6 months running my startup in stealth — #StartupLife
Last December I decided to embark on a new adventure. After supporting early-stage tech founders for almost 10 years, being involved (and trying to get into) the investment space and being asked way too many times when I would start my own startup journey… I eventually did it and today I am the proud CEO & co-founder of WildMeta.
What made me tick?
It wasn’t what but whom! I met my co-founder 6 years ago and pretty quickly knew I wanted to be involved in whatever he wanted to build. However, during these 6 years, we faced some timing issues: when I had some time to start something he didn’t and when he did, I was already engaged in other projects. In the meantime, we both grew, expanded our knowledge and network and spent lots of time brainstorming ideas until one really got stuck in our minds.
How did we know this idea has THE idea?
My co-founder and I spent most of our time discussing the news, talking about tech applications and business models. Our brainstorming sessions quite often looked like this: after-lunch coffee ☕, him passionately sharing his thoughts and exciting ideas, me vigorously deep-diving into the details and pinpointing any red flags and challenging the idea viability… until we found an idea I couldn’t easily debunk. A couple of months after, we were still talking about it, doing additional researches, answering some of our initial assumptions, evaluating if it could actually work and be exciting enough for the both of us to take the leap.
BTW technically it’s been more than 6 months since I incorporated the company, but it became real and serious in February when my co-founder joined the adventure full-time.
Why the secrecy? Why are we still in stealth?
I’m not even sure that by the time I publish this post our website it will yet be public. We are in stealth but not completely, we have talked about WildMeta publically in podcasts, at (virtual) events, we gave our first technical presentation a few weeks ago, already spoke to a bunch of investors and started having conversations with esports professionals and our target audience. What we do isn’t a secret and we’re happy to talk about it (🎙podcast folks I’m looking at you now 😉), we simply haven’t yet communicated or linked our social media profiles together but when we do, you’ll know about it if you follow me on Twitter or any other platform!
Any covid-19 impact on our plans?
As I said, I incorporated the company in December, by the end of February my co-founder and I were both working full-time on the project. And just a few weeks later London went into lockdown. At that time, we were already in our own bubble keeping our focus on the core technology. As an avid networker constantly going to startup events in London, it has slightly changed what my weeks look like, trading networking events, coffee catch-ups, summer parties and demo days for Zoom, Google meet or Whereby video calls. But our strategy and timeframe haven’t been affected and I feel quite lucky especially as I saw many founders being caught in the middle of their product launch or fundraising and forced to completely adapt their offer due to the current situation.
A few things I learned, first mistakes and other tips.
1. The first time you talk about your idea is terrifying, even if you know in advance it is going to be tough.
It’s been now 10 years since I have been around early-stage startup founders, I knew it was key to start talking about our project as soon as possible and actively listen to the questions asked, first feedback and what people get out of it, but even if I knew what to expect, it was still a big deal to actually do it. Luckily, I am surrounded by founders and investors who understand that and provide challenging & interesting questions/feedback. Of course, a lot has changed since the first time I tried to put words on what we do, our vision is more refined, as well as our roadmap and plan & I have no doubt it will continue to evolve over time, especially as we shape our communication to our users.
2. I have made mistakes and I will surely make more.
A good friend of mine used to say that everyone makes mistakes so better make them fast and learn from it as early as possible. It’s been only 6 months, maybe in a couple of months, I’ll tell you about other mistakes I’ve made that I don’t know about yet. One thing I did was to onboard an intern for a 6-week programme in partnership with a London-based university. On paper it was a good idea, the intern was paid through a government scheme and we had a fresh pair of eyes looking at our company to help us build and design our first website. The intern we were assigned was very nice, volunteer, and I am sure she will be a great front-end dev, but from week 1 we both realised there was a huge gap between what we needed and what she could do, which ended up being quite a non-sense for her and for us. Thankfully, it only wasted my time and didn’t affect our overall progress, my co-founder wasn’t involved in it and remained focus on the tech.
3. Money, Money, Money: external funding vs bootstrapping
I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell everyone asking us about fundraising, we’re trying to bootstrap for as long as we can and will be looking to raise our first funding round toward the end of the year. And when I explain the reasons behind that, everyone says it totally makes sense. However, the hard part is to stick with our choice on a daily basis. When you read about startups raising large amounts of money for projects requiring limited resources, it makes you question your plans. Should I also be raising earlier? For sure I could use an additional pair of hands or two to accelerate our development and get faster results! How far can we realistically get with only 2 people? Truth is, I doubt there’s any real unique answer to these questions.
Bootstrapping a deeptech startup is extremely hard and being able to hire a few people would help us a lot, but every time my co-founders and I talk about the pros and cons, we always come to the same conclusion: let’s stick to our plan but also start getting ready for our upcoming fundraising.
Something I’ve tried to do to extend our personal runway (and potentially get extra $$ to pay for freelance help) was to work on the side, at least while we’re still working on the core tech and don’t need me to be full-time. But I have to say after I lost my full-time role at a startup just before London’s Covid-19 lockdown, I struggled to find any paid gigs or part-time roles that pay decently AND are ok with me being a founder. So here I am, de-facto a full-time founder and proud of it 🤷♀️.
4. Know the rules… so you can deliberately not follow them.
You need to talk to X users before building anything, start by creating a pitch deck with X numbers of slides, validate your idea with X, Y, Z…
We all received this advice, and they are good advice. But sometimes I think you need to do what makes the most sense to you and your company. At first, it frustrated me not to follow the rules (and it still quite often does). I know I should administrate this study I prepared weeks ago to gaming forums and chat groups, it’s ready but since we’re still in stealth and working on the core tech, it won’t change anything for us to have these answers now or in a month when we’ll have more visibility on our costs and a public website people can look up. So yes we should have tried to validate our idea first with a large study, but instead, we’ve been talking to a smaller crowd of people who immediately made further introductions and constructive feedback. Additionally, they all asked to be added to our closed beta as soon as it is available, which is extremely encouraging. I’d even add that by waiting a little bit longer, we will be able to make the most of this study, getting more useful answers, building a waiting list and at the same time testing the engagement of different communities and channels to feed the information back to our communication strategy (+ save money & time on paid marketing).
5. I’m the CEO and so depending on the day I can also be COO, CFO, CMO, accountant, (bad) web designer, product manager.
Anyone who’s been working in early-stage startups knows that you have to wear many hats, that’s ok. As the CEO and co-founder, the big question is how to manage priorities, how you spend your time and when to know when you actually need external help. TBH I haven’t really figured this out yet, I am right now doing a lot of preparational work: planning ahead our launch strategy, future funding plans, communication approach, product map until we are ready to give a big push. When will it happen? As soon as our tech is strong enough to start our first human alpha test and we can put together a more precise product timeline.
But having so many hats is also a good way to quickly understand what I like to do vs what I am good at, what I want to externalise as soon as possible, what I clearly need help with and what I think I can do but actually can’t do well.
6. My most crucial role in the team: checking up on my co-founder.
The team is just composed of the 2 of us so looking after my team means making sure my co-founder is ok, has everything he needs and is not wasting time on unnecessary tasks. No offence to all the investors who reach out to him on LinkedIn, but he’ll definitely continue to tell you to contact me instead. I wish I could be of more help to him, be more technical but at the same time, our team wouldn’t be as balanced at it is now if it was the case.
This also means that now my “best feeling ever” moment in the week is when my co-founder tells me how excited he is about his latest progress or when he asks me to have a look at his screen (even if most of the time I need some time to understand what to look at, I know it’s pretty cool).
7. Imposter syndrome and FOMO
Yeah imposter syndrome is real, and it’s even worst when you are your own boss and you have no-one to impress or to be happy with your work. For now, I have been compensating by (trying to, more or less consistently) dedicate some time every week to learn new things on AI, read esports news, and share what I’ve learned over the years with the startup scene.
I’d also add FOMO to the imposter syndrome, but it’s not really a Fear Of Missing Out, it’s more a fear of missing something that I am supposed to do, such as an important step. I’ve been reading and following many founders on social media, and while I’m always happy to read great funding round closed and big milestones reached, it also gives me a bit of anxiety as I compare our progress with theirs. Do I know it’s ridiculous? Of course, I do! We’re only 6 months in and building an AI startup, with no external funding (yet) — I never said this feeling was justified or makes any sense.
In the past, I had the opportunity to put myself in the shoes of founders I worked with, early employees, investors and mentors, but starting a startup of your own is quite different. Along the line of having only one opportunity to make a first good impression, I am very much enjoying every day (good and bad days), knowing we have only one chance in a lifetime to go thought the first few months of our very first startup.
Want to share your own startup experience, have any further question, looking to hear more about what we do? You can reach out anytime on Twitter @AmandineFlachs, LinkedIn or join my Discord chat to share your work, tips and resources with a small and welcoming community of founders and creators!
UPDATE: I haven't yet told you what I am building so if you are curious, do not hesitate to check our (eventually live) website https://www.wildmeta.com.