3 months into the startup journey

19 minute read

It’s been about 3 months since I started working on my own startup (wow, time flies so fast…). Some people seem to think that I’ve just started a cool startup at crazy speed, but the reality is that I’ve been thrown out of the middle of nowhere (well, I chose to do it…!) and am trying to work out which way to go, what to do each day, moving things forward slowly…

This is an update on the first 3 months of my startup: what I did, what I learnt, and what surprised me. I’ll try my best to keep writing about my journey, so if any friends and colleagues start thinking about a career path beyond a corporate job, hopefully they might get some ideas of what it’s like at the very beginning (and it might be fun for me to look back on this in the future).

This won’t be about how awesome and successful a journey it’s been, in case you were expecting an inspirational success story! So probably not many founders write this kind of stuff because it’s super embarrassing (and could also end up failing).

In this post, I’ll try to answer the questions that I often get asked.

a robot walking down a long winding road carrying a knapsack
Image generated by DALL-E

What made you take the leap and launch a startup?

I talked to a lot of friends/ex-colleagues and learnt that many people are interested and thinking of starting their own one day, but haven’t quite made the leap yet, which is to quit a full-time job (often a good one) and work on their own full time. So I get asked this question a lot.

For me, it was very simple: I couldn’t leave my job because of the visa. I’m from Japan and need visa sponsorship (a skilled-worker visa) from an established company to stay and work in the UK. So even if I wanted to work at a startup or work on my own, it was simply not possible for this reason. But I recently managed to switch my visa to the Global Talent visa, which allows me to be self-employed. So I am now free from this restriction (I wrote about my experience of switching to the Global Talent visa in another blog post).

Some of my friends told me that they also want to strike out on their own but think that starting a business is risky, or that now is not the right time to do it for whatever reason (e.g not enough skills, no co-founder). If you are hesitant to take a leap, think about what will happen if your startup fails: well, you’ll most likely have to get a job, which is basically what you do now. So I think it is actually a very un-risky thing to do (or am I being too optimistic?). All you need is to make a commitment to yourself.

I also think that running your own business is just one of many jobs you can do, like programming, and there’s nothing special about it. There are so many people doing it for a living, yet it’s sometimes considered a special thing to do in your career. For example, if you’ve just started learning coding, you won’t expect to be a senior software engineer in a year, right? It usually takes several years of learning, development experience on the job, and making lots of stupid mistakes (deleting a master branch, failing to migrate a database, countless hotfixes etc.) along the way. To me, running your own business is probably similar to stuff like learning English, practicing tennis, or mastering coding (I actually spent about 5–10 years on each of these and eventually got reasonably good at them). You do lots of trial and error for several years, and you will get good at it. Please let me know if this is not the case for running a business!

How did you come up with your idea?

I was writing down many random ideas in my Notion app over time, a lot of which were just stupid nonsense. I think I wrote about 30–50 random ideas. After I got my global talent visa, I started thinking seriously about which ideas would be worth pursuing, and eventually narrowed it down to two both of which happened to be about data. I decided to pursue the one that I was most familiar with, and which addressed an issue I’d experienced myself at work.

What are you working on?

I am currently building RealityFold, which is a data SaaS to generate tailored synthetic tabular datasets (any data with rows and columns is tabular data). The problem I am trying to solve is poor data availability in highly-regulated industries (e.g finance, pharma, healthcare etc.). In my experience, accessing data for ML work is challenging in those industries, because of:

  • Limited availability: Data is not always available, e.g. it’s expensive to access, or is limited by regulation (e.g., privacy & customer consent)
  • Lengthy approval processes: Getting approval to access data in large organisations can takes many weeks
  • Poor user experience: Users need to be in a particular corporate network, or physically close to where data is stored due to compliance, and often cannot use data in their local environment

So instead of having to access the real datasets, the API generates mock datasets to start with, and that way developers can be more flexible with how and when they access the data to do their development work. This idea is nothing new, and there are other startups doing similar things already.

Have you got funding?

No, I am not fundraising (at least not yet). I am using up my savings and will continue to do so until I get a bit more traction on what I am building. I have no idea how long it will take to get the initial traction (hopefully not too long!). Some founders I know nailed it after a few months, while others are still trying to validate their idea (or new ideas) after more than 2 years. It looks like that’s just the reality of building something from scratch.

I knew nothing about fundraising until very recently. Before starting my own company, I used to think that raising as much as possible as early as possible was a good thing (that’s what I saw at TechCrunch, and it looked impressive). Now I’ve learnt that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each business is completely different, and you need to raise enough funding to get you to the next milestone, whatever it is (building MVP, scaling to XXX, IPO etc).

In my case, I didn’t think I needed much capital to get to the next milestone, which was to get the initial traction, because it takes very little capital to do this in the software business (some people will disagree with this and prefer to raise money pre-launch). There are millions of different ways to think about fundraising, and there is no single answer. Some prefer bootstrapping (meaning not raising any external funding to grow the business), while others want to raise funds before building anything. What you probably want to avoid, though, is being forced to raise funding because you are running out of money and struggling to get to the next milestone (you will be in a much more difficult position when negotiating the terms with investors).

Another thing that surprised me about funding was that having a small amount of revenue might actually be worse than having no revenue at all at the beginning, in terms of how your company is evaluated. Investors may look at your tiny initial revenue and use a multiple based on that number, evaluating your company’s worth as being quite low. Instead, I was told that you should sell the big idea and the potential high growth of your business without the actual revenue at the beginning, so you will get a higher evaluation.

I am still very new to fundraising, and hopefully will learn more about it over time. One of my CTO friends recommended a book called “Venture Deals” by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, which is a great book for startup founders who want to understand how fundraising works.

Do you have a co-founder?

No, it’s just me at the moment, but a couple of my friends are helping me by giving feedback, brainstorming, practicing pitching etc. I wanted to work with two other friends to do this together, but it was too early for them to take the leap, which is totally understandable.

I think having a co-founder definitely helps, and it would be nice to work with someone so you don’t feel too lonely (especially at the beginning). For me, it hasn’t stopped me from getting started, because I can build the initial product myself and test it out. What’s challenging as a solo founder is that I now have to do everything myself and it’s taking a lot longer than I initially expected. So having someone else to work with or having initial investment will definitely help to move things forward faster.

What did you do in the first 3 months?

I’ve spent most of my time reaching out to people and talking to them, especially other startup founders and engineers working with data. I actually spent very little time coding in the first 2 months (almost none). Since I was so new to the startup thing, I didn’t really know how to navigate it myself, what to prioritise etc. Fortunately, I’ve met a number of amazing startup founders, friends who are already ahead of me on the startup journey, and who have given me lots of tips and resources about how to get around. When talking to engineers, I try to understand more about how they do their development work when the data is not easily available (because it’s sensitive, or taking a long time to access etc.).

So how do you find people to talk to? Apart from cold messages, here are the ways I reached out to people.

  • My work and uni network, and friends of friends
  • People I met at meetups or conferences
  • Slack, Twitter, Reddit, and any relevant social medias

If you are an engineer working with data and reading this, I will probably reach out to you in the near future!

Other things I did in the first 3 months

  • Went through Startup School, which has been absolutely amazing!
  • Brushed up my front-end skills (I even made a simple website called Compound Unit Converter to practice) as I am going to build the initial version of my site myself
  • Incorporated a limited company in the UK and opened a business bank account
  • Made a landing page at https://realityfold.com/

At the moment, I am trying to launch my initial MVP as soon as possible, so I spend half of my time building the initial MVP and the other half talking to people.

What have you learnt?

I don’t think I can write all the things I’ve learnt so far, since there are too many of them! But here are some of them.

It’s challenging to have a structure in daily life

This is the one that I struggled with the most initially (and still do…). When I was an employee, my daily life was a lot more structured: I worked from 9am–6pm Monday–Friday, and there were always things to do (coding for a new feature, debugging, meetings, mentoring others, presentations etc.). I prioritised what was on my to-do list and Jira board, worked hard on those tasks, and got paid every month no matter what.

Now it’s really more about deciding what to do. Every day the calendar is empty, and I really have to decide what to do, how much time to spend on XYZ, how much break to take etc. And nothing is compulsory and no one really cares what I do! So it’s quite a shift from having a structured job with teams and preset goals. I follow the GTD method using the Notion app, but I think I need to do this better, like using the sprint method, a kanban board, retrospectives etc.

People are really nice

One of the things I was surprised by is that so many people are helping me through this lonely journey (making it less lonely), even if they don’t really know me well. Maybe it’s normal or not a big deal for them, but I am so grateful and will remember especially those who have been willing to offer help at this early stage, because it’s a big deal to me!

I also try to help others as much as possible, and reply to any kind of message I get on LinkedIn/emails/Twitter etc. (People do reach out to me because of some of my blog posts, which is very nice.)

There are so many styles of startup/business

Before this, my impression of a startup was that you:

  • Raise lots of money from investors very early on
  • Have a cool press release on TechCrunch
  • Raise series A, series B, etc. etc.

I get the impression that some founders think this is the only and the best way to run a startup. I am sure it would be super cool to do these things, but there are just so many variations of running a startup, and it really depends on what suits your business and product (some business require a lot of capital to develop the initial versions, while some don’t really need much), and your goals and preferences.

“Good idea” doesn’t mean anything

I am sure you’ve probably heard this before. People say things like “Oh, that business is a good idea!” or “I don’t think the idea is ambitious enough.” But execution is what matters the most, not the idea (maybe the idea matters a bit in terms of defining the direction you go in, but it’s not major). Good ideas are everywhere because the world is full of problems. And actually, the execution is the hardest part. For example, even though I’m a software engineer, building software from scratch isn’t something I did that often at work, and it’s quite difficult to build software well (this explains why there’s so much dodgy software in the world). Most of the time, I worked on the existing large codebase and added features on top of it, or fixed bugs. Even programmers who’ve been working in the industry for several years often haven’t really made anything from scratch.

On top of the development, there’s a lot of business stuff that you need to do well, such as sales, marketing, building teams, fundraising… This is all execution, and that’s what separates good startups from not-so-good ones.

There is huge demand for CTOs/technical co-founders

This is something I didn’t know until I got involved in the startup ecosystem, but everyone is looking for a technical co-founder. The demand for CTOs/technical co-founders is very high (e.g. I’ve been asked to be a CTO for 4 other startups so far). Even technical founders are often looking for other technical co-founders! This is probably good news if you are an engineer and want to do a startup, but not so good if you need a technical co-founder.

I get conflicting advice all the time

People give me a lot of different advice—sometimes even completely conflicting! For example:

  • Your idea isn’t ambitious enough vs Your idea is good because it’s very practical!
  • You should raise and hire people vs Don’t raise too soon!
  • You should sell before building anything vs Launch your MVP as soon as possible to get feedback!
  • Talk to the investors to build relationships now vs Talk to them when you are fundraising!
  • Build in stealth mode vs Build in public

You probably know this by now, but there’s no single right way to do a startup. This is probably why reading startup books or “preparing” something before starting your own startup is not that useful in my opinion. I used to do this all the time, running my perfect startup in my imaginary world. The only way to find the most suitable way is to just do it yourself and then figure it out along the way.

Do you enjoy it so far?

Yes! I like it because this is the fastest way to learn about running a startup. It’s definitely a marathon (will probably take 3–10 years of your career), and you get better at things gradually. If you have a slight interest in starting your own, it’s definitely worth trying out—even as a side project if you find doing it full-time too risky.

The only thing that I miss is that I don’t do as much coding as I used to. Coding is only a small part of building a software business, so be aware of that (you get to choose whatever tech stack you like though, which is actually fun).

I hope this gives you some idea of what it’s like to be in the very early stages of a startup. Every founder has a completely different path, so I’d be curious to learn about yours too!