Lindsay Tabas

Founder of Labs*: The Preseed Startup Blueprint

Lindsay Tabas is a Product-Market Fit Strategist & Startup Advisor focused on helping founders and innovators design and sell the right product before spending too much money building the wrong one. After almost 20 years designing and developing software in Silicon Valley, New York, and now remotely from her homebase in Philly, wearing every hat between what customers say and what engineers need to build, she created the blueprint to bring real-form products to market in the most lean and efficient way possible with proven long-term success.

Where did the idea for Labs*: The Preseed Startup Blueprint come from?

With the average software project going 3x over scope in time and cost, I designed Labs*: The Preseed Startup Blueprint to help founders connect with customers in order to activate startup growth. Throughout my career, working with hundreds of startups and investors, and Fortune 500 firms, I have seen eager creators spend (and lose) ludicrous amounts of money building products without having the customer involvement that would make what they’re doing an actual business.

My frustration grew to be too much! After 10 years working for others and on my own startups, I started on my own as an independent contractor in 2014 and then launched Labs* in 2017. At the time, many new startup founders (with little experience working in or on tech) were starting companies and losing tens of thousands of dollars making the same mistakes I had witnessed too many times before. I wanted to save them the heartache, so I designed the inaugural version of Labs* to do the following:

1. Guide founders to prove validation and traction without investing in more software development or time looking for a co-founder
2. Train them in the multi-disciplinary skills needed to get the most out of any investment they put into both marketing and product
3. Establish the meaningful pillars of a profitable & scalable business model (that sets them up to successfully fundraise…if that is what they want)

Labs* is the comprehensive blueprint that moves a startup founder from vision to product in the most lean and efficient process with proven long-term results. The majority of my customers are nontechnical startup founders building a company where the primary product is a piece of technology.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My favorite topic, so pull up a chair and welcome to the Lady Engineer®’s Framework for Work & Life! First and foremost, achieving balance is critical. The challenge for each of us is to offer ourselves enough order without stifling creativity. What works for me in terms of productivity may not work for you.

What’s better is for each of us to structure our days around our most productive hours. I call this block my “prime time,” and for me, that time is 9 am – 1pm. The first two hours of that block, 9-11, is the time for me to do the hard work. I do not schedule anything during that time, particularly meetings, unless it’s an absolute emergency.

I start the day slightly before 9 by centering myself with meditating or journaling, or both! Having already time-blocked my calendar in the days before, I know exactly what I’m working on during my prime time. After lunch, I open my schedule to meetings and take care of any game plan tasks like checking my email, (re)scheduling meetings, and following up with smaller tasks. Before the end of the day, I wrap up making sure I know what I’m working on tomorrow.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideation is a strength of mine so I have to be careful which ideas I pursue. There are just too many! When an idea persists, I spend one hour focused on it to get all of my brainstorming and optimism on paper. If after that hour I am still interested, I’ll gut check if it aligns with my bigger picture goals for myself.

The key to success is to focus on one thing at a time. Yet as a creative and a systems engineer, if a new idea strikes that is well aligned, I’ll look for the double or triple wins and outcomes to maximize my efforts.

Once the idea becomes clearer, I make it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound). The best way to do this is to create a work plan with milestones and weekly activities to build the right habits. An easy example of this: If you want to get more fit by summer, you make a commitment to workout 3-5x per week. Likewise, if I want to build more thought leadership around designing the human experience into the future, I commit to posting 3x per week on LinkedIn.

With a work plan, clear milestones, and new weekly commitments, plan your weeks and days around the goals most important to you. Focus on focus first, then build your life around what it is you want most.

What’s one trend that excites you?

My interests have always lied in the macro & micro technology choices organizations and people make that impact the human experience. The most exciting trend to watch grow is that of more people questioning how technology affects them, their lifestyle choices and their mental health.

A thought experiment I love is imagining if apps had Surgeon General warning labels like packs of cigarettes. What would Instagram’s say when you open the app each time? “Warning: If you’re not happy with yourself today, this app may magnify your malcontent. Talk to a therapist before consuming.”

Everyone, keep making conscious choices about the technology you use each day!

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

As I said elsewhere, productivity is highly individualized; what works for me may not work for you. You will cycle through a bunch of “tips” until you find the ones that work best. For me, Operations Research was my favorite class in engineering school so I can try to optimize myself all of the time. Unfortunately, I’m not a robot! The reality is, knowing when I need accountability from external sources like a coach, co-worker, employee or peer, and how to leverage that external accountability – that’s the real game changer!

What advice would you give your younger self?

“If you’re really an entrepreneur, you’ll start multiple businesses in your lifetime.” This advice, received in 2013, truly changed my relationship with every idea, creative pursuit, business plan, and my entrepreneurial identity. When I was younger, I put so much pressure on each of my pursuits, I built a barrier to entry way too high to even start. Once I received this advice, I realized I could start something that did not require the full force of my technical acumen. I started an e-commerce shop on Shopify that I ran for 2 years, at which point I realized my design & technical skills were making me more money as a consultant than the shop. Starting one business led naturally into starting the next.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Innovation is a process, not a thing! This idea that innovation is a thing – that we dream something up and run with it – keeps sustaining the 90% failure rate in startups and the massive scope creep I referred to earlier (3x!).

People point to Steve Jobs and Henry Ford as having captured innovation as a “thing,” as if Jobs simply put his finger in the air to judge the direction of the wind and built the Apple empire. Others use Ford as an excuse not to do real customer research. Besides both of their stories being complete entrepreneurial creative myths, they are just 2 people over the past 125 years! What is everyone else doing to propel society forward?

There is a process of innovation that everyone can follow. You don’t have to conjure up superpowers, you just have to follow concrete steps. Conveniently for you, I give them in a framework that makes sense via Labs* and my product-market fit framework.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Pick myself back up! You can only truly thrive if you build resilience which is your ability to recover and grow beyond where you started.

When I started on my own, I was living in New York. Someone told me that the actors on Broadway weren’t necessarily the most talented in the world but the ones who had the resilience and perseverance to face challenges and setbacks without giving up.

The most talented probably went home because they couldn’t handle rejection or didn’t take ownership of their own successes, but more importantly, their failures.

Entrepreneurship is the quickest path to self discovery because, as Chumbawamba said, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” By the way, Tubthumping was their biggest single and it came out on their eighth album! That’s resilience right there.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

As an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Columbia University Ventures and Techstars, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the top unmet needs of startups with some of the industry’s finest experts. We wholeheartedly agree that the biggest problem startup’s face is FOCUS.

My New Year’s Resolution in 2016 was “Focus on focus,” and it’s a mantra I keep coming back to frequently ever since. I have found I am most productive and achieve the most when I am ruthlessly focused on a set of priorities and equally judicious not to get distracted by shiny objects.

What I do know from having about 75 entrepreneurs through Labs*: Focus is something everyone has to constantly work on.

Marcel Telles, a Brazilian investor and businessman, said “A company can seize extra-ordinary opportunities only if it is very good at the ordinary operations.” My advice to you is to continually tinker and tune the way you organize and structure (1) yourself, (2) your business & (3) yourself as a business.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Just one? I love failure stories because, at a certain point, you feel wholeheartedly that there are no failures, they’re all learning lessons. After running an e-commerce business, OneSquatShop, from 2013 through 2014, I celebrated my first year fully independent! Yet, in review, I had made all my money as a contractor in design & technology, and none from the clothing shop.

In all regards, the time spent running this store was a total financial loss. I had learned enough about e-commerce to understand that success was heavily predicated on savvy digital marketing, a field I knew very little about. If I had to learn digital marketing, shouldn’t I apply the lessons to the thing that was making me money?

For the first half of 2015, I switched my focus to marketing and building up a company around my design & technology skills while letting the store languish. As they say, if a tree falls and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? No one really noticed I had “Irish Exited” my own business for 6 months!

By the time I was ready to officially turn the lights off, I had sufficient emotional distance from the failure to find some levity in the situation. For my last email to my subscribers, I wrote a catchy email headline to get people to open it. Since Under Armour had recently acquired MyFitnessPal, I wrote: “Under Armour Buys OneSquatShop.”

Of course, the first sentence of the email said “This is not at all true. But, we are closing.” The ruse was short and impactful. Just like most people didn’t notice I had stopped promoting the business for the prior 6 months, most only consumed the headline without reading the email body.

“A bunch of people think you sold your business to Under Armour,” my roommate said. That’s how you turn a negative into a positive so you actually enjoy life!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Okay, internet, I hope you take this idea and run with it: Lightweight, portable standing desk with telescoping legs for adjustable heights. Imagine running any cafe table or desk, regardless of its base height, into an ergonomically correct standing desk!

I’m 5’2” so most bar tops at coffee shops are too high for me to use well. There are some options I’ve seen out there, but they’re wider than 15” and the adjustable legs are too bulky to put in a bag. This compact foldable is made out of the durable plastic most laptop shells use and it should fit in your computer bag to carry with you on the go.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

For Holidays 2022, I spent about $100 on 40 foil embossed flat cards with a personal & kitschy message for coworkers, customers, partners and peers for the holidays. I took the time to recognize others, their contributions to my life, and the accomplishments we were able to achieve together. Writing and sending each was an exercise in gratitude to cap off a great year!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

For any business, the first thing a founder must scale is themselves. I use a variety of tools to optimize my own operations but, by far, the best one is Zapier. Whether you are a consultant or building a technology company, you must optimize your marketing and back-office processes in order to free up more time to interact with customers.

I use Zapier to send out weekly email reminders to different groups of customers, to connect my email marketing platform with my relationship-focused CRM, to log records of social posts in a master content management spreadsheet for tracking. For many of my Zaps, I add an additional step to send a notification to Slack so I have an idea of what’s going on in my eco-system.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve heard me repeat that entrepreneurship is the most direct path to self-discovery. “Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up” by Jerry Colonna, a former venture capitalist turned CEO coach, must be on your list. This book is about the internal work you need to do to authentically show up every day for yourself, your loved ones and your peers.

What is your favorite quote?

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

Key Learnings:

  • Innovation is a process, not a thing, and it starts with understanding the problem.
  • Entrepreneurship is the quickest path to self-discovery.
  • Focus on focus.
  • Ability to build a meaningful professional and personal life authentic to them depends on a commitment to continuous learning and improvement.
  • To design ourselves into the future, we need to take a human-first approach to our technology choices and uses.