i’ve been thinking a lot about “pre-founders” recently and wanted to collect my initial thoughts / frameworks here. this will be a document that’s constantly evolving, this is the first iteration - will update frequently :)
a “pre-founder” is someone who might eventually become a founder, that has entrepreneurial instincts + a solid base of skills useful for starting a company
- entrepreneurial instincts: oftentimes these are people that are full-time at a fast-growing company that are hacking on stuff on the side / tinkering on ideas. some key traits are that they’re naturally curious, are not satisfied with being an employee [or student] somewhere (want to start something), and have a lot of ambition (a key ingredient for founders seeking large outcomes)
- solid base of skills: from what i’ve seen, it’s rarely the case that the first idea you have ends up becoming a unicorn startup (though there are exceptions). what’s more common is people build up expertise in engineering, product, design, etc; then you spend time talking with potential customers / doing deep diligence on an industry; then you leverage your superpower and your unique insights into a semi-risky bet that you’re distinctly qualified to win at
one big caveat here: i believe there is no single blueprint for “pre-founders” and all you need to do is look at historical data to prove this. people come from founding backgrounds (serial entrepreneurs on their second startup), operating backgrounds (oftentimes killer engineers / product people / salespeople), or even right out of school / dropouts. some important factors that seem to matter here are intellectual curiosity, a bias towards action, ability to iterate quickly, and general sharpness
- intellectual curiosity: this seems to be a very common trait among people in the “-1 to 0” stage. these people are obsessed with a problem space (not a solution) and are chatting with potential customers, other sharp people, and trying to gauge where the opportunities are while being very open-minded. there are some founders who are very opinionated about a solution, which does work often (esp for engineers building dev tools products - docker, ingest, and other similar companies were very opinionated and it worked for them). but generally pre-founders that are “seeking the truth” and are naturally curious tend to land on an interesting problem fairly quickly
- bias towards action: one way to think about founders is where they fall on the spectrum of theoretical / philosophical vs constantly shipping and iterating. sometimes the theoretical approach works, but you have to be “right.” if you have a strong bias towards action and are willing to experiment quickly / frequently, you’re likely to stumble on the “right” problem / solution to work on
- ability to iterate quickly: tying into the last theme of bias towards action, it’s important to be able to incorporate feedback from the experiments you’re shipping and incorporate this quickly into the product you’ve building. one metaphor that can be used to think about this is the concept of evolution / natural selection. if you imagine an organism that has lots of variations in its cells and dna where only the traits that are useful survive, startups that run a lot of experiments and then double down on what works are more likely to stumble on the right product or gtm frameworks that will help them succeed. side note - traction by gabriel weinberg explores this “iteration” concept for gtm specifically (the thesis of the book is that you should try out a dozen growth strategies, find out which one results in disproportionately high growth, and then pour all of your money into that, then re-evaluate in a few months)
- general sharpness: this is very tough to define but i’ve met many pre-founders that really enjoy reading, writing, learning, etc and and as as a result are generally very knowledgeable about what they’re building. it’s important to be able to iterate quickly as previously discussed but it’s also important to be willing to do deep dives into interesting areas, and enjoy going deep on problems and product ideas. if a pre-founder can go to second and third levels of detail on their thinking, this is a good sign (the way to evaluate this is by asking multiple follow-up questions, multiple “why’s,” asking for concrete examples of things, etc). i’ve also found that people that are very deep on a topic are able to be succinct + explain concepts to industry outsiders in a way that’s easy to understand. succinctness and simplicity are some indicators for mastery of a subject
questions to ask
the best way to get to know if a pre-founder is interesting / serious is simply to talk with them. i’ve been thinking about a few interesting questions to ask pre-founders that can reveal their ways of thinking, and here are some that i’ve come up with:
- why are you working on this idea? an obvious one, but a good indicator for founder-market fit, unfair advantage, and drive. founder-market fit means they are passionate about the space and have some experience. unfair advantage means maybe their parents are dentists and they’re building software for dentists, so they have an edge. drive means there might be a very personal reason why they’re working on this idea, and they’ll stop at nothing to solve it
- who are some of your professional role models? when you ask founders what other founders they respect, it can clue you into what type of outcomes / paths a pre-founder is looking for. do they respect bootstrapped, profitable founders with medium-sized outcomes where it’s great for the founder who keeps a lot of the company for themselves? or do they respect moonshot founders who might be slightly crazy but are extremely ambitious and only gunning for big outcomes?
- what have you heard from potential customers you’ve talked with? this question can indicate a few things: how feedback-driven a founder is, how often they interface with customers, how much they care about attacking a problem space (vs being opinionated about a solution), how sharp they are at distilling customer feedback into insights that will help them win, etc
ways to support
when it comes to supporting pre-founders on their -1 to 0 journey, there is no silver bullet. i believe a bespoke / tailored approach to support is the way to go here (and maybe at scale there’s a way to productize support, like a big database of potential customer intros for saas founders). here are a few ways to support pre-founders, sorted in order by what i’ve heard is most useful to people:
- co-founder matching: oftentimes you’re a student or operator at a company that’s tinkering on stuff on the side and doing co-founder dating (to either find someone with a good idea to work with, or find someone to help you with your idea). introductions to potential co-founders are super helpful - if you end up introducing a pre-founder to the person that they build their company with for the next 5-10 years, they’ll remember that forever
- idea validation: “customer discovery calls.” these aren’t necessarily customer intros (that’s later on), more “here are a few potential customers you can talk to that will tell you if they’ll pay for the product you’re building or not.” this helps with quick idea validation and you can gauge willingness to pay early on which is helpful. these customer discovery calls can help you identify whitespaces even if they don’t like your original idea
- customer intros: when a pre-founder is further along, maybe has an mvp and is looking to get some traction for a bigger pre-seed / seed raise, more formal customer intros are extremely helpful. on the early end maybe the pre-founder has done customer discovery calls to validate the pain point / willingness to pay and is looking for design partners. on the later side maybe the pre-founder has an mvp and is looking for some revenue traction that they can leverage into a bigger raise. either way there are some ways to systematize this - at afore we built a large searchable database aggregating the linkedin connections of our team + dozens of portco founders, to help productize customer intros (say you’re looking to talk to a potential buyer at doordash in their analytics division, you could search the database and request intros easily). two other interesting products to check out here are first round capital’s discovery assist program and 776’s cerebro product
- physical space: the more i’ve talked to pre-founders, the more i’ve realized that talented people just want to be connected with / work in the same physical space as other talented people. lots of vc firms over-engineer products or slap on accelerator programs because they know they should be finding founders earlier, but oftentimes sharp engineers don’t want to go through programming or events and simply want to co-work with other sharp -1 to 0 pre-founder friends. this is part of a broader thing i’ve been thinking about - “events for introverts” which i’ll write about more later
- ops-in-a-box: oftentimes founders get conviction on a problem and solution, maybe they’re looking to raise or have raised funding, and are eager to start building asap. unfortunately there are a lot of back-office / admin tasks that need to happen first, but luckily it seems like these steps are pretty similar across most types of companies / founders. you’ll need to incorporate, open a bank account, maybe hire some contract devs / marketers, get cloud credits, etc. so i’ve been thinking about an “ops-in-a-box” product to offer pre-founders - you’re a sharp engineer with conviction around an industry-specific problem and you want to get building, we’ll help you with the “first 90 days” stuff you need to do and tell you what’s worked best for founders we’ve backed in the past (best lawyers / bankers / cloud vendors / sales tools / etc) so you can just focus on building
- hiring / other cool people to talk to: intros to people that are thinking about similar things are oftentimes helpful, so this is separate from co-founder matching but oftentimes intros to founders building in a similar non-competitive space are helpful (you can get insights, potentially partner, etc). maybe these people are potential hires, maybe the pre-founder just has a really good conversation, etc
there are a few programs / players in the “pre-founders” space, here are a few categories that are top-of-mind right now:
- eir programs: these programs often lead to incubations and are designed for pre-founders. vc firms will oftentimes make people-focused bets here, and give founders the space to explore stuff (by providing a stipend, helping with customer intros and idea validation, etc).
- venture studios / incubators: an interesting model that takes industry experts that are also entrepreneurial, and provides an idea + budget + team + support. my thoughts here are that if you’re going to incubate, a good route to go is low-volume / high-quality (think: sutter hill, thrive, etc)
- recruiters: i’ve realized recently that what i do on a day-to-day basis is very similar to what tech recruiters do. we’re both often reaching out to sharp engineers (often using the same tools like linkedin sales nav / recruiter), recruiters are trying to get them to join their clients’ companies and vc’s are trying to see if they’ll start companies in the next year or so. recruiters might make for great pre-founder scouts!
- scouts: on that note - scouts and angels oftentimes are the first-believers in pre-founders (before any institutional investor gets conviction to write a larger check). also angel investors are often very value-add (have deep domain expertise and are great at potential customer intros). scouts and angels are a great source for pre-founders (esp if they’re super-connectors) and i find they have very interesting thoughts around support and value add too
identifying “good” ideas to work on
still developing my thinking here but maybe there are some ideas / frameworks around idea validation that can help you quickly figure out if the problem space you’re attacking is worth building a company around. my friend ish wrote a great article about “how to identify hair-on-fire problems” that is def worth a read here
will refine more of my thinking here this weekend - please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org / (650) 863-8151 if you have any thoughts here / anything to add!