Tried to do consulting to an early stage startup, failed

Here’s the details of my attempt.

I’m unsure where I went wrong or even if there was any chance of success at all. At the moment I’m of the opinion that there wasn’t anything else I could do, but a part of me is wondering if I was just rubbish at negotiating.

In short, didn’t work.

I’ll tell you what went wrong.

They were cheapskates who didnt want to pay you the market rate, and strung you along with vague promises of profit sharing. They (from what it seems) really didnt have a business model, and wanted a mark to do the work for free, so that they could then go to a VC for more money.

And from what I’ve heard, this is pretty common in the VC world. Hence this is, not (though I would love to start that :slight_smile: )

You need to make up your mind. Are you a consultant, or are you a bootstrapper? You can be both, but not at the same time. And as a simple rule, when you are working on someone else’s business idea, you are an employee, and nothing more. So you get paid like one.

You are lucky to have escaped what was clearly a con at extracting free work from you. Learn to respect your time, and yourself. Because you’ll be meeting a lot more of these “Startups”.



You are exactly correct.

I’m glad he didn’t lose any more time on this.

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Except for all the people bootstrapping a product while freelancing and consulting on the side right?


Yes, of course. What I meant was, keep the two separate.

So from 9-5 (or whatever), you (the universal you, not personal you) wear a consulting/employee hat, where you work for the client, get paid on time, and the client takes the risk, not you, because you are just an employee. You get paid $X for $Y.

Evenings/weekends, you put on your bootstrapper hat. Now you take all the risks, including the risk you lose time and money with nothing to show for it.

But you don’t mix these hats. You don’t (or shouldn’t) work for another person with vague promises of revenue sharing.


There are always plenty of people out there who will waste your time and expect you to work for free.

Could you have pre-screened them asking them ‘what is your budget for this work’ over the phone? That could have saved you some time.

20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course…


I mentor and advise startups in the London area and I completely see what you say. Majority of the time founders want an easy way out on technology and they’re not willing to pay for serious development work.

Which is fine, because what they really need is rarely technology related.

In my experience most of the stoppers in early stage startups are connected with the business model, target audience and proposition. And rightfully so. It’s very hard for the founders at that stage to have a very clear idea on where they see themselves in 6 months time.

I found that, rather than helping them to build something, it’s much more valuable to help simplify the vision, which translate into a smaller MVP. And a simpler MVP means less dev work and less money.

I’m unsure this can help, the blog posts is very dry on details (I assume its on purpose).

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had a similar experience last year but the money was pretty good but ultimately turned it down because it just felt off.

for instance the job would mean working with another consultant with very different approach to the architecture. we would get into these long email back and forth about what stack to choose, what problems we were gonna tackle.

ended up doing a week of free consulting and ended up not taking it.

One huge problem is that there are a lot of amateurs out there, on both sides of the fence: People applying for programming jobs who [can't pass a basic Fizz Buzz test][1], or people trying to build something who don’t have a clue about product-market fit.

People who don’t know what they’re doing often have no idea how clueless they are
Skilled technical folks typically don’t overstate their ability. And we assume that others don’t either. But it takes proficiency to be able to self-evaluate your proficiency. I.e., if you don’t know squat about software engineering then you may have no idea that you don’t know what you’re doing. And if you’ve never started a company before you may not have a clue that you’re…clueless.

Just as you’d interview a potential technical hire, I think you should interview ANYONE you’re going to work with with to evaluate whether they know what they are talking about.

Consulting for a startup sounds like a wrong idea to me.

Consulting is to get a big fat check from big, established businesses that just cannot make their own IT departments to move with the required speed. A startup usually cannot pay me even half what I get from the Big Cos.

Hence I’d have to work for equity - but that takes a confidence the startup will be worth much more in future, and how to get that confidence? There is no reliable way.

Hence no point in working for startups at all – unless it is my own startup.

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