This week, Rob compares tech startups to cathedrals. They have more in common that you might at first think! Any cathedral builders at Club Workspace?

As well as being the founder of startup speaking platform dex.io, Rob is a Leancamp fellow and YC alum. He’s also bankrupted two companies so, when it comes to startups at least, he should know what he’s talking about. Over to Rob…

You want to start a company restoring ancient stained glass windows to their former glory.

You live in a country rife with cathedrals and have spent a lifetime appreciating these translucent masterpieces, but you don’t have any deep technical knowledge of their restoration.

How do you get started?

Why is it that most people can intuitively approach this situation correctly while simultaneously doing the exact opposite for their tech startup?

How any normal human would begin:

Well, first you need an amazing technical partner to explore the possibilities with you. It’s not like you could run the company without one, so it doesn’t make sense burning money until you’ve found him. But this is a field you care deeply for, so it’s easy to strike up conversations.

Then you’d want to walk into a few cathedrals and ask around until you find the person responsible for maintaining the property. You’d ask where their restoration budget comes from, what it looks like, and how the glasswork fits into all that.

A few conversations in, you might find someone who is desperate to get those windows fixed up.

Bingo.

With your passion for the art and your partner’s technical excellence (and your presence in the room), you’re the perfect candidates. You’ve got your first customer and begin hiring a couple more people to see it through.

How a tech entrepreneur would begin:

You’re eager to start, so instead of staying at your job while you find a great partner, you hire some cheap labour in another country to make an example of your craftsmanship.

You take the demo to your friends & family, who give you a bit of much-needed cash.

You spend it on the rest of the people and tools you’ll need to do a good-enough job at window work. Now you take a guess at the budgeting and pricing processes, pick a number from a hat, and begin sending promotional flyers to chapels.

Abstraction makes us stupid

In this scenario, it’s obvious that we wouldn’t hire a team before getting a customer. It’s painful to think of outsourcing the core value proposition or hiring day labourers to do a good-enough job.

Code is to tech startups what staff is to real-world service businesses. A big fixed cost that you want to delay until you’re pretty dern sure someone will pay you for your investment. It’s obvious we shouldn’t hire pre-maturely, but far less obvious that we shouldn’t write code before making some progress with customers.

For physical businesses, it would be literally unthinkable to set up shop without talking to loads of relevant people and figuring out how the industry works.

Would you open a high street shop before popping into chat with every other nearby store owner and spending a week parked across the street watching how foot traffic behaves? I sure wouldn’t.

And yet we do that every single day online. Crazier still, it’s the default online.

Brick & mortar

Think about your new business as if it were of brick & mortar. We have a great deal of intuition about real-world businesses. Make use of that, and you’ll find that your perspective on crucial first steps and must-have investments shifts considerably closer to reality.

By Rob Fitzpatrick

Do you think Rob’s right? What have been your experiences in the stained glass window industry? Or, rather, tech startups? We’ll be interested to see what you think, so please comment below.

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