In Startup Smart

Australian entrepreneur Denis Mars has been founding startups since before he could get a driver’s licence.

The founder is currently living in Silicon Valley to work on his latest startup, Proxy, which recently raised $2.1 million, and also works as the director of admissions at world-renowned accelerator Y Combinator.

During an AMA session hosted by Blackbird Ventures, Mars says that through his job at YC he has seen “just about every idea under the sun”.

“I’ve met some of the most impressive teams on the planet and I’ve learnt a lot about what it takes to build a world-class startup,” he says.

He says that the most important thing he looks for in a startup is something outside of running a business.

“Somewhere in the founder’s history I want to see evidence that the person has taken a chance on themselves that didn’t include immediate or obvious returns,” Mars says.

“This tells me a lot about the true character of the founder. If you are not willing to take a chance on yourself to do things that don’t seem like they have obvious returns, then you’re probably not the type of person that is willing to do unconventional things, think outside the box, solve the hard problems and motivate others.

“All of which is every founders’ day job.”

And Mars doesn’t look for examples from a founders’ previous companies.

“Right now it’s cool to do startups so I don’t look for past startups as evidence of taking a chance on yourself,” he says.

“I look for really unconventional things that are subtle but say a lot about the courage and character of the founder.

“That’s why the question on the application that I think is the most important is: ‘Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage’. Some of the answers to this question have totally blown me away.”

The Q&A sessions included several other useful pieces of advice and takeaways for Aussie founders and entrepreneurs.

The fundamental skills all startup founders need

Mars says that the skill all founders need above all else is determination.

“You have to be determined to take an idea and turn it into something real, otherwise it will never happen,” he says.

“With determination anything is possible, but without it you most certainly won’t succeed.

“You can be smart and have great ideas but if you’re not determined and willing to walk through fire to make it happen then you’re better off doing something else, no matter how good the idea is.”

When to release an MVP

Mars says that founders too often wait for too long before releasing the initial version of their product.

“A founder should launch the minimum thing that proves that people want the underlying value it is bringing them even if they’re willing to put up with shitty design,” he says.

“That’s the ultimate proof that the product or service is of sufficient value to the end user. Then once you prove that, you do want to make it seamless and easy to use so that you can add more delight to your end user.”

“When you have both a product or a service that people want so bad that they’ll put up with shitty UI and you then you give them a great UI then you have something that will probably stand the test of time and grow into something big.

“Launch early, launch early, launch early. Only then will you get to the truth sooner to know if people actually want what you’re giving them.”

The best piece of advice he’s received

Mars says the most important piece of advice he has ever received came from Y Combinator founder Sam Altman, and was very simple: “don’t give up.”

“It’s supposed to be hard, especially when you’re creating something new,” he says.

“Sam’s saying is, ‘if it doesn’t feel like a grind and you feel like everything’s going great, then you’re probably doing it wrong’.

“He also says to make sure you have fun, which is important. Every success will take at least 10 years and it never gets easier. So just run with it, try to have fun and power through it.”

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