Want to launch a startup? Ask and answer these questions before venturing out on your own

From left to right: Sean Sternbach, co-founder of Venture Out; Benn Bollay, co-founder of CONTUI; Carter Rabasa, founder of Fizbuz; and Mona Akmal, co-founder of Falkon, speak on a Seattle Startup Week panel this week. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Starting a startup is a big career — and life — decision. There can be a lot of risk involved with leaving a cushy corporate job to venture out on your own. But answering some key questions before making the leap is one way to help increase your chance of success as an entrepreneur.

That was the focus of a panel discussion at Seattle Startup Week featuring techies who left places such as Microsoft, Twilio, and F5 Networks to launch startups. Here’s a quick rundown of the lessons they shared with the crowd.

Check your emotional state

For Mona Akmal, deciding to go off on her own was less about risk and more about making sure other parts of her life were in order so she was ready to focus on launching a startup. Entrepreneurs must ask themselves: am I in an emotionally balanced place where I’m ready to do this? Is every other part of my life feeling really good? Are my other responsibilities not swallowing me whole?

Akmal, a 12-year Microsoft veteran who left Seattle marketing startup Amperity this summer to launch Falkon AI, also said it’s important to leave your previous gig on a high note. She loved her team at Amperity, but she also had “absolute clarity” about venturing out.

“Don’t quit your job and then think that because you hate your job, you’re going to do your own company,” she said. “That’s a nose-pointing-down way of starting something new.”

Financial runway

Starting a company and testing an idea can take months, or even years. Founders may not be able to take a salary for a while — so make sure to give yourself some runway, the panelists said.

Carter Rabasa, who recently launched technical recruiting startup Fizbuz, recommended that people use YNAB, what he called the “best personal budgeting tool.” Rabasa started using it eight months before leaving a longtime career at Twilio to get his family on a new budget.

“If you’re even vaguely thinking about venturing out, you need to do something like that,” he said. “You need to have a plan for how you’re going to be emotionally secure and O.K. without 12 months of W2 income.”

(Bigstock Photo)

Test, test, test

A key question founders must answer is whether or not their idea resonates with customers. Akmal recommended something called “fake door testing.”

“Buy a domain for $18, put up website, create a Facebook or LinkedIn or Instagram ad, and run a $25 campaign,” she said. “Don’t wait until the third week of an idea; do it in first two days, because more than half your ideas will just die as you write down the marketing, the three sentences that describe what you’re doing and why it’s valuable.”

Akmal also pointed to the importance of “founder-idea fit.”

“I made that mistake — just because I care about a community of people, does not mean I’m the best founder to build a product in that area,” she said.

Benn Bollay echoed that sentiment. Bollay left F5 Networks in 2013 to launch cloud startup Union Bay Networks, which was acquired by Apple less than two years later.

“At the end of the day, do what you know,” Bollay said.

He also recommended founders read the book Disciplined Entrepreneurship. Bollay said he’s using it now while leading Contui, a new Seattle software startup, to help figure out if his idea is viable.

“We follow it and we’ve been talking to hundreds of customers,” he said. “Without that customer discovery, you really don’t know what you’re building.”

Support network

Whether it’s family, friends, a therapist, or something else, figure out who you can lean on for help as you engage on this tumultuous entrepreneurial journey.

Akmal said it shouldn’t be your co-founder or your own employees — that’s not their role, she said.

“Seek emotional support from places that are truly very safe, from people that don’t judge you when you fail or are humiliated by your failure,” Akmal said.

It’s also important to have a “professional support structure,” Bollay added.

“There’s really only one cure for that: networking,” he said. “The larger ecosystem of entrepreneurs in Seattle is fairly extensive. We have opportunities to get together and communicate.”

Bollay pointed to co-working spaces, accelerators, or other groups such as Venture Out, a new Seattle organization aiming to help people leave large tech companies and launch startups. Venture Out is led by Sean Sternbach, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Alexa Accelerator in Seattle who led the panel discussion.

Figure out your why

This one may seem simple, but it’s perhaps the most important, especially for getting through the tough times.

You’ve just got to really care about whatever it is you’re building and the problem you’re trying to solve, Rabasa said.

“If you aren’t passionate enough to work on your idea while you have a full-time job, if you don’t care enough to work on it in the evening or on weekends — for God’s sake, don’t try to start a company with that idea,” he said.

Akmal put it best: “The juice has to be worth the squeeze.”

“Figure out your why, whatever it is,” she said. “You may care about an idea; you may care about money; you may care about learning; you may care about a particular space; a particular customer; company building; fame; power.”

She added: “Always be brutally intellectually honest with yourself. Don’t let people shame you into thinking your motivations for doing things are different from what they are.”

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