7 steps for first time founders

Picture: Job van Gasselt / DUIC

Several years ago, when Thijs Verheul was still a student and in his early twenties, his future co-founder at United Wardrobe, repeatedly bothered him to start working on an idea he got after watching his three sisters struggle with swapping their clothes. At the time it was just an idea and Verheul wasn’t completely sure. Lucky for both, Verheul’s co-founder was very persuasive. The company has achieved 100%+ YoY growth, multiple years in a row and has gained a strong position in North Western Europe.

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“The experience has been like steering a rocket ship. There’s just so much money going around in fashion. Plus, we created a financially healthy organization, so there’s so much interest” Verheul recalls. Looking back, he recommends seven learnings that helped him as a first time founder.

1. Get things done

The mayor issue with first time founders is lack of focus. There’s just so much to do. “We had to learn about user flows, design, investors, influencers, and so much more. And the thing is, you just have to do all of it. So it’s important to just get shit done. I know a lot of people who say they want to become entrepreneurs. They read a lot of books and visit a ton of bootcamps. But if you’re an entrepreneur and you know it, you can’t hold yourself back actually doing what’s needed. You’ll figure out what works along the way. You can learn a lot of basics beforehand, but you’ll learn the most by opening the doors and starting to sell. Even if everything sucks. Just launch and look for traction.”

For many, it’s ego that’s holding them back. “They think that when the idea sucks, that they suck. But when a website sucks, it can also just be really difficult. With United Wardrobe, all negative reviews in the early days really hurt. Luckily, we soon realized these were all about starting pains. We got through them by doing something completely different from time to time and then getting back to it on full speed. It’s a misunderstanding that you, as a starting founder, need to be in hyperfocus 24/7. And eventually it’s all not as heavy as it feels during the ride. The world won’t end when your company fails. Worrying a lot doesn’t help.”

Then there’s family, friends, employees, and everyone else around you who has an opinion about what you do. “We’ve had a lot of people tell us things that turned out to be complete bullshit. And nine out of ten times, we already knew it was bullshit, but we fell into the trap anyway. Trust your gut. Especially when people, who aren’t or have never been in the same shoes, give you advice. We’re in a moment of time where faith is not important anymore, but I assure you that faith in yourself is key starting out.”

2. Go where none have gone before

In the article where he introduces the law of shitty clickthroughs, Andrew Chen compares the clickthrough rate of the web’s first banners on HotWire, 78%, and the average clickthrough rate currently on Facebook ads, which dropped to 0.05%. The main reason, he states, is that when channels work, others follow and the effectiveness decreases due to its popularity. So startups have to repeatedly look for cheap and arising channels. Verheul agrees. “Back when we started it was very cheap to advertise on Facebook, so we massively bought clicks. Which all became registered users. Then before influencer marketing became a thing, we cheaply partnered with all of them and achieved hockey stick growth.”

Verheul quickly realised Facebook wanted to become the market leader and offered traffic for incredibly low prices. “Google was the only player back then, so we could just piggyback on Facebook’s offering. And even after the golden era, when Facebook ads and later on influencer marketing saturated, we already knew what worked and what didn’t. So Facebook was still cheaper for us, than for our competitors and influencers trusted us, because we worked with them and their colleagues before.”

3. Focus on what works

First time founders are keen to do it all. Especially when a customer or prospect asks them for additional features. Verheul suggests otherwise. “Look at what works and double down. We have a certain average order value. So when we noticed that several items usually go for quite a bit more, we simply put those in the spotlight. And remember, in the early days you’re also building your platform for the next group of users or customers. It’s all fun and games if one customer asks you for a certain feature, but if the next 100 don’t care, it’s easy to say no. You can worry about building features that make more sense in the long run later on. First, go for the quick wins. We still only worry about what’s 3 months ahead.”

4. Check out your competition

For Verheul, competition has always been on his radar.

“Back in the days one of our competitors was targeting our keywords, so as a joke, we put stickers on top of all their logos at their office. Which was fun, but what really made a difference is that we built a better product, that we wanted to become the best. The real value,” according to Verheul, “ lies in the fact that competition keeps you focused on what’s important and especially on what’s next. At this stage it’s easy to look at foreign competitors or similar marketplaces in different sectors and evaluate if these categories would be of added value to our users.”

5. Think globally, but consider cultural differences

Getting some traction in your own market is already difficult. Scaling successfully in other countries is one of the hardest things you can do. Different cultures, different languages, not to mention the political and macro economic issues other countries deal with.

“People consider Europe to be one small dot on a global scale, but from your perspective every country, even every region, will require a different approach. How people experience apps in The Netherlands is completely different from how people experience them in Paris. And in cities in the south of France, they, once again, do things completely different. Plus, compared to a lot of countries worldwide, a place like France is a very rich and well organized state, but compared to several other countries in Europe, it’s more like a third world country where government has to tackle a lot of mayor problems. From an operations perspective, this brings additional difficulties. What regulations do you have to consider? What are the service levels people are used to? And so forth.”

Even though it’s challenging, Verheul suggests to look at what works in similar cultures and markets. Especially in marketing your offering. “Every country and region is different, but the basics are the same. The competition is different, so how your customers value you is different, but mechanics that work in one country will probably also work, although in a slightly adjusted way, in similar countries. If working with influencers works in one western country, it will probably work in another.”

6. Take care of yourself and reflect on your why

Inevitably founders focus more and more on their business as the company grows, but Verheul knows the value of keeping your physical and mental health front and center. This is especially critical for founders of companies who add tons of new employees and who expand into more markets. Many successful founders will say they ran into a wall before feeling the need to take care of themselves, but Verheul advocates for an earlier approach.

“Whole businesses are centered around the founders, which makes it hard for you to step away and consider your own well being. However, if you don’t spend time on yourself, the company will fall through in the long run.”

To keep this in mind, you have to make it practical. Assign moments in your calendar for sports, friends & family, reading, learning, and reflecting on what future you’re heading for.

 7. Build a great team

For Verheul, hiring fast and hiring well, has taught him that you really have to enjoy the process. “My co-founder is amazing in hiring people. Not only in finding the right person for the job, but also through leading by example. Pushing through late at night and during weekends when shit hits the fan. You’ll be amazed by how well your team follows when they share your enthusiasm. Remember that people are social animals in their core.”

This is unaffected by their differences. “Women, men. Even the team members with kids. They all have a passion for what they do, because they have a strong fit with our service.”

Verheul wraps it up with a quick leave behind. “It’s more difficult to tell the truth when working with friends, so keep personal and work relations separate.”