When James Kirkham founded his first company he was in his early twenties, and it was 2001. “It was a pretty crap year to start for many reasons,” he says. “You had the dot-com crash and then 9/11, it was a pretty tumultuous time. But that pales into insignificance compared to this coronavirus situation.”
The covid-19 pandemic has left thousands of UK startups and small businesses in a dire financial situation. Founders are dealing with an unprecedented mixture of confusion and debt – but there’s no need for them to go through it alone.
Kirkham, now chief business officer at Defected Records, survived the 2001 tumult by building a support system. “I very deliberately surrounded myself with silver hair, with people who had been there and done it,” he says. “I found that age brings so much knowledge. Even if people don’t cast themselves as consultants or gurus, if they’re ten years older than you, they probably know something you don’t.”
Every month or two, he’d organise a quick meeting with someone new. “In every one of those conversations there was always one thing I wrote down that I’d never considered or thought of,” he says. “For the price of a cup of tea or a pizza, or these days for the cost of 20 minutes on Zoom or FaceTime, I would always pick up a nugget of knowledge.”
Kirkham avoided being too narrow in his focus. “I would always try and purposely find people from other spaces, sectors and industries,” says Kirkham. A friend of a friend works at an interesting record label? Ask for an introduction, even if it seems totally disconnected from your laundry-delivery startup. “Because invariably there’ll be stuff in there you can use and leverage.”
But how do you even get on their radar? “There is nothing stopping you from dropping a LinkedIn message to someone you admire and seeing if they’ll have a chat with you,” says Sam Jones, who founded Gener8 three years ago, after leaving his job at RedBull. He looks for industry relevant people who stepped down from a leadership role a year or so before. “They’re usually bored of lying on a beach or playing golf by then and are starting to look for things that are intellectually stimulating,” he says. “So it’s the perfect time to get on their radar.”
These older, wiser advisors are a key part of any support network, but they’re only half the picture. Advisors help with strategic thinking and can guide you through problems they navigated years before. But for moral support and solidarity in this uniquely difficult time, many turn to fellow founders.
“When we lost our first big project because of the coronavirus I called a friend who also has her own business,” says Madison Maxey, founder of electronic textile startup LOOMIA. They talked about landlords and loans and made contingency plans. “She made it much easier to jump into action,” says Maxey. “People like that are invaluable and it’s so different to an advisor because they have boots on the ground.”
Populating your founder network is like making friends. “Finding people with a similar mindset is crucial,” says Maxey. That doesn’t mean adtech founders can only have adtech friends, but if you’re going for slow and steady growth and your network are all planning to make a billion in a year, then you’re going to get frustrated. Same goes for product; it dictates your timeline. “We make hardware, which is really slow and really expensive,” says Maxey. “If all my friends were in the software space I would feel very depressed because we are just never going to be as fast as them.”
To find the right people, you’ll want to meet as many as possible. Say yes to everything. Real-life events might be a long way off, but virtual conferences still have networking potential. Do interviews. When Jones spoke on a podcast, he was added to a WhatsApp group with every other founder guest – an incredible shortcut. Ask for introductions to friends of friends. Send that guy you met three years ago a message. Don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation.
The main thing to remember is this is going to take a while, so pace yourself. “Try and find one good friend and one good advisor, build those relationships and then go back for another round,” says Maxey. If you put too much pressure on yourself, you’ll get overwhelmed. “Sometimes it’s good to pat yourself on the back for having one, rather than thinking you need a million.”
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