The day that I realised the difference between a founder and an employee
In 2012, I was a co-founder of Australia’s first technology incubator, Pollenizer. We founded and grew companies from scratch.
Back then, no one wanted to work for a startup. The chance of failure was very high and opportunities were short lived. Our model at the time was to operate a venture studio which employed product teams to quickly bring the company to life. These teams would begin as Pollenizer employees and then ‘spin out’ when the company raised enough funding.
This model failed and this is the day we realised why.
A great Christmas for Flikgift
In the lead up to Christmas in 2012, we had one team building a business called Flikgift. The company had built an online service to allow new ways of gifting when the giver was struggling to think of something interesting or unique, or could not afford something special. The business had about 6 weeks of runway left and was struggling to prove its value proposition to the market and investors. We had struck a deal with Australia’s biggest web property at the time — NineMSN. They were the default home page for Australian Internet Explorer users so had a lot of traffic. Our partnership was running ads for Flikgift on the homepage and it felt like the moment had come for the company.
We were getting so many sales that the entire team (software engineers, designers, product manager, CEO) was downstairs in the warehouse packing boxes. There was no end to the demand that we could see.
For a startup it was a brilliant moment where, against all odds, we seemed to be turning a corner.
A moment at my desk
One lunchtime, the week before Christmas, I was working at my desk and noticed the ambient light dim around me. The Flikgift team had gathered around my desk.
“We need to take down the ads.”
If we continued, we would need to have the team working long hours over Christmas. And why should they? There was nothing in it for them to put in extraordinary effort.
The tragedy of course is that founders would not have made that choice.
Without agency and ‘skin in the game’ startups are impossible
All new companies have at least one of these moments and if they are not designed to pass through it, they will die.
This is the reason many tech transfers out of universities or big company startup projects fail.
The teams who need to bring this thing to life do not have agency and don’t benefit if they bring that agency to bear when they need to survive.
This is the difference between a founder and an employee.
I’d love to hear your stories around building startups from scratch. You can find me on Twitter as @philmorle
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