Why Anonymous Founders (AF) was created

At the beginning of April, we launched Landscape’s AF Slack community. 🚀

The desire to create AF stemmed from a dissatisfaction with existing online, supposedly founder-led communities.

Such spaces were either noisy, used by members to promote themselves or their companies, had a user base that didn’t align with the community’s intended purpose, were generally unhelpful and/or failed to provide a sufficient sense of safety & support that instilled confidence and comfort in asking, and answering, certain questions.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann / Unsplash

We wanted to create something that addressed these issues without becoming yet another online community for which people had an account but didn’t interact with.

And so we created AF, an invite-only community solely for verified founders. A safe space in which founders could backchannel, 👥 share their stresses, 😤 support other founders 🤜🤛 and ask stupid questions. 😝

How we created AF

Admittedly, when creating Anonymous Founders, we had some concerns.

The most important centred around our desire to let members retain their anonymity. 👤

Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

On the one hand, anonymity provided something other communities did not. Easy entry,🚪 safety ⛑ and greater freedom to ask questions and offer answers. 🗣

This was particularly important for discussions around certain topics, such as fundraising, 💸 mental health 🧠 and investor interactions, 🤝 where many founders are typically wary of speaking openly for fear of retribution and backlash.

On the other hand, we were aware anonymity would give members a veil to hide behind, possibly encouraging them to be offensive and behave in malicious, unpleasant ways.

Our second concern was that we would spend too much time moderating and policing the community. 🚓

Are you supposed to be here right now?
Photo by Scott Webb / Unsplash

As administrators, we wanted to avoid being heavily involved. We foresaw the 'community' aspect of AF as only such if the people part of it were actively involved and contributed to it 🤜🤛. We wanted people to voluntarily collaborate, support and uplift one another rather than be pushed to engage.

Although we appreciated, and to some degree expected, our role to be one of stimulating discussion, keeping conversations reasonably on track, basic housekeeping and blowing the whistle if arguments became a little too heated and people started tossing out the ad hominems, from the outset, we wanted the community to be built collectively from bottom-up rather than individually from top-down. 🏗

To resolve these concerns we found some compromises.

Verification and moderation

To address concerns around anonymity, all members have to be verified ✅ before receiving an invite and all members have to commit to using a pseudonym Slack handle.

This means that whilst members aren’t engaging with the community using their real identity, they are still engaging in a consistent and identifiable way. Essentially, whilst their personal details aren't visible, every AF member partakes in the community using a recognisable identity, thus allowing for anonymity but ensuring accountability.

We, the community admin, are able to see who they really are (by seeing the email address they joined with). This allows us to legitimately and efficaciously moderate the community and, if necessary, remove offending parties - it should be pointed out that this has never happened so far.

Internet/Safe/Wifi. Use this image for free. Check my profile.
Photo by Franck / Unsplash

To address concerns around moderation, we created community guidelines 📝 to clearly outline what is and is not accepted in the community.

The aim of these are to help members understand not only how they should act, but what they should expect from others. Rather than go into each in detail, we’ll sum them up in the same way we do for founders at the end of the guidelines;

“If you’re struggling to know whether you should say something or not, remember the ‘Mum rule’. If you wouldn’t say it to your Mum, don’t post it here.”

We like to think these guidelines have contributed to the fact that not once have we felt the need to start a discussion or redirect conversation and on only one instance have we deemed it appropriate to intervene (after which the matter was resolved quickly and successfully).

Roadside evangelism in Ohio.
Photo by Sean Foster / Unsplash

Some quantitative statistics

Since it’s conception, several hundred verified founders have joined Anonymous Founders. Over 4500 messages have been sent from Founders in over 12 countries 🌏 & we continue to receive dozens of daily requests for invites. 🙋‍♀️🙋‍♂️

There are currently 11 channels covering a variety of topics, including #backchannel, #celebrations, #pick-me-up, #growth, #startup-jobs #rants & #war-stories. Excluding #general, the most popular channels, as determined by the number of messages sent, were, at the time of publishing, #fundraising-chat, #ask-anything and #startup-stresses.

The comfort members feel in speaking about issues, asking questions or seeking support is highlighted by the fact that 74% of all messages in the community have been sent in public channels.    

Some qualitative observations

Beyond quantitative statistics, what else have we learned from the Anonymous Founders Slack community so far?

  • What seems obvious to some is unknown to others;
  • There remains far too many bad investor experiences ❌ that founders feel unable to talk about;
  • Founders experience similar problems, 😩 problems other founders have often found innovative solutions and workarounds for and are quite willing to share;
  • Basic, but under discussed, tenets of running a company, 📊 such as hiring, firing, holiday leave, time management, resignations, dealing with competition and more, represent substantial challenges for a lot of founders;
  • Receiving advice 👥 from people going through similar experiences is just as valuable, if not more so, than receiving the same advice from a mentor or more experienced individual;
  • People are often doing far better than they give themselves credit for, sometimes they just need to hear it👂from someone else to realise it;
  • Sometimes founders just want, and need, a space where they can share brutal truths, therapeutically rant, discuss sensitive topics e.g. mental health, investor interactions or personal issues and let their guard down without fear of damaging their reputation;
  • There is strength in numbers and honesty. 💪 Hearing that others are going through the same experiences as you is comforting. 🤗 This is particularly the case in an ecosystem where avoiding talk about failure and difficulties, whilst over-indexing on success, is the norm.

More practical observations related to fundraising include;

  • how to secure a lead investor,
  • which pre-seed funds to reach out to,
  • what metrics to include in pitch decks,
  • what information should be shared with an investor at which stage in the relationship,
  • how to receive funding through SEIS and the appropriate fees,
  • the size of a round,
  • and the time it takes to raise a round and actually receive the money in the bank.

Above all, we’ve observed that founders really do want to help other founders. 🤜🤛

From the length and detail of messages in the community, AF members clearly spend a significant amount of time thinking about and writing messages (something particularly notable when a founder’s time is one of their most valuable resources). 🕰

It’s clear there’s a strong desire to give back and pay it forward. ♻️ It would just appear that, until recently, there simply hasn’t been the right space in which founders feel comfortable doing this.

What are our plans for the future?

One reason we think AF has been so successful is the serendipitous nature of the community and a lack of interventionist control and planning on our behalf.

If we have an idea of something that might work, we run with it without giving it too much thought. Likewise, if an AF member suggests something we think is a good idea, we try it. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine. If it’s received well, fantastic, we keep it.

We’ve tried to create, and will continue to maintain, a relaxed, informal member-driven community with little administrative involvement. We feel the absence of oversight and control (and of course the fact that we are founders ourselves) is an integral part of making members feel safe talking about topics they might otherwise feel unable to in other spaces.

We’re planning to introduce a few things, e.g. in person meet-ups (COVID-19 permitting) 👋 and exclusive events such as masterclasses and fireside chats 📆, but the focus will, and always be, on simply providing a helpful platform on which productive and much needed conversations can take place.

At the end of the day, Landscape’s mission is to be the most helpful platform in the startup community. We aim to do this by providing a suite of tools, features and products that help founders, be that the AF slack community, the review platform, an investor directory or whatever other resources founders need.

If you’re a Founder and would like to receive an invite to the Anonymous Founders Slack community drop us an email with proof you’re a founder (this could be your LinkedIn profile or company webpage) and an email address you’d like the invite sent to.

If you’re a non-Founder but would nevertheless like to get involved with Landscape, drop us an email here too!

And, as always, if you’re in a position to leave anonymous reviews of your interactions with investors, please create a Landscape account and begin sharing your experiences!