Behind every startup success story is a huge heap of failures. (Yep, it’s true.) Few know that better than Fast Forward alumni Peter Gault, founder of Quill, the free, online writing tool for students. When Peter started the Fast Forward Accelerator, Quill had served 10,000 students. Today, they’ve reached 1 Million students. This summer, Peter came back to the Accelerator – this time to teach our 2018 cohort 7 hard-won startup lessons learned on his way to this incredible milestone.
Startup Lessons Learned 1: Believe that what you’re working on is the most important thing you could be doing.
“What you’re doing right now is really tough,” Peter said, “so that belief will serve as your foundation when you go up against the problems that will arise. You don’t start a tech nonprofit startup if you’re not passionate about it.”
To be successful, Peter explains, “You’ll spend the next ten years running this organization and it could ruin your life, so the stakes are kind of high. If it feels hard, you’re exactly where you need to be.” Peter recommends being very conscious about your mental health, as well as reading entrepreneurship startup lessons learned from Sam Altman. (TL;DR – you’ll probably fail and it’s very unpleasant.)
Startup Lessons Learned 2: You need to disregard everything around you.
“You’ll see people all around you doing amazing things, and it’s really easy to get caught up in it. Disregard what other folks are doing and focus inward,” Peter said.
He shared the story of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who fell into a period of self doubt after winning the 1965 Nobel Prize. He was unsure if he’d ever be able to significantly contribute to theoretical physics again. His ticket out of the “valley of doubt” came through the realization that, “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.”
Startup Lessons Learned 3: Hire a project manager as early as you can.
Grant funding is critical to most tech nonprofits, but can also be hugely distracting. Hire an organized project manager as early as possible, ideally when your head count is around 6-7 people. “As a nonprofit,” Peter said, “we’re under constant pressure to fundraise and focus on grants. This is tough, because you don’t get to choose when things are due.” If you don’t have a point person who can handle these things, you may have to drop a project to work on a grant.
Startup Lessons Learned 4: Show efficacy as early as possible.
“The sooner you can show efficacy, the sooner you’ll open up doors you couldn’t open before, and tap into funders who may be skittish about funding startups,” Peter shared.
A problem most startups face? They’re trying to seek legitimacy as an organization without proven outcomes. Peter recommends two methods for showing efficacy early on. First, build a board that will give you credibility and guidance. “Building a board with esteemed leaders can help you build legitimacy and create trust with funders. Your board members will support you and have your back as you tackle big new challenges,” he said. “When you think about board members, shoot for the moon.”
A second method Quill used to show efficacy after four years was to organize a giant research study. “The best way to do this,” according to Peter, “is to not do the study yourself. Reach out to academia – there are likely grad students who are passionate about the same things you are.” Plus, graduate programs will fund many of these independent studies.
Startup Lessons Learned 5: Avoid mission creep at all costs.
“Many people will present you with big opportunities that are outside of your core mission,” Peter said. “Fight tooth and nail to stay focused on exactly who you want to serve, and repeat it constantly so that people really build the belief that this is the one thing you are seeking to do.”
Peter likens it to a bird protecting her eggs. “One of the advantages you have when you’re getting started is that your product is a lot smaller, and your solution more laser focused.” The prospect of big grants can tempt startups to shift their core focus in order to secure funding. Peter recommends doing everything you can to stay focused on who you truly want to serve.
Startup Lessons Learned 6: Multitasking is a huge time sink.
Alas, multitasking is inevitable as a founder. Constantly context-switching is part of your job. A solution? Write everything down! “Every single process you do should be documented. By writing everything down, you can delegate tasks and forget about how things work. This way, you can focus on the big picture,” Peter said. “If I’ve written everything down, I can go home on Friday and know that I don’t have to keep it in my head. It becomes a lot easier to delegate processes to other people.” Peter recommends checking out Notion, which is like Trello meets Google Docs.
Startup Lessons Learned 7: Early on, apply for everything that’s relevant to your mission.
“Fast Forward was amazing and helped with key funding when we were really limited. When you’re getting started early on, programs like Fast Forward are like life blood, because they’ll take a risk on you when other folks might not,” Peter said.
Staying focused and seeking out the right opportunities is crucial in the early stages. In fact, great programs, grants, mentors, and community can be the difference between success and failure for early stage organization. For more information on the breadth of opportunities available to tech nonprofit entrepreneurs through Fast Forward, read this.
Being a tech nonprofit startup isn’t easy, but Peter says, “If you stick with it, you can make amazing things happen. I love being a nonprofit and I am 100% committed to it. I know it’s tough, but to me, it’s very clear that it’s the right solution. Quill wants to be accountable to serving students to become great writers. If you’re really focused on your vision, a nonprofit allows you to do that.” Fast Forward is grateful to support entrepreneurs like Peter Gault in scaling their missions to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Thanks again to Peter for joining our final Accelerator session at BlackRock HQ in New York to share his wisdom with the tech nonprofits in this summer’s cohort.