Some entrepreneurs start one company and work there for the rest of their lives. Some stick to one role – marketing, for instance – and help many companies grow. Some, like Dan Lynch, take on every role imaginable at all kinds of businesses, trading tradition for exploration.
At 15, Dan tried architecture, designing a house that was built in Ann Arbor, Michigan. By 18, he owned a business selling aftermarket automobile parts. By 24, he was leading software teams and giving technical presentations to Apple and Pixar employees.
Since then, Dan has reached even higher. He’s founded companies including Fam.ous and Brandcast.com, a code-free marketing platform. As a serial entrepreneur, Dan has encountered and overcome basically every obstacle in business. I sat down with him recently to discuss the three most valuable lessons he’s learned along the way:
1. Choose expertise over money.
When it comes to co-founders, some people believe in love at first sight. Not Dan. According to him, developing bonds with a potential business partner is the same as it is in any other relationship.
“I worked on and developed a relationship with my co-founder for six months before agreeing to a co-founder role,” he told me. “We had well-defined responsibilities and titles from day one. This takes time. You need to learn about each other before putting a ring on it.”
To get to know a prospective partner, Dan recommends getting together outside of work. Do not, he cautions, jump into a relationship with someone if that person’s primarily value is investor connections. Money is helpful, but it’s not the path to a successful partnership.
Instead, look for a person whose skills complement your own. Talk about strengths and weaknesses so each can fill the other’s gaps. Founders must be able to cover a lot of ground with just a few people. Fundraise and expand only once you’ve established a competent, collaborative core team.
2. Don’t create mirages.
When chasing funding, it’s tempting to change the road map to match investor or customer expectations. Don’t placate others by misleading them about your product. Direct those efforts toward building the best possible product. Then, let the work speak for itself.
“If you’re thinking about how you want to look before you focus on what’s inside, you will build a house of cards,” Dan explained. “Instead, build something with great foundational value and it will pay dividends.”
The more you focus on the presentation of the product, the less clear your vision becomes. Before worrying about marketing, focus exclusively on product development. It will be ready when it’s ready, and your customers might not even know they need it yet.
Keeping focus is difficult. But startups that stay true to their customers and investors are the ones that are rewarded down the road.
3. Let team members take the wheel.
“Trust is greater than process,” Dan told me. “Talk about your values and how you want to run the company incessantly. There should be no surprises in company culture or how things will run.”
Your team is more than the hours employees work. According to Dan, the best way to engage employees is to embrace continuing education. Let your people pursue new ideas, allow them to fail, and use missteps as teaching moments for next time. Encourage them to pursue passions such as music and sports outside of the office. The more well-rounded your team members are in life, the sharper they will be at work.
Trust, however, should be earned. Get to know your team so when the time comes to let them take command of a project, you can trust them to do it right. A developer might, for example, want to try her hand at marketing. Give her the opportunity to earn that trust through some supervised projects. If she succeeds, let her strategize her own initiatives.
Few entrepreneurs will found as many companies as Dan, but all of them can learn something from him. Let your passions lead you, and sooner or later, you’ll wind up where you need to be.