“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. – Oscar Wilde”
This exemplifies my attitude towards what I’ve learned in my time running startups. At the core, mistakes, and more specifically learning from mistakes is what truly leads to life-long learning. My team has made many blunders over the past 19 months and isn’t ashamed to admit it. In no particular order, here are the most important things we learned by making mistakes.
- Work with People You Like: Regardless of whether or not you like your co-founders, you will spend a ton of time with them. It’s much easier to deal with 12 hour days when the people sitting across from you are friends.
- Don’t Double-Up on Skillsets: Our team has been, and will remain for the foreseeable future three people. 1 Designer, 1 Programmer, and 1 Marketer. We’ve tried bringing more people; additional coders, salespeople, and designers, but with no luck. The time it takes to integrate someone into your system of work is rarely paid off by the added value of more bodies. Dave McClure talks about series’ of funding for startups and points out that most angel rounds are done when the team is 2-3 people; more people does not mean more work gets done.
- Startups=Growth: OK, this one I stole from Paul Graham. The differentiator between a startup and a small business is an undying devotion to exponential growth. If you’re not growing, you are regressing.
- Be the Best in the World at one thing: When our team first started building product, we wanted to revolutionize everything. We quickly realized that was impossible and we only needed to revolutionize one thing. Our latest project, Interact, only does one thing, be the best quiz creation platform in the world. It’s almost overly simple, but we have been surprised at how hard it is to make the ‘best’ of anything.
- Solve Real Problems: Does anyone really think your solution solves a problem? It’s amazing how many times we’ve caught ourselves working out a solution on the assumption that a problem exists, when in reality we were just making a solution because it was easy.
- The Only Way to Get Better at Being an Entrepreneur is to be an Entrepreneur: One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say something like this. “Yah, I’m going to go work at Microsoft for five years and work on my skills, then do my own startup.” There’s a reason the success rate on a team’s second startup is higher than the first and the third is higher than the second. Startups are not big businesses, they run differently, reach success differently, and are inherently different. Our team has worked on two projects. The number of customers we had on month 9 of the first projects was equal to the number of customers we had on month three of the second project.
- Know Your Value: Six weeks into Interact, I walked into a meeting with a fortune 500 company looking for a partnership. At this point our technology was not finished, our customer base was small, and we had little to bring to the table. However, I knew that my team was going to spend the next two years hacking away until our little company took off. Going in with that mindset made me confident but not arrogant, and the partnership is happening.
- Be Persistent: Startups are like trees. You plant the seeds, water them every day, fertilize the soil, and constantly tend to the ground but don’t even see a sprout for weeks or even months. If you give up while the seed is still in the ground, nothing will ever happen. That’s why persistence is one of the most important attributes for any startup to have.
- Set Goals…and Keep Them: Harvard did a study on their recent grads. 95% of the grads didn’t set income goals for the 5 years after graduation, but 5% did. Five years later, the 5% who had set goals were earning twice as much as the 95% who hadn’t (on average). The second part of the statement is also important, once you stop achieving your goals, they become meaningless.
- Let Customers Build the Product: Not literally…but do allow questions and complaints guide the product. One of the worst things we do constantly is build to much of a product before letting customers tell us what they think of it. It’s no use sitting in a room coding something when you have no idea if it’s right for your audience.
- There are no excuses for not launching a product: At one point our team stayed awake for 48 hours before a press piece went live just to make sure the website wouldn’t crash. There is always going to be a valid excuse for not launching something, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to set goals and keep them, excuses have to be brushed aside.
- Focus on what makes you different: Bootstrap, wordpress, plugins, graphicriver, and countless other free sites provide the basic frameworks for a great website. Don’t waste your time re-coding buttons and gradients; focus your hours on the pieces of your website that are truly unique to your offering.
- Just make it work: Clean code is for corporations. Your startups’ first website doesn’t need a code base that’s flawless. IF people begin using your product there will be time to go back and clean things up, but don’t waste precious hours now to do what doesn’t need to be done until later.
- Improve Constantly (Kaizen): Benjamin Franklin asked himself the same question every night: “Did I do Something Good Today?” Apply that rule to your startup. If every day doesn’t involve some sort of improvement, you’re doing it wrong.