Why did a startup studio not work for me? And how to fix this.

In September 2022, I joined a startup studio. They help find a co-founder, an idea, and funding. They provide a proven process and coaching. A startup studio should help hit the ground running and prevent running into the first brick wall on the way.

Reality started very promisingly. From 500 applicants, I was among 12 bright young folks selected. Although I am no longer young, I was sure that my experience and eagerness to learn would compensate for my incoming grey hairs. The program started with two workshops a day and a final presentation at the end of the week. I had fun, learned a ton, and the people were more than excellent.

The second week added a sense of urgency. Everything becomes fluid under pressure. I felt pressure to find my co-founder. Stat. That happened, and I was over the moon. Now that we had a team, we set out to find our idea in week three. What would our startup do? Week four revealed that our views of the world had little overlap; thus, we struggled to come up with the ‘What’ of our business. Facing reality, we split up, and I was back at square one. It is better to start again than to persevere into oblivion.

In week six, I looked at my cohort mates, saw who had teamed up and who was left, and concluded that I had to find my co-founder outside the program. In weeks 7 to 12, I met roughly 30 candidate co-founders. Some were awesome, but none were the match I was looking for.

Jim Collins wrote the book ‘Good to Great,’ in which he preaches: “First who, then what.” This mantra was ingrained in me, and I loved the idea that the co-founder is more important than the idea. I told myself: “It’s easy to pivot on the idea, but hard to pivot on the co-founder,” and “Great teams can be successful at anything.” This was also the premise of the startup studio: first team, then theme. Yet, I believe now that this mantra is false. At least for me, in my circumstance. I believe now that the idea matters, or in other words: “Start with why.”

I heard many ideas during my time at the startup studio and the subsequent journey through the US. Hundreds is not an exaggeration. Amongst them were excellent ideas, but none felt attractive to me. None of these ideas felt like they were my mission. I needed to feel more passion.

I wonder what would have happened if I had subdued to the pressure of week 2. Despite my lack of passion, I would have stuck to my co-founder and gone with a random idea. We would have created a stellar presentation, convinced the funding manager to fund us, and worked diligently for a year, perhaps two. But would I have been happy? Would my co-founder and investors be happy?

Everything becomes fluid under pressure. And also, things get rushed, panic replaces feeling with mere rationality, and people break down. If not now, then sometime in the future. In a post on LinkedIn, I wrote that I feel no need to rush and that time is my friend, not my enemy.

Perhaps, the ‘first who, then what’ model does not work for me. Perhaps, I need to figure out first what my true passion or purpose is. And in a true lean startup style, validate this by providing proof. For inspiration on how to do that, I turn to my wife.

When my wife wanted to pivot her business, I advised her to start interviewing people under the guise of writing a book. I reasoned that this would be an excellent way to build a network. Bright as she is, she turned the interviews into a series of podcasts (now coming up to episode 314). The podcasts not only grew her network but as corollary also her audience. She actually wrote the book, proving her passion for the theme. When the time came to create and sell her product, she had a network, an audience, and plenty of like-minded folks happy to collaborate.

So here I am with a new plan (for now):

  • Take my time.
  • Ponder my true purpose.
  • Research the topic.
  • Share my findings.
  • Connect to an audience
  • And then trust that finding a co-founder and funding is the easy part.

I acknowledge that this path may take many years, which is absolutely fine. I realize that this is the calm before the storm that I should enjoy while it lasts.

PS: Jim, I still love your book. Good to Great will always be a favorite!


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