Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Not that long ago, I was at a pretty low point. Despite a nice title, I had no real authority, because we were working with people who didn’t know or care what we were even doing. There were moments of conflict and stress, and several small conflicts between our team and financiers. It was a depressing time.
Today, I’m excited to get out of bed every morning and see what the day brings. We’ve developed an AI-powered trading platform that experienced a 530 percent growth rate since September 2020 and continues to go strong.
But once I found financial success, I learned that money itself is no longer the great motivator it used to be. Instead, satisfaction derives from being surrounded by motivated, highly skilled people united in trying to build something truly special. My co-founder is the perfect example.
You don’t need a giant company to create giant success stories.
For us, our two-person team works just fine. One of the cool things about technology is that the marginal cost of production is virtually zero. We can just grow fast. We could manage $1 million. We could work with $100 million. The system operates at scale. Staying small and lean has huge benefits for a tech startup, especially one that does not rely on seed or venture funding.
But the most important thing is the people you work with. Whether you find one person or five or 10 who can turn your dream into reality, there are ways you can find them.
But first, I’m going to tell you how not to look.
On paper, I had it all. I had a great job title with a cutting-edge blockchain analytics startup company in a fast-paced big city in Asia. It sure sounded glamorous.
I’d come into it because I knew a guy in my hometown. It was just one of those chance networking opportunities, where one good thing leads to another. His father had money, and lots of it. They needed technically capable people to build something valuable. I could be leading the way at the highest levels in this well-funded, impressive new startup.
Things went sour almost immediately, as I painfully learned the lessons many young tech entrepreneurs learn after being lured with big money dreams. It turned out I had zero authority. Every decision had to go through a couple of cigar-chomping old guys who liked to drink and enjoy the lifestyle of top executives, without actually doing much work.
In the meantime, my team and I made the best of it and managed to grind through the first phase of development. With persistence and patience, we’d get to the finish line.
In the end, our partners couldn’t come up with the funds for phase two of the project. That’s where we hit an impasse. Plenty of companies have bad leadership. But not every company has top people that just “forget” to pay the people working for them (or pay after months of delay). Exhausted, and lighter in the wallet, I bought a plane ticket home and never looked back.
I know some people have nice stories about meeting someone new, or taking a leap of faith on someone they barely know and things turn out just great. A blind date turns into a 50-year marriage. A friendly chat at a conference after-party leads to an interview for a dream job.
However, ignoring the early signs of shady or irresponsible business practices is a bad idea. It’s kind of like dating. An attractive prospect makes you look at everything with rose-tinted glasses, and all the red flags just look like, well, regular flags. In our case, red flags were present from the start, but I kept telling myself that, “In Asia, things will be different” or “Once we finish doing X, things will be different.”
Smart is good. But it’s not everything
You want to surround yourself with experts from all walks of life because you can learn from them. That said, it’s not enough to be smart. There are a lot of smart people working minimum wage jobs, trying to get their careers off the ground. There are a lot of smart people who never make it.
I think back to my first business. I had just come out of university. I partnered with an intellectually gifted person. They were always learning something new, which was fantastic. We had an amazing time debating ideas that mattered in the real world.
An experienced, older businessman once told me that companies fail for two reasons: money or ego. In this case, our fragile new startup was brought down by the latter. It turned out this person I admired had actually been causing big problems in meetings. I saw it for myself one time. He got so aggressive that the other side left in the middle of the meeting. Things didn’t improve.
My partner was smart alright, but he was also erratic, unreliable and ultimately did not produce what we needed consistently.
Look at what people have achieved, even if their work didn’t work out
I met my current co-founder at a conference and got to talking about the state of cryptocurrency and technologies like machine learning. We started working on an innovative social media app that ran off of the blockchain. We ended up not getting funding for it, but the process was still useful. I saw how my co-founder operated. He dealt not just with technical problems, but also translated the tech and business sides. In so many ways, our skill sets are complementary.
I’ve been lucky in my career so far. I’ve met a lot of smart people. There are downsides, though. There are a lot of business founders in the tech and blockchain space who are eccentric cowboys. For these kinds of people, ego and personal instability can be serious hurdles.
My co-founder doesn’t go for drama. He produces consistently — and that one trait makes him special. Companies are basically groups of people with a common aim — and good people make great companies.