When starting a new “startup”, the most likely course of action is MVP, VC, Exit, Profit! For NewsTrapper we were thinking of going down the YCombinator/TechStars route, but at the last minute decided to try bootstrapping it ourselves.
The main reason is that I think there are a lot of valuable lessons to learn trying to go through the whole process of bootstrapping with very little budget, but another factor is that recently I’ve been turned off the idea of VC. One of the main motivators for wanting to create my own business is to be my own boss. While fame and fortune are nice goals, more than anything I want to have freedom to do what I want. When you take VC you basically have a new boss. I don’t want to report to anyone. To have to go to meetings, produce presentations and seek the approval of others before I can make any decisions. Perhaps it’s old age that’s made me more drawn to freedom than money.
Iceberg features are where on the surface they seem small and simple while backed by a huge un-seeable chunks of functionality and processes. Like their real counterpart they come in many different shapes and sizes. From the “Oh, just add an extra field to this form”, which in-fact impacts the business logic, to “Just copy this feature on site X”, without taking into consideration the processes that go on behind the scenes. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the first sort of “small change” problem before, but the second one is a lot more subtle and easy to miss.
A lot of sites successful implement a “invite your friends” feature, which grabs a user’s address book and messages each of them asking them to join. The simplistic way of copying the functionality is to think that the road to success is simply grabbing the needed details and messaging them, thinking that what makes the functionality successful starts with the form and stops with the initial message. That’s just the tip of the feature iceberg. Is it successful for another site as they have a planned out set of campaign emails they send out to an invited person, with timed followups and different possible campaign routes depending on a user’s reactions. It may well be that having a naive imitation of the feature is better than not having one at all, but it’s the compromise of deciding what to do. Is a poorly imitated, half implemented and thought out feature better than a smaller, but more complete and well thought out one.
Five monkeys are caged together and there are some bananas hanging from the top of the cage. Some scientists attach an automated device for sensing if the bananas are moved; once a monkey tries to get any, an electric shock travels through the cage so that all monkeys get shocked. In the beginning, a single monkey climbs up to the bananas, touches them and every monkey gets shocked. So he doesn’t try anymore, but the other four monkeys try the same thing and the result comes to be the same. Therefore, the monkeys learn something in common: that is, do not get the bananas! You’ll get a painful electric shock! The scientists then replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. This new monkey sees the bananas and wants to get them right away, but the other four monkeys beat it when they see its actions. Since these original four monkeys think the new monkey will make them get shocked, they stop the new monkey from getting the bananas. This monkey tries a few times and the others beat it every time without it ever getting the bananas. Of course, all five monkeys don’t get shocked. The scientists then replace another of the original monkeys with a new one. This second new monkey sees the bananas and you bet it wants to get them immediately. But, sadly, the others beat it and the first new monkey beats the newest one even harder then the others (for the newest one is the rookie and has the lowest social status). Just like before, the newest monkey tries several times to get the bananas and is stopped by the others when they attack him. The scientists continue to replace all the original monkeys until no monkeys who actually felt the electric shock remain. Now none of the five new monkeys dare to touch the bananas yet none of them know why. They only know whomever wants to get the bananas will be beaten.
Frequently I write about doing what matters most and not getting caught up in the stuff that makes the least amount of difference. The tale above is a great story that leads on from that; Making sure you know why you’re doing something.
This recently came up in a conversation about re-designing the homepage of viewshound.com. One person thought the front page should be laid out one way, while another thought it should be laid out another way. The problem was, neither answered the question of firstly, why the homepage needed to change and secondly, what did we want to achieve by changing it. The naive answer to the second point is that we want to “increase page views”, but really in essence the answer is a lot more in-depth than that. Are we looking to drive first time visitors to individual articles or are we looking to drive people to category pages? Are we optimising for new arrivals or optimising for frequent readers? Once you rule out these sort of low-level questions, the route you take becomes a lot clearer, and changes for the sake of making changes becomes a problem of the past.
Imagine your business is a lovely big garden. You tend to the flowers, water the plants, and place your seeds carefully in the hope that a few months down the line they’ll blossom into a beautiful array of colours. But you don’t mow the lawn. As time goes by, your lawn gets overgrown and filled with weeds, eventually swallowing up all the hard work you put into your flower beds. Would you do this? Of course not, so why do we run our business like this then?
The lawn is the heart and soul of your garden. It’s plainest and simplest to maintain, but it is the easiest to neglect in favour of working on the things that are more attractive. Are you neglecting the core of what makes your business run, in favour of what’s more exciting? Blogs, SEO, Facebook, Twitter, Affiliates, Promotions are not your core concern. You need to be making sales. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is how sales are made. They are fillers for an already churning sales engine. Pick up the phone, go and meet potential buyers. Start the engine of your lawn mower and mow your lawn.
Hot is the new hotness! Every month or so there’s a new hot topic in startup land. There was social, mobile, local, game mechanics blah blah. And with every wave of new hotness, comes a fresh wave of startups trying to get in on the deal. If it’s hot right now, and you’re thinking of getting in, don’t, it’s too late. Don’t even think of entering a space where others have a six month or more lead on you. Yeah, they’re grabbing all the attention right now, but in six months when they’re no longer flavour of the month, you’ll be the one left holding the bag.
They always says don’t trade stocks off the recommendations in the newspapers, because by then you’ve already missed out. This is exactly the same. If you want to swing for the fences, create something visionary that no-one else has thought of yet, or better yet, something so boring in an arena where competition will be sparse now and the foreseeable future. Yes, perhaps there’s someone else secretly working on the same thing as you right now, but if either of you turn out to be right, the other could be in a prime position to ride the other’s coat-tail to success.