Ivan Malopinsky

First year as a founder

It’s been a year since I went full-time with Metadash. I’ve learned a lot in the last twelve months. As a first time solo technical founder, even with years of experience at a high-growth startup, I was surprised how much work it took to build a company. I wanted to share a few lessons I learned to help out current and future founders.

Traction is everything

If you’re raising your first round of funding and you’re a first-time founder, you need traction. In the past, raising just from a pitch deck was feasible, but these days, the expectation is that you have a product in the market and/or customer interest. It’s simply not enough to just have a vision and a mockup anymore. Demos can help, but they’re not a replacement for real customers. Startup founders should bootstrap from day one.

More importantly, traction helps when venture investing slows down, as it did in 2022. A startup with a vision but no traction is unlikely to get funded, but it’s also unlikely to survive. Even a bit of revenue helps to ride out a choppy economic cycle. Founders can’t depend on venture capital in tough times, they need to have a solid customer base.

Keep the product simple

You have to build the initial product in such a way that you don’t need to raise money to ship it. That means cutting down the product surface area to what you can build in a short amount of time. The “size” of the product matters a lot, especially as a solo founder. Large and ambitious products take too long to build and take too long to get traction, so keep it simple.

Networking is critical

Cold investor outreach is an uphill battle with very low return on investment. Warm intros are the gold standard. It’s not easy and it takes time, but there is no better or faster way to get funding than a referral from someone investors trust. You need intros for everything, so build your network before you build a startup.

Fundraising is 80% prep

Raising funds for a startup is extremely time-consuming. It takes time away from the activities that create value, like building product or doing sales. That’s why you should only fundraise when you’re ready and when you have time to do it. You need to prepare for months before going out to raise, and run a focused process with a deadline. A raise with no end in sight is an expensive waste of time.

The pitch will change

It takes time for the pitch to get decent. The idea will become more explainable the more conversations you have. Treat the pitch in early meetings as a rough draft and refine it based on the feedback you get. Invest into a pitch deck only when you feel the idea can be clearly explained to others.

Templates are your friend

Don’t build everything from scratch. Use templates and toolkits as much as possible. A landing page or investor email written from scratch under time pressure won’t be as good as an optimized template. It’s uncomfortable for founders who like to do everything themselves, but it’s a massive time saver.

Shop around for services

The most popular tools aren’t perfect. Calendly stopped working for me one day and support was completely useless. Another day, the website for my bank, Mercury, stopped working - their support was more responsive, but it’s still incredible that bank software could break so suddenly and casually. Finally, Webflow, the popular web design tool, turned out to be sluggish, cumbersome, and expensive. Look around for alternatives and always have a backup in mind for your critical services.

Looking ahead

The previous year was a big learning experience for me. I found that even if you prepare and read all the advice you can, you’ll still make obvious mistakes. Heading into the next year, I’m looking to execute better and faster. I hope this was helpful to other founders, as it’s advice I wish I had before I got started.