us, the doubt meter started rising.

Fortunately for me, starting a company (albeit hard) is far from the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life so I always have an answer to the questions that come up like “Why am I doing this?” and  “Will this actually work?”

What I am doing now:

I’ve changed my approach from “I have to make this work” to “I’m curiously learning about what works”. With this approach, no matter what happens I am at peace because I know even if Sounds Sphere doesn’t work out the way I imagine, something else will.

All I can do is give my best effort, focus on providing value, and be relentless. Click To Tweet

#4 Growth Mindset Required

growth mindset required

Back in 2015 when I launched my music production business I needed a website. I knew nothing about SEO and was not confident in my ability to learn it. I hired someone from a freelance site for $50 and they did a bunch of shady back linking which did nothing for me. “Oh well” I said, that’s just not something I can do. Bullshit. 

What I am doing now:

I now run towards things I don’t know how to do and eagerly learn. It’s not enough to be good at one thing – there’s always someone better than you. Be good, or better yet, great at more than one thing and start to synthesize multiple skills into new ideas.

I’ve learned so many new skills over the past year. My growth as a founder has accelerated simply because I’ve changed my attitude about what’s possible. I now have a ferocious belief in myself to learn and grow.

#5 Become A Warrior

become a warrior

Celtic and Germanic warriors were known for their hand to hand combat skills. While I’m not interested in fighting anyone, I am interested in getting potential customers one on one to learn about their process and current problems. I’ve come to label this hand to hand combat.

At first I was lazy. I thought running some paid ads back to a landing page with mediocre copy was all I needed to do. Not only was this unsustainable financially, but it was building the wrong habits.

What I am doing now:

I’ve created a sustainable long term plan to engage potential customers and do things that don’t scale. I embrace cold emailing, DMing, and researching unique ways to add value.

#6 Provide Value From Day 1

provide value

Spending money on ads before you’ve gotten results for your first customers isn’t the right move. That’s what I did though, so it’s no surprise my initial customers weren’t the right audience for my product.

I thought that explaining what we did and talking about how much better our experience was than the status quo would resonate. It didn’t. 

I thought talking about how cool our features are would have customers dying to try the product. They weren’t.

“What’s going on here?” I would ask myself. I was confused and discouraged. Until it hit me.

What I am doing now:

No hero in any story succeeds without a guide. And no customer wants to pay someone to solve their problem without believing they can trust them and they are an authority.

I hadn’t provided any value to these potential customers and yet here I was asking for their money. Admittedly I’m not solving a hair on fire problem so customers are more hesitant than they would be if, for example, their hair was literally on fire and I was selling water.

But you can still succeed without solving the deepest of the deep pain if you can do something people are already paying to have done 10x better. It’s tough – especially if you’re also trying to subtly change people’s behavior, but over time with the right approach perhaps it catches on (see iPod vs. CD Player).

And I believe Sounds Sphere does offer a 10x better experience for a process millions of artists and songwriters go through quite often (getting their songs produced). 

So I now focus on providing value to these artists and songwriters while establishing Sounds Sphere as a trusted authority, so we can break down walls of resistance to get people in the door and experience our service for themselves.

My genuine intent is to help indie artists succeed, but they don’t know that. They don’t know me from the next guy so it’s up to me to provide value right away, go above and beyond what they’re used to, and show up consistently with great solutions.

#7 Have The Right Focus

focus

It’s a sickening feeling when all you’re trying to do is make money out of your business and it’s not happening. I certainly fell victim to this early on and ended up straying far from the right path. A few early purchases gave me a false sense of things working so I doubled down on the wrong approach.

In my opinion, there’s no long term happiness or success if your reason to start your startup is only about making money. Money is something external that you can’t control. If you allow yourself to ride the emotional roller-coaster based on things you can’t control you will eventually end up feeling dissatisfied and out of alignment (like I did).   

What I’m doing now:

Instead of focusing on money, I now focus on (you guessed it) providing value, solving problems, and building a solid foundation. Each conversation I have, every email I send, and every blog post I create inch me closer to the tipping point where the money will start to take care of itself.

#8 Mentors Are Key

mentor

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. When I first started I naively thought that since I was experienced in the music industry, I had enough knowledge to make this business work. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I focused so much on building my website and product that I spent little to no time asking for advice from people who had already done what I was trying to do. To my credit, I quickly realized I needed help so I established a small group of people whose brain I could pick. 

I was able to fill a lot of the gaps in my knowledge and started to feel better about our overall direction simply because I reached out and asked for help. These are people who have already walked the path I am walking so having them point out where potholes and poison ivy are along the way has been invaluable. 

What I’m doing now:

I have monthly calls with my key group of advisors to provide updates and discuss strategy. This isn’t a formalized process as most of these people are my friends, but it helps to regularly talk through things, especially because I’m an extroverted thinker.

#9 Shiny New Toys Aren’t The Answer

new toys

There are so many gimmicks, strategies, and schools of thought about how to grow a business. The rabbit hole of information is endless which causes information overload and brain shutdown.

I fell victim to thinking that if I only had this tool or that software automation I would be golden. “This looks great” I would think, while happily paying the fee to purchase a new piece of software that I thought would make all the difference.

The problem is, without the right customers who understand what you do, having tons of automation and software won’t make a difference. I won’t call out any of the things I tried specifically since I think they probably work for people in the right situation, but paying for tools, agencies, coaches, etc… is a step to take when the time is right – not right away.

What I’m doing now:

Now that I have a long term plan and sustainable roadmap, I only consider paying for something new if it dramatically increases the efficiency or effectiveness of something I’m already doing. 

I can’t do everything as a solo founder, but by focusing on high impact, long term tasks I can build a solid foundation and grow the company to where I know it can go. There’s a time and place to invest in good tools, but I believe they should supplement a process that’s already working for you. 

#10 Stick To Your Guns

stick to your guns

Last but certainly not least, I’ve learned the hard way that building something new takes time. Changing customer behavior and introducing a slightly new way of doing things won’t happen overnight and while this lesson won’t apply to every business model, persistently coming back to your vision is a must. 

I got pulled into the very model I’m trying to change. I firmly believe there’s a better way that artists and songwriters can find production online and share their songs with the world, but I wasn’t acting like it.

I made choices with Sounds Sphere early on that positioned us as just another option in the overly saturated marketing of buying beats online. This isn’t even close to my vision and honestly embarrassing to compare that to my early business plan and roadmap. Not that there’s anything wrong with other business models – they just aren’t my vision for Sounds Sphere.

What I’m doing now:

I’m building the premiere marketplace for artists and songwriters to create great songs faster and with less cost. I believe there’s a 10x better experience for artists that can be had online from a trusted partner. Sounds Sphere is that partner – a one stop shop for independent artists to create and release their songs.

Conclusion

I hope this helps even just 1 person out there. As I mentioned in the intro, reading this before I started 1 year ago would have saved me an incredible amount of time and money.

I’m no expert on business or startup culture, and what works (or doesn’t work) for my business won’t be universally true for everyone. However, if there’s even 1 of these lessons that helps you with your business I am grateful to pass that along. 

Starting a company is hard. Growing and sustaining a company is even harder. I’m privileged to be here and don’t take any day running Sounds Sphere for granted.