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Startup Advice for Aspiring Founders
Navigating the leap to founding your own startup, Beat layoffs, VC backed crypto startups, deep tech in Europe, 833 jobs, events, and more
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Startup Advice for Aspiring Founders
Today, I’m really excited to chat with Dimitris Nikolaou, co-founder of Moonshot, a platform that helps young, promising athletes to succeed, by funding their professional careers through a community of supporters. Dimitris left Big Tech — worked as Technical Lead at Palantir — some months ago to start his own startup and joins me today to discuss lessons learned and startup advice for aspiring founders. The team went through the Y Combinator accelerator last summer.
Getting feedback and validating your startup idea using concentric circles of trust.
Having unique market insights to build early conviction.
Why startups never die due to competition alone.
Launching early. Don't expect this grand launch day with spotlights and everyone cheering you on.
Raising your first investor check from your customers.
Key things to consider when adding a co-founder on board.
How Moonshot helps young athletes to reach their potential and pursue a career in sports.
Why now is probably the best time to be building a startup.
Let’s get to it!
Dimitri, it’s nice to finally talk to you on the record! There are a few things I want to cover today and I think this discussion will resonate with many people who are thinking of or are ready to launch their own startup, so I’ll jump right in. You worked for Big Tech companies before founding a startup — first at Zynga and then at Palantir. How did you get early feedback for your startup idea? How did you externalise that first itch and validate that Moonshot was an idea worth pursuing?
DN: Alex, thank you very much for the invite. Really appreciate being here today.
With Moonshot, we had unique insights that the problem was there. In fact, this concept was burning inside us. Both my co-founder, Youssef, and I used to be competitive athletes and most of our friends are athletes too. So we had an inherent understanding that many young athletes don’t achieve their goals because of a lack of funding, while at the same time I wished there was a better way to support those that I believed would become successful. A prime example is Luka Dončić (Slovenian professional basketball player currently playing for Dallas Mavericks of the NBA and one of the best players in the league). I used to play basketball at a young age, similar age to Luka. And ever since he was 14 years old and Real Madrid signed him I would have loved to get behind his career, whatever that would entail. Helping him financially might be one way but also being part of his group of supporters along the ride.
Now, when it comes to externalising that first itch and sharing a new startup idea with others, I like to think of it as concentric circles of trust that you can gradually expand to. Starting from the people you trust the most, but are not necessarily the most relevant to help with feedback and idea validation — so it's mostly for you just to put it out there and see if it sounds good, right? And then continue iterating on your initial idea and way of communicating it (telling a captivating story matters a lot and the right tools to do that might be different across circles e.g. a one-pager, few wireframes, a deck, etc), while discussing with people outside your comfort zone but more relevant to validate your idea. I first talked to other founders and startup operators, including yourself Alex, which was very helpful in order to get early feedback — people who “pushed” me to take the leap of faith that this is an opportunity worth exploring. And finally and most importantly, potential customers! It's very important to see at least the willingness of potential customers to pay for what you’re building. Is this solving a problem significant enough for them to take out their credit card and spend some money? If they don’t, then this might be a reason for you to consider pivoting.
At the same time, getting accepted to Y Combinator also made us feel more confident that it was time to go all into this. I don’t think there are many startup accelerators that can help teams, but the very few ones that do can really kickstart things.
I looked up on LinkedIn the other day and 9,940 people have “Stealth Startup” on their profile! So it appears that many founders decide to be secretive about what they’re working on in the early days. How worried do you think young companies should be about someone copying them?
DN: Startups never die due to competition alone. I think Y Combinator has five key pieces of advice and this is one of the top ones. Even if you’re building something very innovative, it’s the execution that matters at the end of the day and figuring out your customer base (how you position inside the market). In fact, I can argue that it might be even better if there are other competitors aiming to solve the same or similar problem. This means that there are higher chances there’s a large market opportunity out there and oftentimes the whole customer base increases just because other companies make more people aware and then these told their friends, and so on and so forth. I can use an example here.
Currently, there’s a huge innovation wave that we're going through — generative AI. I can imagine many startups were building similar products in that space, and someone could say that DALL-E 2, OpenAI’s product to create realistic images and art from a description in natural language, would pretty much obliterate everyone else. Guess what? DALL-E 2 is a significant reason why generative AI is experiencing a huge boom and suddenly many teams are seeing a lot more people (users, talent, and investors alike) interested in what they build. So I believe a new startup entering an industry should figure out how to be positioned properly (finding their own niche in the market, combining their unique insights and what the market needs), instead of being secretive and worrying about competitors. Operating in stealth mode will often diminish your ability to have numerous early conversations and receive critical feedback that can serve as early validation for what you build.
Since we mentioned YC a couple of times — “Ship early and often” is a very YC thing to say, right? But this is also very subjective and a concern I hear often. Like, how early is “early”? And why do you think many teams tend to launch in public too late?
DN: Yeah, definitely a very YC thing. I remember Harj Taggar and Brad Flora, two of the YC partners, distinctly saying “Don't expect this grand launch day with spotlights and everyone cheering you on”. It's not going to happen like that. I think the reason why most people are afraid is that it's always scary to put yourself out there and get feedback from the community. It’s scary and you might wanna delay it, so you can build as much ammo as possible until you get there.
It's hard to define how early is “early”. I would try and use a rule of thumb — plan everything that you need to do for that grand launch, halve that time, and launch then. Most people reading this would probably be saying “Yeah, that doesn't apply to me. I need to build all these features otherwise nobody will use the product”. But it's not like that. No one cares if your product is pretty. Does it solve a problem? If so, ship it. If it doesn't, then think about whether what you’re building is indeed the minimum set of functionalities that addresses real user needs. It's better for you to know early and potentially adjust a bit, rather than shipping much later only to realise people are not willing to pay for it.
In the beginning, you can always abstract many things and try to imitate what your final product would look like by cutting corners. Do not expect full automation on day one, and do many things manually that you can later automate with software. Especially nowadays, there are so many tools people can use to cut corners and launch faster, including no-code and low-code tools.
I think in many people’s minds, there’s also the concern of, you know, I also need that first investor check to kickstart things and commit full-time.
DN: Yes, there’s always the question of financing, in the early days, which is another big topic. When to raise money, how much to raise, from whom, etc. I don’t think there’s a cookie-cutter answer here. But, I’m a big proponent of the: “your first customer being your first investor” kind of thing. It’s great to find customers in the early days that are willing to pay for your product. It’s even better to find customers that are willing to invest in your company.
As I mentioned before, it’s very important to talk and network as much as possible with your target customers, even long before you commit full-time to this new project. This is crucial for early idea validation, but also these conversations might turn into small investment opportunities at some point. If you’re building a product for the restaurant business, these could be restaurant owners or famous chefs, for instance. If you’re building a product for hotels, these might be hotel owners, and so on. Suddenly, there are people in your industry that have aligned incentives with you and can help your company succeed. You can always initiate conversations with VC funds to raise a larger round at the beginning or later in your journey and have more firepower to grow quickly. For us, going through an accelerator like YC was a massive help too in that regard. We’re lucky to have partners that have helped us so far, and we’ll have more news to announce on that front over the next few months.
You’re building Moonshot, alongside Youssef. What were the key things you considered when adding a co-founder on board? Are there any guiding principles that aspiring founders should have in mind when deciding whom to build a company with?
DN: Maybe call me a romantic but I feel this co-founder matching thing needs to be organic. I don't have a high belief in co-founder-matching platforms or any other “forced” methods. With Youssef, we were good friends, shared a house, and worked together at Palantir. Building something together sort of came in an organic way. And you need to be prepared for that luck to hit you, right? Be on the sidelines of the industry that excites you (be it tech, space, crypto, anything), and meet interesting people, so you already have a network you know you can reach out to when the right time and idea comes.
I guess an important thing to consider when adding a co-founder on board is: Do they add enough value to the company that you're willing to lose a little bit of control? Do their skills complement you in some way that will be crucial to the company’s success? Thinking about splitting equity among co-founders, which is a topic many people have written articles and threads about it online, my framework is that the split should be different only if there’s a real difference in contribution among them. For instance, is anyone working on this for a longer time? Does anyone have unique skills and insights? These types of questions should be answered with high conviction before getting other co-founders on board. Venture Hacks, which is a long-time blog from the co-founders of AngelList, has many good resources on that topic.
Let’s zoom into Moonshot for a minute. We briefly touched upon this before, but I’d love to learn more about your vision and how you’re planning to support young athletes. What problems is Moonshot addressing for them?
DN: Moonshot is a platform that gives the opportunity to young and talented tennis athletes to pursue a career, by enabling them to build a community around them and get funded from their backers. This can help them cover expenses from private coaches to travelling for tournaments and physiotherapies to recover from injuries, etc. In exchange, the community would receive a kickback from the athlete, and most importantly, follow their journey, attend games, get access to group chats, etc. Tennis is our primary area of focus right now. There's so much organic demand in that particular space that it was hard to ignore. All our athletes right now are in the top 50 of U18 globally.
In many sports, it’s very expensive even to reach a starting point (find a private coach, participate in tournaments around the world — think Grand Slams for juniors, etc). There's this imbalance in the starting point, and we want to help athletes that are very talented but potentially lack that other aspect to help them get started. Talented athletes with the necessary resources have higher chances to reach their potential. In fact, it’s not that dissimilar to how a startup raises money to buy the time and resources to go after a market opportunity, right? In a way, that initial capital can serve as the instigation of a flywheel. We’re finding very fertile ground in tennis, and in the future, I can see us expanding to other sports such as golf or motorsports. And it’s not just about funding. We aim to be a platform that will offer multiple points of value for young athletes, so this is just the beginning!
Now that the whole world is derisking, Big Tech companies are announcing layoffs one after the other, etc, should you even be starting a startup in this environment?
DN: I would argue that this is probably the best time to start a startup, honestly. You know, we talked about this a couple of weeks ago during the Greeks in tech meetup you and the rest of the Marathon team organised in London. Big Tech starts to look less appealing when all of the benefits stop and your salary stops rising year after year. Especially, after you’ve been there for 2-3 years and it does get a bit more comfortable and cushiony (in my case, it was after 4 years at Palantir that I left to start Moonshot).
Meanwhile, if your startup really solves a problem, you should be able to monetize in any given period. It might be a bit tighter from a budget perspective and finding the capital to get it going, but if you're cut for it, then you should be able to come out the other side a lot stronger. And in fact, you will have a higher chance to win, as there's a lot less fluff out there at that point.
Thank you so much for taking the time Dimitri, appreciate it!
DN: Appreciate it, Alex! By all means, if any of you reading this conversation needs help with the application to Y Combinator please do reach out. Happy to help with it. At Moonshot we’re growing our team right now, pretty much in every role, so feel free to check out our hiring page or email me at email@example.com, if what we do sounds exciting. As a final note, if you’re into tennis in any way, let’s chat!
Two lists I put together recently and might be of interest to you:
VC-backed crypto & blockchain startups with Greek founders. 23 teams with ~ $600m raised. Full list here.
deep tech funding rounds in Europe. With Ekin Burak, VC at LAUNCHub Ventures, we’re planning to keep this list updated every week. Get this in your bookmarks and stay up to date on the latest funding news from European deep tech startups. Full list here.
Looking for your next career move? Check out 833 job openings from Greek startups hiring in Greece, abroad, and remotely.
Sadly, news is out that Free Now is winding down its ops in Latin America (under the Beat brand // what used to be the fastest-growing ride-hailing app in several LatAm countries) and ~170 employees based in Greece are affected (many of them in product & engineering). You can find more details here. If you’re one of them, my colleague Sanne Goslinga put together a list that’s being shared with several Greek startups to help support you in finding your next opportunity. This is the form you can submit and here’s the list of people in it.
Modl.ai, a startup that seeks to automate processes like debugging and quality assurance testing for game developers, raised €8.5m in Series A.
Akina, an ETH Zurich spinoff that develops intelligent medical software to support patients in self-directed physiotherapy at home, received CHF 1.6m in pre-seed.
Interesting Reads & Podcasts
A podcast with Panos Papadopoulos, Partner at Marathon Venture Capital, discussing his journey from engineer to founder to investor.
“Build it and they will NOT come” — why product & marketing need to work together with Konstantinos Giamalis, CPO at efood, and George Yanakeas, founder & CEO at Maya Insights, here.
Raising the bar on customer obsession by Babis Makrynikolas, SVP Product & Pricing at Blueground, here.
A different way to run the daily scrum by Nikos Voulgaris, Software Engineer at Blueground, here.
A post by Zaharenia Atzitzikaki, Design leader and management consultant, on how to survive a change in the company’s internal organisational structure as a middle manager.
An interview with Apostolos Apostolakis, Partner at VentureFriends, on the current fundraising environment for startups globally and in Greece.
Understanding transactions in EVM-compatible blockchains powered by open-source tools from Lefteris Karapetsas, founder of Rotki, here.
Why ex-entrepreneurs can make for good Product Managers by Joseph Alvertis, SVP Product at Orfium, here.
Building developer tools to accelerate blockchain gaming by Gregory Markou, CTO & co-founder of ChainSafe, here.
A report on employment trends and figures from a sample of 148 Greek startups.
“Εισαγωγικό εργαστήριο για το Blockchain και το Bitcoin” by Bitcoin & Blockchain Tech Meetup (Athens) on Nov 14
“AI & Beers meetup - Thessaloniki” by AI & Beers on Nov 16
“23o Open Coffee Heraklion” by Open Coffee Heraklion on Nov 19
“Tezos Greece Social Meetup in Athens” by Tezos Greece on Nov 19
“Berlin Greeks in Tech” by Marathon VC on Nov 22
“Amsterdam Greeks in Tech” by Marathon VC on Nov 23
“Opportunities to Work in Greece” by Starttech Ventures on Nov 23
“Athens Fintech Engage” by Mastercard on Nov 24
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