Two old, good friends of mine published a book yesterday called Startup Playbook. The book is “founder-to-founder advice on how to create and build your startup.” In this DevOps Chat, I sat down with my friend and co-founder Rajat Bhargava. We talked about why he and Will Herman wrote this book, what he hopes others can learn from it and Raj gives us 3 tips on what every first time founder should know.
Between them, Will and Raj have started more than a dozen venture backed companies and have had multiple 8 and even 9 figure exists. If you have ever thought about starting your own company, had a great idea but weren’t sure what to do with it or just thought you could do a better job than the people you work for now, this book could be what you are looking for.
For this week (Feb 19) the book is available on Kindle for just 99 cents! Here is the link for the kindle download. Also a few times at the end of our conversation I referred to the book as the “Founders Playbook”. I tried to dub in the correct name, the “Startup Playbook” but my feeble interviewing skills are far superior to my sound engineering ability. Apologies.
As usual the streaming media of our chat is immediately below, followed by the transcript of our conversation.
Alan Shimel: Hey everyone, it’s Alan Shimel, DevOps.com, DevOps Chat. We’re here with another great DevOps Chat. Today’s chat is a little different for a couple of reasons. First of all, my guest is a very long-time – did I say long-time? – friend of mine, Rajat Bhargava. Raj, welcome to DevOps Chat.
Alan Shimel: Hey man, thanks. Secondly, our chat today is a little different. Rather than talking nuts and bolts of DevOps and that kind of stuff, we’re gonna talk about Raj’s new book, along with his co-author, another friend of mine, Will Herman, called The Startup Playbook.
Raj, I’ve known about the project for some time, but tell our audience, share with them what is The Startup Playbook. Why did you write it?
Rajat Bhargava: Well, The Startup Playbook is really our founder-to-founder conversation with other entrepreneurs. We’ve seen so many books out there that are from DCs, they might be from analysts, they might be from other folks out there, but we felt that founders out there needed a book from us, from other founders. Whether we wrote it, Will and I, or somebody else, we just felt like somebody had to talk about the tips, the secrets, the tribal knowledge, the stuff that we get by getting together and talking to other founders. We just felt like that was missing.
We have these conversations with so many other founders on a daily basis because we mentor and advise and help support other founders, we just felt like we needed to write it down. It’s like around the campfire, we have so many of these conversations, we felt like we needed to write it down so that there was a place that other founders could go to to learn quickly.
Alan Shimel: Just in the way of full disclosure, you know, Raj, you and I have worked together on at least two or three companies, maybe more. But in the way of background, you’ve actually founded, what, about eight companies now, starting when you were still back at university at MIT, correct?
Rajat Bhargava: Yeah, that’s right. So, it’s probably now close to 10 that I’ve helped start, or started myself. There’s just a lot of mistakes that I’ve made and a lot of challenges that I’ve faced, and I wanted to share those. On the same, Will has probably started five different businesses and he’s got tremendous experience, tremendous knowledge. We’ve both been through so many different things that we wanted to share those so that other people didn’t have to go through the same pain that we went through.
Alan Shimel: As we used to call it, the idiot tax, right?
Rajat Bhargava: That’s right.
Alan Shimel: Our audience – I don’t know how many “entrepreneurs” we have listening in, though I hope there are some – is made up of a lot of technical people. People, Raj, not that different, frankly, than you, right? Who have a great engineering background, live, breathe and die in today’s technology.
I’m sure there’s a big subset of them out there who maybe have a great idea, who see a hole in the market, who see a need in the market, have something that they say can really maybe change the world and make a great company. But they just don’t, they’ve never done it. They don’t know where to start. I know that’s who you are aiming for a lot in this book. Talk to us a little bit about that persona, that kind of person. What’s in the book for them?
Rajat Bhargava: Well, this book is absolutely targeted directly at them. In general, the book is a founder-to-founder conversation. The founders we’re really trying to target are those first-time founders, the folks that haven’t been through it before. Like you said, they may not know all the steps that they need to go through. They may not even know if founding a business is the right thing for them.
So, we actually start before you start a business in the book. We start about whether this is the right thing for you to do for you, for your family, for you as a person. Is founding a company the right thing for you? We start there. So, it’s from the ground up and we build up from there.
I think our belief is – we’re biased because both Will and I were engineers by educational background – we think some of the greatest businesses are started by engineers, by technical folks. We love when technical folks bring ideas forward, and we think they can change the world. The challenge is that the idea is just not good enough. Ideas are, unfortunately or fortunately, either way you look at it, they’re a dime a dozen. It isn’t the idea that’s so differentiating; it’s all of the other work that you do around the idea that makes it differentiating, that makes the successful business.
That’s a lot of what we talk about in the book is that the idea really just isn’t enough. It’s a seed. It’s a kernel. It’s where you start, but it’s just the beginning. It’s a long, long journey, but a great idea is a wonderful place to start.
Even an okay idea is a great place to start because you can iterate on it and you can improve it. You can make it much better. Then, a lot of the stuff that you do around that idea is what differentiates you and helps make you successful.
So, for your audience, for technical folks who have an idea, we think that’s fantastic. That’s a wonderful, wonderful base to start with, to build a business.
Alan Shimel: You know, there’s a lot in there, Raj. I want to highlight a few things. First of all, it’s true, whether you have a job or you’re starting your own company, but don’t underestimate that when you go to start, become a founder, that it doesn’t just affect you, right? It affects your family, your loved ones, your significant others and what have you. Because I’ve never met anyone who is successful with a half-hearted attempt to start a company, or to start a business, or to nurture an idea like that, to nurture a business. To me, it’s either you’re all in or you’re out.
Rajat Bhargava: Absolutely, yeah.
Alan Shimel: That’s one thing I think people need to think. Let me also hit on one other thing and that is when you speak to people, and you’ve spoken to more than me, but I’ve spoken to my share, what’s the biggest thing holding people back? If I took a poll, Raj, and said, “Hey, who would like to start their own company, be their own boss, and make a lot of money and be successful?” Very few people are gonna keep their hands down; everyone wants to do that.
What stops people from doing that? Well, number one, it’s a little bit of fear of the unknown, having never done it. But number two, the biggest thing I hear from people is, “My god, I don’t have the money to get there. What am I gonna do until my company makes enough money? How do I bridge from having a job with a steady income that keeps the lights on to the time where my startup is enough for me to support myself?”
That’s probably the single most scariest thing for first-time founders. What do you think?
Rajat Bhargava: You know, I think you’re right. I think there’s absolutely the fear of the unknown and fear of failure which, by the way, 9 out of 10 startups, according to the research, fail, which we actually think is low. We probably think it’s closer to 95 out of 100, maybe even 97 out of 100. Very few companies succeed long-term. The ones that are breakout successes that we hear about in the media are few and far between. It’s so few of the ones that start.
I think the second point is such an important point, which is how do I go start this business when I need money to live on, and there’s no cash coming in at the beginning? Well, that is a very, very hard problem. The good news is there are so many solutions to it, but some of it is a leap of faith, too.
The thing I would start with is there is so much prep work that needs to happen before you launch a business. That is where we spent a tremendous amount of time in the book talking about how do you vet your idea? That doesn’t have to happen only with you quitting your day job, and going and working on it. Some portions of that at some point you may need to do full time, but you can do a tremendous amount of research, of vetting your idea, of building your plans, of figuring out whether this concept that you have can be really, truly built into a business.
We encourage people to spend an inordinate amount of time at the beginning going and doing that. Because if you can build the right foundation at the beginning, you’ve got a shot at making it successful. If you start with a very shaky foundation, those cracks are gonna get exposed very fast and the chances of you succeeding go down dramatically. So, even if you need that job, even if you need that income coming in, there’s still a lot you can do to build out your concept and build out your business, even before you take the plunge.
Alan Shimel: Fair enough. So, Raj, if we take that as okay, that’s one tip for prospective first-time entrepreneur founders, ’cause we’re running low on time, give me three or four others, if you can. Maybe a top five of what a first-time founder should…really idiot tax saving tips here that they can really rely on.
Rajat Bhargava: Sure. I’ll give you three. The first one is the one we just talked about, but I’ll expand it.
I think completely vetting your idea before you really go all-in is so critical. That includes things like the value prop, the target customer. How can you build a team, or who is the team? Can you actually build the product or service that you’re proposing?
Can you differentiate it in the market? How are you gonna go get customers? How can you make money? Can you raise money to support yourself? All those things are the art of what we call vetting your idea. The more you can vet the idea from the beginning, the more solid of a foundation you have. That’s tip number one is completely vet your idea.
Tip number two is build a team around you. People think that starting a company could be just a single founder. Especially as an engineer or a technical person you might say hey, I’ve got this great idea. Why do I need to have another co-founder until later?
Well, we encourage you to get other co-founders right out of the gate. At least one, if not two. It’s critical that you have some people who are side-by-side with you as you go through this journey. Find people who have different perspectives, but that you can really work with. It’s one of the most important relationships that you’ll have in the business.
The third thing is find mentors, advisors, board members, people that have done it before that you can learn from. There is nothing like saving yourself time, mistakes, challenges, problems by hearing advice from others. You have to be open to it, but if you’re open to it, you can really accelerate the progress of the business.
Those are three quick tips that I would say are things a first-time founder ought to think about really hard.
Alan Shimel: Yeah, and those are three good ones, too. I’m sure the book is chock full of more of them.
Raj, let me throw you a little bit of a curveball. In addition to wanting to start businesses because they see needs in the market, I can’t tell you how many engineers and technical folks I speak to that would like to write a book. Again, I don’t know what stops them. Many do cross that chasm, right, and write a book; many don’t.
For people who maybe don’t want to start a business today, but do want to write a book…and most of them are not novels. They’re much like Founders Playbook, non-fiction kind of books. What advice can you give to budding or prospective authors out there?
Rajat Bhargava: You know, It’s different for everybody, but the thing that I think helped Will and I the most was we just broke it down into a little bit of time every single day. When I initially wrote the first draft of the book, I had a target of 1,000 words a day, which isn’t a lot, as you know, Alan. You can write 1,000 words probably in about 30 minutes, so it’s really not that much time. But if you plug away at that for 90 days, for just one quarter [break in audio]. The typical book is really more like 45,000 words. If you did it for 90 days, you’ve got 1,000 words, and you can throw away half of those words because –
Alan Shimel: And still have a book.
Rajat Bhargava: And still have a book. Or you could have two books, right? I think that’s the biggest thing is just don’t try and do it all in one sitting ’cause you can’t. That’s not the way it happens. You need to just chunk it up and do a little bit at a time. In my case, what I did was I just started writing. I didn’t even really have too much of an outline. I just started writing 1,000 words a day.
Then, we took that and we started formulating that into a book. So, we threw out tons of it, we rewrote it a couple of times. There’s just a tremendous amount of editing work. But the editing work turns out to be a lot easier – at least it feels easier; it probably isn’t easier – because you already have something down. It’s the blank sheet of paper that’s really daunting. But if you say, “I have a blank sheet of paper today and I only need to write 1,000 words,” that’s not that bad. You can get there.
Alan Shimel: Sounds like an agile methodology to authoring a book. Doing it in sprints.
Rajat Bhargava: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Do a sprint a day.
Alan Shimel: Yeah, that sounds cool. A little scrum meeting in the morning.
Well Raj, we’re about out of time here, but for our audience who maybe are interested in taking a look at Founders Playbook, I know you guys are offering sort of an introductory launch as the book goes to launch special. Where can we get some information here?
Rajat Bhargava: You can go to startup-playbook.com and you can also go to Amazon and just search The Startup Playbook. It is 99 cents for the Kindle version for the first week or so; that’ll come up on Monday the 19th of February. It’ll be 99 cents for a week. We’ve tried to make it really accessible for everybody. We really just want to get the knowledge and the content out into the founders’ hands.
Startup-playbook.com, or look on Amazon, The Startup Playbook.
Alan Shimel: Raj, beyond the book itself, I know you and Will have plans to try to nurture a community here with that. If people have questions, are there places on the website where maybe they could ask and stuff?
Rajat Bhargava: Yeah, absolutely. You can reach us on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn. If you go to the website, there’s links to all of that. You can reach out to us pretty easily. You can find us, and we’d be happy to engage and chat with you.
Alan Shimel: Sounds great. Hey Raj, I know this was a labor of love, but it was nevertheless a labor, and a long time coming for both you and Will. So, congratulations on the launch of the book, The Founders Playbook. You know what? We’ll keep an eye on it and watch it. I hope some of our listeners out here go check it out. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself. If you’ve got a great idea, the world’s waiting and you can make it happen.
Rajat Bhargava, my friend as well as author of The Founders Playbook, thanks for being this episode’s guest on DevOps Chat.
Rajat Bhargava: Thanks for having me, Alan.
Alan Shimel: All righty. This is Alan Shimel. We’ll see you soon on the next DevOps Chat.