by Craig Cannon7/26/2016
Employee #1 is a series of interviews focused on sharing the often untold stories of early employees at tech companies.
Bill Fernandez was the first employee at Apple after Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Mike Markkula incorporated it. He’s currently working on his own startup, Omnibotics.
Discussed: Growing up in Silicon Valley, Introducing Jobs and Woz, Startups Before Startup Media, Apple’s Early Days, Moving to Japan, Returning to Apple, Advice for Early Employees and Founders, and Life After Apple.
Bill : Did you want me to just start a narrative or do you have some questions you want to start with?
Craig : You can just give it a go and I’ll just jump in, if that’s cool.
Bill : Okay, sure. When I was five my parents moved to a street in Sunnyvale, a new little housing tract that was developed primarily for Lockheed engineers. Lockheed had a location adjacent to Moffett Field Naval Air Station. Across the street and three houses over was the Wozniak family. Jerry Wozniak was a mathematician and engineer, he was a real genius and worked on top secret projects at Lockheed. He had two sons and a daughter. His eldest son, Steve Wozniak, was into electronics.
He did ham radio and science fair electronics projects and so forth. He and I both went to Homestead High School which was the local high school. He was four years ahead of me so he got out one year before I got in. But I grew up across the street from him so I kinda knew about him.
My dad and Jerry were friends so Jerry was over a fair amount. But it wasn’t until I was in high school and was seriously an electronic hobbyist that I hooked up with Woz and we became friends and fellow electronics nerds doing projects together. We did a TV jammer, we did an audio oscillator, and one summer we did a computer in my garage. So that was the Woz connection.
When I was in seventh and eighth grade I went to Cupertino Junior High School, which was just behind my backyard fence. I think maybe halfway through seventh grade Steve Jobs came to the school. He and I were both deeply introspective, very philosophical. Neither of us wanted to play the social games that you needed to play to be accepted into any of the numerous cliques that define the social scene for 13 and 14 year olds in junior high school. So we eventually gravitated towards each other and started hanging out. We became fast friends. I got him interested in electronics and so…
Craig : Wait, really?
Bill : Yup.
Craig : Was there a particular thing that you showed him that piqued his interest?
Bill : I don’t remember any one thing specifically. I do remember that in junior high school I was working on electronic locks. I’m not sure what else I was working on then. But we were over at each other’s houses all the time. My mom considers him her fifth son.
Craig : [Laughter]
Bill : It was in our house that he learned about Japanese art, Japanese woodblock prints, spartan design, clean lines and so forth. It was a big influence on his design education and proclivities.
Craig : Neat. So how did Jobs and Woz meet?
Bill : So, I had known of Woz since I was five. Jobs and I became friends when we were like 12 or 13, then we transitioned into high school so Jobs and I both started going to Homestead High School. Maybe my freshman or sophomore year I started doing a lot of projects with Woz.
Across the street from Woz’s house was Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor used to have an electronics surplus store. He had closed his store and moved his remaining stock into his garage. I would go across the street and do yard work, like pulling weeds, and we’d keep a little log, and every now and then I’d go over to Mr. Taylor’s house and say, “Mr. Taylor I need a transistor or I need a capacitor.” And I would trade my hours for parts.
So one day Jobs had bicycled over to my house and we were going to hang out and I needed to go to Mr. Taylor’s house to get some parts, so we walked across the street. Woz was out on the street washing his car and I thought to myself, “Well you know, here are two electronics buddies. They might be interested in meeting each other and doing electronics stuff.” So you know, we walked over to the car and I introduced them.
Craig : Amazing. Were they fast friends?
Bill : Well, not in an instant spark of brilliant light, no.
Craig : [Laughter] Sure.
Bill : But you know, they eventually became friends and started doing projects together. It turned out that Woz loved pranks and Jobs had a very countercultural streak. One of the first projects they collaborated on was this huge sign of a hand with the middle finger raised. It was a huge cloth poster and they put it up on the roof of our school and weighted the ends with rocks, I think. This was the end of the building that all of the parents faced during graduation. And the idea was that during graduation they would cut some strings which would release this thing to roll down over the side of the building and it said, “Best Wishes, Class of ’72!” and it was giving them the finger.
Craig : That’s amazing.
Bill : So that was like, their first prank together. And then they went on to doing blue boxes together and so forth.
Craig : So if Woz was four years older than you guys, what was he doing at the time?
Bill : Let’s see, I think he went to Colorado State and got kicked out. Then he worked for a while at places like Call Computing, which was an early timesharing computing company. Then he went to Berkeley and that was the blue box era. It was also the era of Ramar the Mystic.
Craig : What’s that?
Bill : [Laughter] It’s a great story. So Woz was at Berkeley and lived in the second story of a dorm and kinda outside his window out on the street was a telephone booth. This was in the days before cell phones so everyone used telephone booths to make calls. Sometimes, like when a student was entering the telephone booth, Woz would call the telephone booth and it would ring and student would answer it. Then Woz would say, “This is Ramar the Mystic. I see wetness in your future,” and as the guy is saying, “What?” Woz would throw a water balloon at him from the second floor. The guy would be all angry and Woz would say, “Well, Ramar was only trying to help.”
Craig : [Laughter] That’s so good. And what were you doing at the time? Just kind of like electronics hobby stuff in high school?
Bill : Well, let’s see. Yes, I was going through high school and then after high school I worked for Siliconix and then for Antex. Then I went to college and went to Hewlett-Packard for the summer but ended up staying there for three years.
Craig : What were you doing at HP?
Bill : I was the only electronic technician in a research lab of electronic engineers. And that was the division that made handheld scientific calculators. So the HP-35 during my high school years was this breakthrough handheld 10-digit precision scientific calculator for $395, which was an enormous amount but it was all battery-powered and handheld. And then later Woz went to work there as an engineer. I went to college, he called me and asked if I wanted a summer job at that lab and so for the summer I went there and then I stayed for three years. He and I were both working on electronic handheld scientific calculators.
Craig : So at what point do Woz and Jobs come together and decide that they want to start working on Apple?
Bill : Okay, well during this Hewlett-Packard period when Woz and I were both there, Woz in the after hours designed his own Pong game. Pong was the first really popular, you know, video game that bars and pizza shops and restaurants could buy and put it in stores and people would come and put quarters in and play. So he built his own circuitry and used it with a small black and white TV set as the display.
Then a couple of things happened. He started working on building his own computer and he started attending the Homebrew Computer Club that was happening at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, SLAC.
So all of those things happened at the same time and then as his computer came together he would take it and show it off after the meetings. At some point there was enough interest shown that Jobs became aware of this. I don’t know if he went to the Homebrew Computer Club or just when he and Woz were together Woz was talking about it. Basically Jobs said, “You know, we could make printed circuit boards and just sell the computer already assembled so people wouldn’t even have to buy all the parts on the open market and figure out how to wire them together. We could just do it for them.” And so that was the beginning of Apple Computer.
Jobs got a printed circuit board made and he figured out where to get all the parts. They decided what to name the company and then, this is funny, Jobs got a front office front. There was a company at 770 Welch Road. If you look at the old literature that was their address, Apple’s mailing address. So there was this company on the second floor that had people who would answer the phone and depending upon what number was called would say, “Hello, this is Apple Computer, how can I help you?” And would receive packages mailed to Apple Computer and would mail things from Apple Computer. Jobs was working in his father’s garage and in his bedroom, you know, and this was like our front to make it look legit.
Craig : [Laughter] That’s fantastic. And so at what point do they call you up and say, “Hey, we need some help?”
Bill : Right after they incorporated. It was like, ’76 or ’77. They incorporated and they needed employees and the first one they wanted to hire was a good electronic technician. Both of them said I was the best that they knew — I think Woz mentioned that in one of his books — so they asked if I’d quit Hewlett-Packard and come work for them in the Jobs family garage.
Craig : How did the pay compare between HP and Apple?
Bill : Well, even with no benefits I thought the pay was good enough. I don’t remember exactly but clearly it was good enough. The major decisions for me were that Hewlett-Packard was the premier electronics company and that was a big plus for an electronics dude, and their benefits were really good and it was very stable. It was very secure. But, you know, I figured that this could be pretty interesting and I was living with my parents and my car was paid off and I was very employable. So I figured that if this fell through that it would be easy for me to get another job and there’s no big loss, right?
Craig : And how old were you at the time?
Bill : Maybe 22. If it was 1976 and I was born in 1954 then I would have been 22 at the time.
Craig : Okay, cool. So you say, “All right, I’ll do this.” Now I’m curious, could you provide any sort of context around how people were thinking about tech startups at the time and why it was attractive to you to jump in on something like this?
Bill : Sure. Well, first is that in those days everything was hardware. There basically were no software startups to a first approximation, okay? And what was then called Silicon Valley became that because there had been a whole bunch of basically hardware startups. There had been Varian up the peninsula, which had built microwave vacuum tubes for transmitters and for radars. There was Fairchild Semiconductor, which was one of the very first semiconductor manufacturers. And then there were a whole bunch of others eventually.
Over the years the peninsula — say from San Jose to San Francisco — had developed an ecosystem that was very hardware oriented. There were a number of electronic surplus stores where people interested in Homebrew and do it yourself stuff could go buy surplus parts and surplus equipment to tear apart. There were a bunch of supporting shops. There were metal shops and PC board shops and a number of the major electronics distributors.
Then we also had a number of major companies like Hewlett-Packard where they did a lot of work to hire a lot of electronics people, primarily electronic engineers and mechanical engineers and so forth. Over the decades that area had built up a bunch of educated people and an ecosystem for supporting the needs of the electronics industry.
Then a sort of history of new businesses being formed by people who spun out of or left big companies for one reason or another was created but that took decades to build up. It started back in the 40s or 50s and now we’re talking about the 60s and 70s. You know, so at least 30 years to build all of that.
So in that environment, Woz and Jobs and I grew up. Woz’s father was an engineer working at Lockheed. I would go up and down the street to engineer neighbors on the street who would mentor me in electronics. We would read Popular Electronics, which was a magazine for hobbyists and do it yourselfers, and before the internet these magazines were like, your main way of learning things.
When you were casting about for something intellectual rather than sports oriented to do, electronics was something you could do as a kid. It’s something you could aspire to, projects that were interesting and so forth. In that environment it was natural for Woz and Jobs and I to build whatever circuits were interesting along the way.
During that period when I was in high school particularly, there were more and more people around the peninsula who wanted their own computers. And there was more and more a sense that maybe it might be possible finally for people to build their own computers. Woz, throughout high school had always wanted his own computers and he was always doodling circuits saying, “You know, if I were going to design a computer this is how I’d do it.”
This built up to a time when in late high school or just right after that, there was the Homebrew Computer Club and there was a lot of surplus computer gear for people to put together. There was a pent-up demand among all the electronics hobbyists, the people who wanted to build their own computers.
It was possible to conceive of how to do these things. Microprocessor integrated circuits had recently come on the market and had recently come down in price enough that a hobbyist could afford them. We were just barely seeing the first semiconductor memory. So, when I was in high school, we dreamed of getting an old magnetic core memory where you have these tiny little doughnuts of magnetic material, like hundreds of them wired together with this little web of woven tiny little wires, you know? And that was the premier memory, you know, and maybe you’d get 500 bits or something, you know? We aspired to find a surplus one of those and get it working so we could build our own computer, see?
Craig : That’s so cool.
Bill : Yeah, so there were a lot of themes that all kind of coalesced. The infrastructure was there so you could say, “I want sheet metal done. I want a printed circuit board made.” You could just go out and someone would do it for you. “I want to buy parts,” someone could do it for you. We had the aspirations of all of these people throughout my high school years and thereafter saying, “Not only do we want our own computer but we think it’s finally possible. You don’t have to build an ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer] and take up a whole room and have tons of circuits and vacuum tubes.” We had integrated circuits that made all of that circuitry small and lightweight and affordable.
Craig : So the fact that you can get all this with a short trip to all these stores, that makes a ton of sense. The environment makes a ton of sense. Was there anything in particular about the Jobs and Woz that made you think, “I want to work with them,” or did you just think, “Oh, this is kind of neat, it’ll be a fun project regardless”?
Bill : Well, I definitely wanted to work with them. You know, I had worked with Woz and Jobs on projects for years and they were two of my closest friends and we got along well together. And sure, it was great working with my friends. It was also great having the opportunity for us to build our own computer, so yeah. It was great. I just thought, “Let’s go build our own computers. This is awesome.”
Craig : Yeah, I love their mindset. And so what was your job in the very beginning?
Bill : Okay, so technically my title was electronic technician. What that really meant was that I was a very intelligent and capable jack of all trades and gofer. So, Jobs was always sending me around to pick up parts or to deliver things, or in the garage I’d have to build test fixtures and boxes where I’d troubleshoot boards. Pretty much any kind of technical or gofer related thing you know, was my job.
Craig : And how long did that period last?
Bill : Well, we were in the garage for a while and then we moved to our first building. It was an office suite in a little one story office center. It was 20863 Stevens Creek Boulevard Suite, B3.
Craig : [Laughter] You have a great memory.
Bill : Yeah, and it was right next to the first Good Earth Restaurant, which had just been a failed pie restaurant and then Good Earth took over and did their thing. So we’d always eat over there.
Okay, after we outgrew that space we had to rent a second suite just adjacent to it and then we outgrew that and then we rented a building on Bandley Drive a couple of blocks away. That’s where we had our first building, Bandley Drive, and then gradually over the years we ended up with about eight buildings on Bandley Drive. Each time they built a building we’d rent it, because we were growing so fast. And during that time, you know, we built up. In the garage it was just me and Jobs and Woz. Woz was still living in his apartment and still working at Hewlett-Packard. He didn’t want to leave Hewlett-Packard.
Craig : Wild. I didn’t know that.
Bill : Eventually Mike Markkula had to prevail upon him to say, “You have to leave and go full-time. We’ve got this investment and I put my money in and you gotta do it.”
Craig : Yeah, can’t moonlight forever. And so how long has the company been around at this point?
Bill : Well, about a year and a half. We were in the garage and then we moved into our first little office and that’s where we started getting serious. We had a secretary and we had an accountant. We hired some more engineering technicians. We hired a manufacturing guy, we hired an industrial designer. Right between that transition we got Rod Holt from Atari to come and be our head of engineering and so forth. He’s the guy who designed the brilliant power supply for the Apple 2 computer.
Let’s see. Then we moved into Bandley Drive and we had a separate manufacturing area, separate engineering area and a separate administrative area, and we hired a guy and a secretary to do international sales. We were building custom units made in black for Bell & Howell who wanted to sell under their label. We had a marketing guy in addition to our president and our accounting guy.
Craig : Was it uncommon at that point to be growing at that clip?
Bill : I personally don’t know. All I can tell you is that everything I’ve read is that it was phenomenal and unprecedented.
Craig : And so what did you make of it at that point? What did you think of the environment?
Bill : Well, there were a couple of aspects about that. Starting back in the garage era, I would say that there was a tangible sense of magic in the air. Every now and then Woz would come in and he’d say, “You know, I just was at Homebrew last night and look at this piece of software that this guy wrote that runs on our computer.”
At first we had the Apple I and it was all text things, like the Hamurabi game. Then we had the Star Trek text game, then after the Apple II Woz would come in and he’d say, “Look at this amazing color devil that this little high school student named Chris Espinosa made.” And he’d be putting all sorts of colored blocks on the screen and kaleidoscope patterns and stuff, so it was pretty magical. It was really the sense that we were going to bring personal computers to the masses.
Craig : So a year and a half in, what are you doing?
Bill : Well, a year and a half in, everything is growing and diversifying. We have a bigger building, it has more departments, it has more people, we have an international guy as well as a domestic guy, you know, and so forth. Everything was kinda just like, exploding in complexity and diversity. My particular job, it pretty much stayed the same, real electronic grunt work, and I was getting pretty bored with that.
Craig : Okay, so what were your aspirations at that point?
Bill : Yeah, well, I had an engineering mind without the engineering education that a degree would have given me. I went to school for an engineering degree and dropped out so I never finished that degree and never got the range of knowledge that I would need to actually be an engineer. And so I was really working way under my intellectual potential, which became very boring.
Craig : And did you verbalize that you wanted to do more at any point?
Bill : I probably did, although you know, I wasn’t as self-assured then as I am now. I mean, you know, I was just a kid. You know, I’d just gone through high school where everyone chose my courses for me, right?
Craig : Yeah, that insecurity can manifest in different ways. Like some people at 21 admit they don’t really know and others just amp up the ego even though they also don’t know what they’re doing.
Bill : I didn’t really know what my options were at that point and it wasn’t like now where we have a huge social media push for makers, do it yourself, startups, incubators and stuff. None of that existed. None of that mindset, none of that advertising, none of those thought processes, none of these kind of like, dreams or stories about dreams you could have were around. You know, the thought process was basically you find a good company like Hewlett-Packard and you work there for all your life and then you retire. Going to Apple was this huge risk.
It wasn’t like this glamorous thing. It was this huge risk. Basically people would say, “Why would you quit Hewlett-Packard to go work for a couple of lame ass guys, you know, one of whom is like this hippy guy who wears Birkenstocks and torn jeans and dropped out of school and had to sell a beaten up VW van to just afford to get started on this. Why would you go work for these jokers when you’ve got a job at Hewlett-Packard?”
The short way of saying this, I guess, is there was no startup culture.
Craig : Yeah, that’s kinda what I was leading at before when you were explaining the ecosystem, because it both seems like the ground was incredibly fertile, like there were all these places to get the components but without the media environment you’re still kind of on your own, you know?
Bill : Right, completely on your own.
Craig : Yeah. So did that notion precipitate you leaving Apple in the beginning?
Bill : Well, when I was working at Hewlett-Packard I thought that working with my friends on making it possible for people to have their own personal computers was really exciting. And as I said, there was basically no risk in my mind. I could easily find another job if it didn’t work.
Now, after a year and a half of all these people being hired in and other people growing and me going nowhere professionally and getting really bored, I had some people I’d worked with previously at a job just out of high school who wanted to hire me as a product engineer for their little company. I thought that that was a lot better because I’d actually be able to do engineering.
So I jumped shipped and I went to work for them, and then after them I went off to Japan for a couple of years.
Craig : Why did you end up leaving them so quickly and going to Japan?
Bill : Let’s see, those are actually two separate things. I worked with them for several months and they, instead of having me design things which is what I wanted to do, they had me doing a lot of technician work because their product line needed a lot of technician work.
Craig : Which is what you were doing at Apple.
Bill : Yeah, so it was boring again and therefore I wasn’t performing to their expectations and so they laid me off.
Craig : Ah, okay.
Bill : I had been thinking of going to another country to teach my religion, the Baha’i Faith, and so I decided to do that in Japan for a couple of years. I also got my black belt in Aikido while I was there.
Then when I came back I worked for a friend who was working on a TV project and I was doing engineering and technicianing for that project, and then Jobs hired me to be like the 15th person on the Mac project.
Craig : So then you’re back in the fold. How did you view the work at that point?
Bill : Well you know, Apple had changed a lot and it was really a different company. But I wanted a job and Jobs hired me into the Mac group and the Mac group turned out to be pretty cool.
Craig : Agreed. You stayed there until the 90s, right?
Bill : Yeah, let’s see. I went back in 1981. I think October of 1981, and was there until what, ’94? Something like that. I think including my first year and a half it was about 12 years total.
Craig : Okay, and you were doing a lot of interface stuff at that point, right?
Bill : Well my job morphed a number of times over the years. I did facilities planning, laying out our two new Mac buildings as we moved from one building to another and grew. I did general engineering support. I was the lab manager and managed the technician and kept the engineering lab running and stocked with parts. I did some programming. Ultimately I migrated into user interface design for my last years at Apple and actually was quite good at it.
Craig : That’s so funny. The 90s seems like fairly early days for that field. Are there any vestiges of your work still around in the interface?
Bill : Yeah, you know in the Macintosh finder when you’re showing a list of folders and there is the column of triangles along the left side?
Craig : Yup.
Bill : And then if you click on a triangle then it expands an indented list of subfolders and so forth?
Craig : Yup.
Bill : I had a hand in that. The system software people came to me with this new feature they wanted and I suggested they put a line of controls down there and the icon I suggested was a circle which could be empty or grey or black. And someone else changed it into the triangles, which I thought was brilliant, but having the column of controls to open and close folders, that was my idea.
Craig : That’s really cool.
Bill : Yeah, and there are few other vestiges but that’s the easiest one to point to.
Craig : It’s been a while now since you were there. How do you think about Apple? Do you even think about it much anymore?
Bill : I use Apple products all the time and yeah, of course I follow it, I had so much invested in it, you know?
Craig : Yeah. You left in the 90s. What was the public opinion of Apple when you left?
Bill : It’s hard to tell because Apple’s fortunes in the media and public eye have been up and down so much but I think we were up at that point. I think we had done the Mac II and brought color to the Mac. We had the Mac II and the Mac IIcx which was a smaller Mac II. We had slots and color. And we had started using hard drives instead of just floppy drives. So those had been around for a while but we put those in and we had recently introduced the first sort of widely available CD-ROM drive so that people could start using CDs. That enabled everyone who do things on CDs whether it was multimedia presentations or just distributing software. All of that was enabled by Apple biting the bullet to build a CD drive when there really weren’t any CDs available.
Craig : Man, that’s wild. So when you think back on Apple, are your memories fond?
Bill : Well, they’re complicated but fundamentally fond, yes.
I mean, there were times when morale was so low that people were putting this poster all over saying, “Life is hard and then you die.” And that was kinda how people felt at that time.
But there were also very wonderful and exciting times, you know. A lot of those, so…
Craig : How did you feel through all that tumult as a non-founder but someone who was there in the beginning?
Bill : Well, to succeed early on you have to be a self-starter. You have to be self-empowered. You have to have a sense that, “I can do whatever needs to be done even if it’s never been done before. Even if you’ve never done it before or it’s never been done before.” You have to have that belief that, “I can do it.”
Now, Jobs as a founder had a lot of drive. He also had a lot of hustle. He was moving all the time. It takes that and I was always being presented with new challenges saying, “Well, you know, we need to build a burn-in box.” I’ve never done that before. “We need to provide reliable power to like, a dozen things.” Well, I’ve never done that before. “We need to figure out a fixture for doing this.” Well, I’ve never done that before. You know?
Craig : And now that you’re running your own thing, have you learned lessons about being the head person?
Bill : Oh yeah, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One of them is that over the years, by being observant, I have seen all the pieces it takes to put together a company. And you may not have them all on the table at the beginning, but it’s easier for me to look ahead and see where the company is going to have to grow.
When I was designing software for people I would always think, “Where is this product going to grow, and let me design it so that you could add features that would look like natural extensions of the product, you know, rather than tacked on stupid things.” So as I build a company I’m thinking about all those things too. How do I anticipate the growth?
Another thing that I learned is that you’ve got to hustle and you’ve got to be everywhere and do everything. There are a million jobs to be done and when you’re one guy, you have to do all million. And when you have two people you only have to do half a million and when you have four people you have to do a quarter million, okay? But you still have to be very versatile.
Craig : For sure. So do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about joining an early company?
Bill : Yeah. Be prepared to do anything and everything that’s needed. You need to be cool with that. Whether it’s taking out the garbage or clipping the bushes or cleaning up vomit or going to a meeting and pretending you’re the marketing manager, whatever it is, be ready to do anything that needs to be done. And if you’re not up for that, don’t sign on.
Another thing about being an employee is that it is entirely unpredictable. Is the company going to be successful or not? Is it going to go places or not? Are the founders going to be happy or sad or anxious or angry or whatever? All of it could change from moment to moment.
So be a person who can survive with chaos and uncertainty and realize that you know, it’s not because of you and that that’s life. This is part of the deal.
Also, be prepared as either a founder or an employee to spend your life on it. Be prepared to give your life to the enterprise. Forget about family, forget about children, forget about your pets or your garden. It is going to be all-consuming and that’s one reason why I’m starting my startup so late. I waited until I could neglect my children without harm to them.
Craig : [Laughter] How so?
Bill : They’re out of the house now so I figured, “Okay, now I can do what I want.”
Another thing is that as a startup founder you figure that there are 1,000 things that are going to have to be done that require 1,000 different specialties and you’re only going to be good at 5 of them. Then you’re really only going to be interested in doing 10 of them and there are going to be 200 of them that you absolutely hate and cannot stand. But you have to do them all.
For example, many people, many engineers are really great at designing a product but absolutely terrified to actually tell anyone about it or to promote themselves or to say it’s good. So marketing and sales are complete anathema to them. But you’re going to have to step up to the plate and do some of it.
Craig : And so how do you prioritize?
Bill : It helps if you can plan ahead and plot a trajectory for things. It helps if you’re savvy enough to plan ahead and say, “What does it take to build a business?” And that will tell you at what stages things need to be done.
For example, at a very early stage you have to figure out, “What do I want to do?” Right after that, you’re going to have to choose a name, you’re going to have to incorporate, you’re going to have to get a checking account and so forth. The priority is built into the sequence to some extent. So, if you understand the stages of building a business, to a large extent you can predict when certain things are going to become priorities.
And you might find that, “Okay, I can put off marketing for a while and maybe while I’m putting it off, while I’m developing my product, I will search for a marketing firm or a marketing person so that when marketing becomes the priority I won’t have to do it myself.”
Understanding as well as possible what you’re getting into so that you can plan effectively is a really good strategy. Otherwise everything is going to be a surprise, everything is going to be immediately urgent, and everything is going to be a new learning experience. You’re going to be clueless. So you know, it’s a long answer to your short question but it’s the real answer. The better you can predict your growth path and the sequence of the challenges you face, the better you can plan for them. And the fewer emergencies you’ll have, the fewer unexpected obstacles you have, the better able you’ll be able to face them with grace and efficiency at a low cost and a low stress level in a timely manner. And to a large extent the priorities will unfold with the plan.
One thing that’s wonderful is that there’s a lot of information available. There are a lot of books, there are a lot of incubators, there are lot of blogs and so forth that there never were before. And of course, information gleaned off the internet is, you know, hugely unreliable. But given you’re good at dealing with that — and that’s something everyone ought to be good at — there’s a huge amount of free information out there that’s really useful. And you’re going to have to be — here’s another way of putting being a founder — you’re going to have to be a student.
You’re going to have to be a self-learning student, a self-taught student. You’re going to have to teach yourself marketing and sales and accounting and cash-flow and engineering and testing for regulatory certifications. You’re going to have to become knowledgeable about a huge number of things. So being effective at self-study and self-learning is a huge part of it.
Craig is the Director of Content at YC.