Miguel Hernandez, founder of Grumo Media, just interviewed me for a cool new series that he started "Startup Stories" (Grumo Media is the agency that made our amazing PubChase cartoon).
I answered many questions and shared a lot of advice for entrepreneurs from my two years of working on ZappyLab, but my most important tip from this interview is on the topic of picking a co-founder for the startup. Many have blogged on this topic because the choice of the co-founder often makes or breaks a fledgling company. My personal favorite is this post from Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of AngelList.
Naval, like many others compares the choice of a co-founder to the choice of a spouse. I agree entirely, but I think it is important to realize that the relationship with the co-founder is going to be tested and strained even more than a marriage.
Over the past year, I have spent way more time with Alexei, the co-founder of ZappyLab, than with my wife. And our time together is not a hike or picnic or a romantic stroll on the streets of Paris. We are in a basement. We are stressed. We are sleep-deprived. We are anxious about funding. We are constantly making decisions and prioritizing. Some of the decisions, if made incorrectly, can kill the startup. We debate and disagree (that’s the best part of having a co-founder – the ability to disagree and debate; without it, your ideas won’t improve and your startup will fail). And the worst thing is that Alexei and I don’t have sex with each other. So unlike a marriage, there is more stress, more arguments, and no cuddling and romance to dissipate the tension. You better have the right co-founder for this.
(I have been married for 15 years and in the startup mode for 2.)
Here is the entire interview, and the rest of the answers are pasted from Miguel's post, by permission, below.
What is PubChase?
It is a personalized recommendation service for biomedical literature. A bit like Netflix predicting which movies you might like based on those you’ve seen, PubChase recommends new research papers based on the ones you have in your library.
How did you come up with your idea?
I didn’t. Matt Davis did. He is a scientist extraordinaire, currently doing postdoctoral research in Heidelberg, Germany. Matt came up with the original PubChase recommendations idea. He cares deeply not just about the questions in biology, but about the way science is done, openness, and the scientists doing the research. He wanted to make scientists’ lives easier. That is why he has not slept for the last two years, while finishing his graduate work, starting a postdoc and simultaneously working on PubChase.
I came up with an entirely different idea in January 2012.
We hear about groundbreaking discoveries and life-changing new technologies, but the reality is that most of the important discoveries are never published or shared at all.
Edison had to reinvent the light bulb, filling 40,000 pages of lab notes and laboriously testing more than 1600 materials for the right filament. Had all the scientists working on it been able to connect in real time and share their discoveries, there is no doubt that the light bulb would have evolved substantially faster and more efficiently.
The same thing that was true in the 1800s is still true today. Scientists are constantly re-discovering knowledge that others have not had the time to publish and improving existing methods without the ability to share the improvements with the world. Imagine what the pace of Scientific progress could be with the aid of modern technology. This is why I co-founded ZappyLab, so that the next great discoveries in Science will come 2, 10, 35 years earlier than they would have otherwise.
I imagine that our project (protocols.io) may appear to be very targeted at scientists rather than the general public. But our enterprise isn't just an attempt to create a useful resource for scientists; this will revolutionize research in the lab, speeding up discovery and saving society billions on wasted efforts to reinvent the wheel. Vaccines, climate change, aging, cancer, and basic research the work that impacts everyone and everything will move significantly faster because of what we are doing. This isn't a project for scientists. It's a project for humanity and our world.
So why did you build PubChase?
We just launched protocols.io – a knowledge sharing platform to instantly communicate corrections and optimizations to science methods.
The challenge is that this resource has to be crowdsourced, but you cannot crowdsource without a crowd. So, for two years now, we have been bringing mobile technology to laboratories (phones and tablets for now and Google Glass in progress), in order to create a knowledge-sharing infrastructure that will fundamentally transform the communication of discoveries between researchers. We built PubChase also as part of this to create a community and acquire users towards the protocols.io effort.
How did you validate your idea?
Beta testers! Talk to your users. Get feedback. Refine, improve. Get lots of users to be your consultants, exclusive club members, whatever you come up with – but get the users to give you feedback.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
Accidentally. Wanted to be a professor. But Alexei, co-founder of ZappyLab, called and asked if we can build a mobile app for biologists. I first made fun of him, but then came up with an app that would be useful to me. Three weeks later, realized that this app could help to create protocols.io. And then, ZappyLab, little by little sucked me in. I became obsessed with the protocols.io idea. Given its potential to have an impact on this world, I realized that if successful, I would contribute so much more to society through this than through any discovery I would make in my own lab.
For a year, I continued research by day and ZappyLab by night (even after we raised seed funding). It was still, somehow, a very productive year for me scientifically. But then I realized that I couldn’t start my own lab, and make sure that ZappyLab succeeds. I could be certain to fail at two things, or decide to try to succeed at one.
How did you fund your startup?
Borrowed, savings, loans, credit card debt, angel investments, Kickstarter – everything! (Initially, I borrowed $50K from my parents and Alexei and Irina invested $50K from their savings. Then angel seed round for $325K.)
Share 1 tough moment/challenge in your journey
No such thing as a tough moment. It’s a roller coaster. It’s been two years of tough moments and challenges. That’s the startup life. But it’s also exhilarating and incredibly rewarding (just not financially).
For me and Alexei, probably the hardest and scariest is the initial decision. Alexei had to give up being a CTO of another really successful startup. Give up a really good salary and stability. I had to give up on the dream of becoming a professor and teaching and doing research. This initial decision is the hardest because you have a choice. It’s scary. It’s an enormous risk, and we realized just how great the risk we were taking. However, once you make the decision and plunge in, there is no way back. You have no choice but to solve all the other problems. This is also why you have to commit 100%. You can’t do it on the side. You can’t have a side-startup. Even if you plunge in, your startup is likely to fail. If you do it on the side, it’s guaranteed to fail.
Share 1 breakthrough that helped your startup
The right team in terms of the co-founders. And I don’t mean just good experts. Sure, I spent over a decade as a scientist – I know what research, publishing, grant-writing, and discoveries are like. I know what to build. Alexei has spent just as long building web and mobile tools of incredible complexity and beauty. And he is an absolute super-human as a team leader and engineering and technology guru.
But there are thousands of scientists like me with the same ideas that I have. And there are probably a few hundred software engineers who are technically as good as Alexei. That doesn’t mean there are hundreds of startups like ours.
By the right team I mean – luck to know each other. And luck that we are as close of friends as we are. No matter how technically great the co-founders, there will be tough moments. No, let’s be more clearly – there will be one long tough moment for the entire duration of the startup. And you need the right partner to pull this off.
Many people compare the co-founder relationship to a marriage. I think it’s harder than a marriage. I have spent way more time with Alexei over the past year than with my wife. And our time together is not a hike or picnic or a romantic stroll on the streets of Paris. We are in a basement. We are stressed. We are sleep-deprived. We are anxious about funding. We are constantly making decisions and prioritizing. Some of the decisions, if made incorrectly, can kill the startup. We debate and disagree (that’s the best part of having a co-founder – the ability to disagree and debate; without it, your ideas won’t improve and your startup will fail). And the worst thing is that Alexei and I don’t have sex with each other. So unlike a marriage, there is more stress, more arguments, and no cuddling and romance to dissipate the tension. You better have the right co-founder for this.
Share 1 piece of advice to upcoming entrepreneurs
I'd like to share 2 pieces of advice:
a. Get experienced advisors. Either through an incubator or by networking. There are many people who have started companies. They have a lot of wisdom. A lot of them love mentoring and helping talented and passionate new founders. Seek their help. Get lots of advice.
b. Some times, you will get terrible advice, even from the people who are more experienced and are trying to help you. Know when to ignore the advisors from (a). Trust your instinct. Pretty quickly, you will become the expert. You’ll know your product, users, and vision better than anyone in this world. Trust your intuition.
Lenny's recommendations to other entrepreneurs
Share 1 entrepreneurial blogs
Fred Wilson’s AVC.com and Paul Graham’s paulgraham.com are treasures.
Share 3 platforms/tools you cannot live without.
AWS, Google (gmail/analytics/Docs)
What do you use for project management? (Basecamp, Asana)
Used JIRA and Basecamp. Now all on GoogleDocs and Wunderlist.
How do you do your accounting? (Quickbooks, Wave, Bookkeeper)
Share 1 Productivity hack.
Amazingly talented engineers in Moscow, RF.
About the demo video Grumo Media produced for PubChase
How did you find Grumo?
Via the Grumo Quartzy video.
What made you decide you needed a demo video?
Once your product is complicated enough, you realize you need an FAQ. You write an FAQ. Then you look at GoogleAnalytics and realize you are the only one who has been to the FAQ page in a month, and none of your website visitors are registering. You think about that for a minute and then ask yourself, “Did I ever look for an FAQ on a new website?” And that’s how you realize you need a demo video.
What have you done to promote your video?
Great question! We built an amazing product (PubChase) and it turns out no one knows it exists. Need to market it! A demo video seems like a good idea. But once you put it up on youtube and your landing page, it hits you that no one knows you have this amazing demo video from Grumo.
We ran a fun contest where we rewarded with a t-shirt those would could identify the Nobel Prize winner in our cartoon. Ultimately, unless you can magically get the video in front of the right, it does not necessarily market for you. But if you do the marketing right, the video will help greatly with conversion – convincing the visitors to your website to register and log in.