The Right Way to Found a Start-Up

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By Sriram Gollapalli

Starting a company is easy, right?  Up until recently, when someone asked me "What do you do?" I would always waver a bit and would vary my answer between "I work at a start-up focused on inventory and research management...", "I work with a company that works with the biomedical researchers," and "I started a company with some friends."

Today, almost five years later, I confidently combine all of the above and say "I started a company with some friends working with biomedical researchers." Running (and growing) a company for almost five years -- that's the hard part. This week, I will share a few of my thoughts, learnings, and observations from the past five years of starting a company from the ground up.  Sprinkled throughout the week, I also hope to share a few random topics of interest to me (travel, wine, networking, learning about cricket), and in turn, of interest to you.

It all started five years ago.  I was speaking with one of my best friends from high school, Tad, and he mentioned that while he was recently talking to his undergrad rowing buddy, Andreas, he heard a pain-point that had the foundations of a great start-up idea.  In the several years after high school, Tad and I had tried (and admittedly, not really succeeded) building out a few different start-up ideas (ranging from selling diamonds online to yes, another social network) while working full-time. The main lesson that we learned from those experiences:

Part-time commitment almost guarantees failure.

This time, to succeed, the three of us knew we had to take the plunge and quit.  Looking back, I can confidently say that, in addition to being full-time, one of the biggest components of our success has been the composition of our founding team. Here are a few points to consider when assembling your dream team:

Do they have a different point of view?

One of my favorite classes from undergrad involved students from departments across the university (fine arts, engineering, drama, computer science, history, English), and it was one of my most rewarding/eye-opening experiences.  Having different backgrounds is
incredibly useful while approaching business problems, strategic decisions, product design complexities, etc.  Our founding team has years of experience in biomedical science, technology, and business, which has been proven to be incredibly valuable.

Can I trust them with my life?

They say don't mix business and pleasure, right?  My answer: wrong! While I've heard that advice over and over again, it's been an amazing experience to be able to work with friends and make it work.  I realize I take it for granted sometimes after hearing some horror stories, but having implicit trust from day zero has been tantamount to our success.  Making the leap from friends to business partners is not always easy, but with open and honest communication, it can be a breeze.

Will they go the extra mile and then the extra 100 miles?I can't tell you the number of times the three of us had late, late night meetings or 16+ hour working days just trying to think about how to approach the next sales presentation, board of directors meeting, coding challenge, or design issue.  The energy that we were able to
generate among the three of us was (and still is) contagious and pushed each of us to think about a challenge a little bit harder and smarter until we felt confident we were able to share our best with our community.

Could I live with them?In our case, the three of us effectively lived, breathed, and ate together for the first two and half years of our start-up experience. And when traveling, to keep expenses low, we frequently had to stay in close quarters.  We never regretted this, and I believe this 'non working' component of experience helped us forge stronger ties (if possible).

How many co-founders should I have?  Are X co-fodarts.jpgunders too many?

Whenever I get asked these questions, I unequivocally say that 3 is the best number if that's even remotely possible in your situation.  We frequently find ourselves where the two of us may have different opinions on a certain decision, and it's been extremely helpful to have the third to help distill the two different opinions and help drive the group towards a decision.

I hope these guidelines can help you and, I'm excited to hear what you have found successful in your experience!

Sriram Gollapalli is a founder and the Chief Operating Officer of iLab Solutions, based in Cambridge, MA.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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