Alice’s Adventures in Startupland

By Laura Douglas, EFLD10 Cohort Member, Co-founder & CEO at Levels AI

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Step 0. Quitting your job to start a startup.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

I quit my fun and well paid job to start a startup in March this year. I have absolutely no backup plan. In April, I joined the accelerator EF, on the 10th London cohort.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

This is pretty much exactly what they told us on Day 1 at EF. We are a bunch of people who didn’t fit in the conventional working world. Paradoxically: a group of 100 outliers. It’s totally mad to try to build a billion dollar company — your chances are so tiny. You’re smart enough to understand this, but mad enough to give it a chance anyway.

Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Looking on the bright side, Steve Jobs was mad, Bill Gates is mad, Elon Musk is mad, Mark Zuckerberg is mad…{insert your favourite startup founder} is mad.

Step 1. Working out what drives you.

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.
– Alice

This is what you think about every day as a startup founder. What do you care about? What do you want to bring to the world? Who are you? Strengthening this answer strengthens everything else. In such early stages as we are, the only thing about the company that is fixed is me, my cofounder and our shared mission.

No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.
– The Mock Turtle

We are just two fish with a porpoise.

Step 2. The idea.

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
– The Queen of Hearts

At EF, it wasn’t 6, we had to believe 25. We used lateral thinking techniques (a la Edward de Bono) to come up with 25 contrarian startup ideas. This was a mind expanding exercise where we basically came up with 25 things we wished existed in the world, and narrowed the list down to the one thing we were most suited to build.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.

Step 3. Check-ins with mentors.

“I could tell you my adventures — beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Everyday it feels like so many things — including your whole mindset — has changed. Your company changes every day too. This feels exhilarating but confusing when people want to catch up on your weekly progress. You realise that daily is the only way to explain. It’s very hard for anyone except your cofounder to know all the changes you or the company have gone through.

Step 4. Asking for advice.

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

When you start something for yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to tell you what you “should be” doing, even your investors. Like the Cheshire Cat says, it entirely depends on where you want to go. As someone very used to objective metrics with clear goals/maximums (eg. exams scores, bonuses, promotions, academic paper acceptances etc) this was a very strange thing for me to realise. I’m learning to create my own metrics before asking for advice — and it now seems obvious.

Step 5. Haters gonna hate

“I don’t think…” said Alice. “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

People are gonna dismiss and diss your idea. This may be out of ignorance, closed mindedness, jealousy, or even out of kindness. Many people will say “I don’t think {it’s possible}/{anybody will want to buy that}/{you can make a business out of that}/{people care enough about this area}/{you’re a good person to work on this}/{….}” so on and so on…. I must have heard “I don’t think…” at least 40 times since I started.

Not getting put down by this becomes easier once you realise that these people don’t know as much as you do about what you’re building. This means they’re unlikely to have all the information you have that has led you this way. <caveat> If they do know a lot about your business or the problem they are highlighting, then you should probably listen to them! </caveat> .

Step 6. Not getting too focussed on competition

If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does. — The Duchess

There will be competition, but as far as it doesn’t change your strategy, don’t worry about them. You’ll move faster and waste less time.

Though you still need to outrun them:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!
– The Queen of Hearts

Step 7. Focussing on the big picture

The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.
– The White Rabbit

The main thing that matters is that you’re always going in the right direction. It’s like trying to get to the other side of a constantly moving landscape — if you just put your head down and focus on moving quickly in one direction, then there’s a high chance you’re moving quickly in the wrong direction.

Step 8. Starting Building

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Just get building asap and keep building one small step at a time till you’re finished (which may be never…)

Step 9. Showing traction

“The best way to explain it is to do it.” — The Dodo

You can spend your time trying to sell people on the idea…or you can just sell them the product.

10. Female Founders

If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?
– The Unicorn

Female founders are like unicorns…. ultimately amazing and powerful creatures, the only problem is that people don’t naturally believe in them. Believe in each other — believe in the other people who have overcome adversity to be where they are…and they will believe in you.

11. How the passing of time feels while building a startup

Alice: “How long is forever?”
White Rabbit: “Sometimes, just one second.”

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