We all know the conventional wisdom about founding a startup. If you're a tech founder, you must be working 100-hour weeks. You must be living a penthouse lifestyle and racking up Virgil Abloh-grade air miles. You must be looking to change the world (and change it now). And should be doing all of this as the solo, genius trailblazer.
But that’s the old way of doing things. While there’s certainly something to be learned from these myths of tech founder success, the future calls us to think more holistically, sustainably, collaboratively, and quantitatively.
No one embodies this new way of thinking more than our inspiring Co-founder and CEO Stefania Olafsdottir. So we wanted to share some of the advice she shared for tech founders on Mat Sherman’s at the Forward Thinking Founders Podcast, as well as the insights she regularly surfaces with our own team.
Stef has learned a lot of lessons in her time as a founder: How to prioritize user needs over world-changing ambition, achieve steady pacing over hyperintense work, network over going it alone, and, above all, drive your business to new heights with the help of good data.
Here, we’re featuring Stef’s thoughts around three myths of tech founder success and one core truth that drives her forward each day. And we won’t even make you guess which is which.
Let’s dive in.
Beneath the world-beating enthusiasm founders have about their companies, their primary job isn’t to solve the core problem that originally inspired their company’s creation. Rather, their job centers around solving all the problems that surround the mission of their company, so that their company’s vision can move forward unhindered (or, as unhindered as possible).
“You never really go home feeling 'I'm done for the day!'”
It’s probably obvious to folks that know Avo, but Stef is extremely passionate about self-serve analytics culture, data quality, data structures, and working with product people to turn insights into action items. But this isn’t what her day to day work is about anymore.
It’s mostly about all the other stuff: Making sure we don’t run out of money, making sure the people on the team don’t burn out, mapping out go-to-market strategies, and a lot more. There's always a fire somewhere. As she confessed on Mat Sherman’s Forward Thinking Founders Podcast, "You never really go home feeling 'I'm done for the day!'"
Stef believes that if you're going to spend your days fighting those fires, you need three things:
As she said on the Forward Thinking Founders Podcast about the importance of a versatile imagination: "[To] help so many people solve the problem that you're trying to solve for them. . . . That involves a lot of different things." You need to raise money for your MVP. You need to gather a great team around you (more on that later).
On the conscientiousness side, you can't hope to solve your customers' problems unless you've taken the time to understand their needs. Stef emphasizes the importance of keeping communication channels with current customers open to make sure you’re satisfying their needs and that they're happy with the product you're building.
That conscientiousness should extend to things like data strategy, too; it pays to be careful. Being conscientious about communication with customers and the quality of your data strategy can fast-track you to success. It can also save you potentially crippling corrective expenditure. "Fixing terrible data will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. . . . Communicating and quality assurance [before shipping] is key," she said on the Mat’s podcast.
Finally, when you're fighting all those fires, you need to be able to keep your head and help your team keep theirs too. Stef observed that a happy startup environment involves "everyone on the team being happy that . . . the list [of outstanding tasks and issues] is endless." Stef's own ability to keep calm under pressure has impressed everyone around her. "My husband . . . said to me, 'If I were dealing with this, I would be so much more upset than you are right now.' I think that sums it up; just keeping calm while the fires are going on."
(Almost) all founders have been there: Working 100 hour weeks to get the project you care about up and running. The 100-hour work week has become something of a tech mythos, but, as Stef can warn from personal experience, it’s not something we should aspire to.
Now, sometimes you can’t escape it, and there’s no choice but to buckle down and push through (if so, here’s a good guide to surviving it). However, backing off from glamorizing overworking is something that all founders should aspire to.
Stef is an apostle of "slow living" and remote working for lifestyle, productivity, and even environmental benefits. These things are crucial to clear thinking, balanced perspective, and being less wasteful in living.
Stef is intrigued by the slower, more mindful alternative. Many of us were brought up to value constant productivity and to enjoy the material benefits of a work-intensive outlook on life. However, the psychological and even ecological impacts of that lifestyle are becoming better and better understood.
Slower living, as an alternative, roots in remote work. As Stef observed, "The fastest-growing commute to work currently is actually not commuting." This is particularly true in the post-COVID-19 remote landscape, but the appetite for working remotely was growing even before the pandemic. There had been 400% growth in remote working between January 2010 and January 2020.
“The fastest-growing commute to work currently is actually not commuting.”
For Stef and Avo, that embrace of remote working is essential, even before the global shift to distributed work in 2020. "My cofounder and I work over a seven- to eight-hour time-zone difference," she said. "We are making the decision [to] create a fully remote company. And a lot of companies are doing that today."
For maximum benefit, Stef suggested that this new approach to thinking about work be combined with a new approach to thinking about life. "I think it's interesting to take that direction [of] remote culture and combine it with a slow-living culture," she said. With a slower pace of life, you "don't have to work as much also, and that fuels a slower lifestyle. As a result, you don't have to be as extremely wasteful in living."
Being a solo founder can be great, but Stef is a firm proponent of the school of cofounders: “I don't know where I would be if I didn't have my cofounder.”
This is because, no matter how inspired you are alone, your ideas and vision can’t exist in a vacuum forever. Rather, your goals are made stronger--and more diverse--when they’re supported and improved upon by talented people.
This network of inspiring people offers you greatness. Stef quoted the adage: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." The cultivation of a great network is something that Stef is passionate about and is an essential aspect of success, whatever your aims. You might have talent to spare, but you still can't succeed without other people's input, advice, and cooperation.
Stef emphasized that “greatness” is not related just to technical skill or business acumen, but to personality. Whether you're building a business, a house, or a relationship, the foundational ingredient of any grand plan is optimism. You can't do it unless you think you can do it. Surround yourself (and fill your operations) with people who have a can-do, helpful, and conscientious approach to their lives and work.
This is Stef's advice whether you are living in an existing startup hub, like San Francisco, or are thousands of miles away from one. Sure, it's easier to get started if you live in San Francisco, Boston, London, Berlin, or any other major startup hotspot. But there are a lot of professional social networks out there, allowing any aspiring founder to do the thing Stef thinks is most important: "Talk to another entrepreneur. . . . Surround yourself with people who are optimistic and people who are interested in taking part in such a journey."
“I don't know where I would be if I didn't have my cofounders.”
From there, build your network of collaborators and advisers to reflect your goals.
Your insights about your customers and product are only as good as your data. Tech founders, and their teams, need to invest in good data practices in order to get the insight they need to build great things. But, if your data is bad (or confusing), it unfortunately won’t fix itself.
Stef learned this lesson many times in the early years of her career as a founder. At QuizUp, she found herself having to choose between product delivery speed and data quality. This trade off wasn’t sustainable because as more features were shipped her team’s ability to gain insight into their performance got foggier and foggier with bad data.
To remedy this, the QuizUp team hacked together internal tooling to improve data quality and reduce engineering friction. These early solutions ended up saving the day (and the product) countless times down the road. But Stef wrestled with the same parable of data quality at her next company, Viska.
"I'll never forget the day when [at my previous startup QuizUp] I discovered our first data bug for our new product," she said. The data was incomplete and impossible to use. It was a devastating realization after so much work. "I was so, so disappointed; I would sort of say that I rage-quit the day. I just had to go home."
These data bug issues pointed back to the broader problem: The consequences of bad data never go away, but only get worse (until you deal with them). Building a digital product means always generating more and more data, which requires a proactive approach to data management.
"I [thought] this will never be okay; as long as I'm building a digital product, I will always be dealing with this," Stef said on the podcast.
In Stef's view, the key to eliminating the possibility of bad data is through the creation of a single source of truth on the subject. That's precisely why she and the team decided to create Avo. Suddenly, all those persistent issues with poor data, slow analytics, and tough collaboration were gone. Stef explained that, with Avo, "developers can implement their analytics faster because they get custom-generated and type-safe SDKs (bundles of software development tools) based on pre-agreed events."
She also emphasized the benefits for the customer. "Using this combination of tools, we are helping our customers keep up their product delivery speed while maintaining reliability in their data and insights."
And when it comes to facilitating productive remote work, Avo delivers the goods, too. It includes many collaborative features — branched workflows for parallel work, features for peer-reviewing, an implementation status feature — which facilitate collaboration and help make Avo that single source of truth.
“Using this combination of tools, we are helping our customers keep up their product delivery speed while maintaining reliability in their data and insights.”
Perhaps that was Stef’s most important piece of advice to tech founders. If you can’t find the solution to your problem, build your own!
Find out more and try Avo today.