When to speak up

“Rooting for your team to fail is as bad as it sounds. Even if you said early and often that this path was a stupid one, that this destination makes no sense–if you’re on the plane, if you’re in the meeting, if you decided to play the game–then once the journey starts, your job is to get us there, safe and sound.”

I’m 100% guilty of this. I will bitch and moan like there’s no tomorrow and often when it’s too late to actually do anything. It’s better to make the most of a bad situation rather than doom everything to failure. It’s not helpful and doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Why I’ve gone off VC

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.

Do what matters most

Something that I find a real struggle is staying focused on developing features that actually matter to the end user. Working on NewsTrapper it’s extremely easy to continually work on the more technical Solr/NLP side of things, after all that’s the real heart of the system and where all the challenging work is. The trouble is, improving that part of the system isn’t what’s holding us back from being able to launch. The point of an MVP is to have the minimum features possible for it to be useable. It doesn’t matter if our indexing is terrible as long as someone can come along and use the system in some form of intended fashion.

I find it really useful to review what it is I’m working on and what actually needs to be done almost constantly. Many times I’ll actually drop what I’m doing and move onto something less appealing, but more pressing. Break your system down and answer the question of “What does a user need to achieve their goal?” and do the bare minimum, no matter how bad, to deliver that. If you’re doing a small private beta then it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to prove the point and confirm whether your idea is useful or not.

Don’t spend money to start your business

You’ve got a new business, you need to get it off the ground, what do you do? Do you spend money on advertising, marketing, sales? No! It’s easy to sit and think you’re doomed because you don’t have a budget. But that is not how small businesses get off the ground. The only expenditure you need to make is one that is paid for in blood, sweat and tears. There are countless examples of businesses that are now huge successes and that started with no money. Don’t waste money on flyers, direct mail campaigns and expensive advertising. Pick up the phone and talk to people. It’s horrible and it sucks, but that’s the price of not having any money to spend in the first place.

I once worked with a group of people who thought that spending nearly £14k on a glass partition for the office we were going to move into would get the investor’s juices flowing. There was a bad culture of spending money there. The company soon folded and we never did move into the new office.

If you’re not shipping, you’re sinking

Shipping is not easy. Shipping might actually be the hardest part of creating anything. When the moment comes to ship your head is filled with questions and doubts (Thanks Lizard Brain). “What if I’ve made mistakes?” “What if I’ve missed something?” “What if there are bugs?” “What if no one likes what I’ve done?” “Oh if I could just get this extra feature in.” This fear makes shipping hard and as a consequence we push back and back and back. But by doing so we only expose ourselves to ever increasing risk. The risk that there’ll be too many features to debug, the risk that there’ll be too many unknown things to fix, the risk that we’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem all along.

I’ve shipped enough broken deployments that I no longer worry too much about bugs or broken builds. Yes, I’ve had users complain multiple times about things I’ve broken. But, more times then not, getting a half arsed solution out the door quickly has answered more questions and solved more problems then stalling and trying to do something perfectly.

Don’t be afraid of shipping and don’t hold back. No matter what you do, you will never get it right. The wonderful thing about the world is we always have tomorrow to try again.

Boring work is important work

Whether your starting a new project, company, job etc, you all too easily get caught up in the initial whirlwind of getting things off the ground. It’s exciting creating that new empty git repository, making your first few initial commits and hobbling together the start of what you imagine to be the next startup success story. Then a few weeks in that excitement fades and you’re faced with an ever-increasing mountain of tedious and boring things that need to be done. The project soon becomes boring and the temptation to jump ship and work on the next exciting idea rears its head like an itch that screams to be scratched.

No one will ever tell you that 90% of the work that you’ll need to put in will be boring. That you’ll have to grind out immensely boring things to move towards your goal of completing your project. That’s why so many startups fall by the way-side. That’s why there are so many projects on Github that once showed immense promise, but now just sit abandoned as a sea of issues and pull-requests mount up.

The ones who make it aren’t the ones that are doing the exciting work, it’s the ones that can face up to the challenge of seeing things through until the end.

Your project’s most boring work, will sometimes turn out to be your project’s most important work.

Why I’m Doing It All Wrong

The only thing that I’ve ever done right in my life is to doggedly pursue the things that I’m interested in. To the detriment of everything else. No matter what anyone else says.

Pursuing my interests regardless of what anyone says has worked well for me. I’m naturally interested in business. I’m naturally interested in coding and design. I’m naturally interested in writing.

And so my goal is this: to be able to do those things sustainably, for the rest of my life.

That, in a nutshell, is why I do this every day.

I initially skipped over this post, but I’m glad I went back and read it. Exactly the sort of things that run through my mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in the startup frenzy, that if your product isn’t social, free, an app or whatever, that you’re doing it wrong. The startup way is a lottery. One where most players number one and only goal is to get funded, that somehow somehow once we do that, the rest will be easy.

I just want to sell products to customers and make money that old fashioned way. It’s easy to forget that the number of businesses making money (and lots of it) day in day out far out weigh the number of businesses winning the startup game. We just don’t hear about them, because making money is out of fashion.

Successful people are successful

…always optimise for personal growth, for building your “success pool” that you can leverage to go from smaller successes to bigger successes. Steer away from choices that reduce this personal asset.

Excellent article on what it take to be successful. When we were working on our startups, we always shoot for the stars. Every bet was an all or nothing one, where revenue and profits were problems for the future. A lot of those decisions were out of our hands, while we always believed that first priority should always have been making enough money to keep our heads above water, rather than living on borrowed time.

The Lean Startup

I finally finished reading The Lean Startup. The main gist is that we need to be creating fast feedback looks for products/changes we make, so that we can quickly see what is and isn’t working. It’s a good extension of what to do once you have you minimum-viable product up and running, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of just adding features, without actually adding any value. I especially liked the parts on doing a cohort study of your users. Instead of measuring figures like engagement as a total for a specific time, you would track engagement for people who signed up in January only, then sign ups in February, then March, etc. This gives you a better picture of whether you’re actually improving your service or only appearing to improve because of growing figures.

Overall the book wasn’t too bad. I felt that perhaps the first half was a lot more “actionable” and my interest fell off once past the half way point, so I ended up just steaming through after that. Definitely worth reading if you’re in the startup arena though.

I’ll be getting another copy soon anyways as I’ll be seeing Eric talk when he comes to London in January.