Thinking about your goal with a startup

I often reflect upon the differences between my previous startup and Buffer, and think about what changes to my mindset affected the better outcome this time compared with my previous attempts.

One of the mindset adjustments which I think has had a large impact on my success is to think about what my goal as an entrepreneur is. The key thing has been to focus on a goal of succeeding overall with creating a startup, rather than to focus on being successful with a particular idea. It’s an interesting tweak to your thinking, but one which I’ve found very powerful.

A goal to succeed with an idea

With my previous startup, one of the mistakes I made was to make my sole aim to succeed with the particular idea that I started with. Despite that fact that I still made adjustments to the idea and it changed a little, I had a mindset that I wanted to make the idea work. I struggled, with little traction and almost zero retention.

When the goal is to succeed with the idea you have, you don’t give yourself much room to course-correct. The fact is, that almost all startups change considerably over their lifetime, so to stay fixated on that original idea can be detrimental to the success of the startup.

A goal to create a successful startup

"If you don’t succeed with your current startup, it’s not your fault. If you’re not successful in your career, it is your fault." - Chris Yeh

The better approach I’ve found is to focus solely on being successful with your startup, without the idea being involved in that equation. That way, you allow for the required change in order to arrive at an eventual success, rather than limiting your ability to adjust and move towards success.

I truly believe that if you have not found something that works, something that people are using and find valuable, then you should be doing nothing but trying to reach that goal. In essence, if you are pre-product/market fit, then your only goal should be to reach product/market fit. What I want to suggest is that the goal of any startup founder should be to reach product/market fit with an idea, not necessarily the idea they started with.

This ties in very well with the lean startup notion of validated learning being the measure of progress. A lot of the formalities can be forgotten in the early days of a startup. No need to incorporate, no need for an office. Just try to learn about your customers and figure out if your assumptions about your idea and market are correct. If not, make changes. If you need to make a big change and arrive at a whole different idea, then do it.

It’s a change in mindset

It may seem quite obvious to read, but I’ve found personally that this is very difficult in practice. I think a key reason Buffer was more successful than my previous endeavours was that I had reached a point with enough previous failure that I wanted so bad to succeed with something, with anything. That meant I didn’t mind if it was this idea or another I discovered. That slight shift in mindset makes you much more eager for feedback and learning, and makes you genuinely open to changing the idea based on that feedback. This means you listen and people can tell that you are truly appreciative of their time.

Your goal should not be to succeed with a particular idea. Your goal should be to create a successful startup.

Have you previously found yourself limited by a goal focused on an idea, rather than being open to change? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Kreg Steppe

Don't register your idea as a company

When to incorporate is one of those topics which comes up time and time again, and there is much conflicting advice out there. I’m lucky enough to have a number of different experiences and perspectives with this, and I now believe that by far the best option in almost all cases is to delay registering a company for as long as possible.

Don’t incorporate a hobby

I’m no lawyer, so it’s probably best not to take too much of my advice on this. One of the lawyers who I have a lot of respect for, especially when talking about scalable tech startups, is Ryan Roberts, who runs the Startup Lawyer blog. His advice is this:

"Don’t incorporate a hobby. Incorporate when you are serious about making your startup a business."

I think that’s pretty sound advice.

Being serious about your startup idea

I’m sure if you were to talk with someone else about the idea for your startup, you probably wouldn’t want to call it a hobby. You’d be very serious about it, this idea is the one. Right?

I think that’s great, it’s definitely good to be determined and ambitious. However, when it’s still an idea I think it’s perhaps good to think about it as a hobby.

As an example, I spoke yesterday at Leancamp Dublin and one of the things I mentioned about when I first had the idea for Buffer was this:

"The idea came from a personal need, and I knew I’d find the product useful for myself. However, for it to be more than just a hobby, I needed lots of other people to find it useful as well."

This is the point in time when I decided I needed to go through a validation process for Buffer before I launched it. I needed to find out if lots of other people would find it useful. Over time, this worked out well. With 230,000 users and good revenue, we’re most certainly a startup now.

However, realistically, it remained a hobby - an experiment - for quite some time before it became a true startup.

Don’t launch a company, launch an experiment

Vinicius Vacanti, the co-founder and CEO of Yipit has a great way of phrasing the benefits of framing your startup idea as an “experiment”:

"by thinking of it as a quick experiment, that fear tends to go away. The beautiful thing about experiments is that disproving your hypothesis isn’t thought of as a failure. It’s thought of as progress. And, getting early user feedback, even negative, is definitely progress."

I think that’s a great way to think about it. Each assumption or hypothesis which is disproved is very real progress, since the measure of progress for a lean startup is validated learning.

What matters? Product/market fit

One reason that it is great to think about a fresh startup idea as an experiment is described very well by Marc Andreeson’s definition of “product/market fit”:

"Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market."

When you reach product/market fit you essentially have built something people want. You naturally get traction, and things unfold very quickly. Reaching product/market fit is perhaps the most important thing for a startup. Andreeson puts it this way:

"Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to."

The pre-product/market fit phase is one of the biggest challenges of creating a startup. You have to get out of the building and face those assumptions. You need the flexibility to make drastic changes. The best way is by thinking about the process as a series of experiments, with the eventual goal of arriving at something people want.

When you manage to achieve product/market fit, you’ll know it. This was the key difference between Buffer and my previous startup. Andreeson was right:

"you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening"

Delay incorporating to stay flexible

With a company registered, and perhaps the name related to the idea, it can be very difficult to let go of an idea in pursuit of succeeding as a startup, rather than with the particular idea. Being too attached to the idea or a particular solution could kill the startup.

Therefore, I believe that it is best to delay incorporating our startups. In this pre-product/market fit stage, we should be focused completely on reaching product/market fit, as Andreeson has told us. This gives us the best chance of finding something that does get traction (it flows when you hit product/market fit). Once you’re there, it’s becomes worth incoporating and giving it the focus as a startup rather than a hobby or experiment.

Have you incorporated your startup? How early did you do it and what were the reasons? I’d love to hear from you in the comments

Photo credit: Juli

What can we do right now?

Recently there have been a few occasions at Buffer where we’ve hesitated about next steps or thought about spending longer on certain tasks. As a result of my thinking around this, I’ve started to believe that the following question can be one of the most powerful questions for startup founders to say to each other:

"What can we do right now?"

"Right now" means faster validation

The reason I think this question is so powerful is largely based on the core nature of startups. Unfortunately for us startup founders, the key difference between what we do when we’re building a scalable startup and what you would be doing if you’re running a service business is that a large amount of the work we do every day is building things which are not yet validated.

There are three common scenarios in a startup where we’re handling assumptions which need to be validated as soon as possible:

  • we haven’t launched yet and so almost nothing is validated
  • we’re modifying the experience of a current feature
  • we’re adding a new feature we expect will improve one or more metrics

Therefore, a lot of what we spend our time building hasn’t yet been seen by our potential or existing audience. This is a key issue that many founders agree is vital to address:

"Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something youve created until its out there. That means every moment youre working on something without it being in the public its actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world." - Matt Mullenweg, WordPress

Two examples from Buffer

Just in the last few weeks, there are times when between Leo, Tom and myself one of us has used the powerful “what can we do right now?” question to great effect. Here are a couple:

Getting a user on Skype for user testing

We’ve recently been working on an overhaul of the browser extension popup that you see when you use Buffer to add a new Tweet or Facebook update about a page you want to share. Initially, we thought about launching it to everyone without getting feedback. However, there are some new concepts which are quite different compared to the current version, so we decided it is best if we try and validate our assumptions about how clear the new experience is.

To do this validation, we’ve been connecting with a few users through Skype and enabling the new version for them. As they experience the new version, they share their thoughts and we ask questions to specifically get insight into whether they understand the different parts of the experience.

At first, we said to each other: “maybe we could do some user testing next week”. Then, in the same conversation we moved towards “how about this week”. In the end, we took it even further and said “why not today” and then finished by concluding “let’s Tweet right now and have a call with someone in the next few minutes”. Within 20 minutes, we’d done an interview and learned a massive amount. We’ve since done ten more user interviews and learned even more.

Hacking and hard-coding UI changes

Whilst conducting these user interviews, we’ve learned a massive amount very quickly. Some of what we’ve learned has proven that our assumptions were in fact incorrect. Part of the interface we have built for the new browser extension popup is not being perceived as we expected it to, and users are getting very confused about the purpose of that particular section.

As a result of invalidating this assumption, we’ve realised we need to make some changes in order to improve the clarity and help people “get it” faster. As we started to tweak the interface, we quickly agreed that we’d need to do more user interviews to check whether we’ve achieved the clarity we are aiming for.

When we first started to tweak the UI, we were doing it very thoroughly, checking that everything worked perfectly. After a while, since we knew we had to test the UI through user interviews again, we decided we should try and shortcut the process. We asked “what can we do right now” that would help us to learn whether we’ve improved the clarity. What we’re doing now is hard-coding these types of changes and leaving out large parts. Then we jump on another Skype call. If we find something that works, we can built it out further and add polish.

Validated learning is the measure of progress

The key thing that this process of asking the question “what can we do right now?” reminds me of is the way that Eric Ries defines the measure of progress in a lean startup:

"Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality goods. The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning-a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty." - Eric Ries

When was the last time you asked your co-founder “what can we do right now?”. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: christopher charles

Achieving scale by doing things that don't scale

Over the past few years of my journey with building startups, I’ve made a conscious effort to absorb as much of the fascinating insights and learnings of those more experienced than me.

Startups and large companies

One of the repeated insights I came across which never quite fully sunk in when I read it on Steve Blank’s blog is the idea that a startup is not just a smaller version of a large company, and that you should operate very differently as a startup. One of the key takeaways tied to this idea is the notion of doing things that don’t scale.

Doing things that don’t scale

Airbnb is the most famous high scale company to do this and succeed. Interestingly, however, they didn’t start with this idea:

"We thought that everything that we did here had to someday support hundreds of thousands to millions of users"

This belief is completely understandable, and it was my approach for a long time too.

The turning point for Airbnb was when they got into YCombinator and Paul Graham suggested they do things that don’t scale.

Does this really work for massive scale?

To really dig into this idea, I decided the best thing to do is to take the largest scale Internet business I can think of and investigate their beginnings. What I discovered in an early interview Mark Zuckerberg had about Facebook is truly fascinating. His response to “what comes next” was the following:

"There doesn’t necessarily have to be more. Part of making a difference and doing something cool is focusing intensely. There was a level of service that we could provide when we were just at Harvard that we can’t provide for all the colleges, and there’s a level of service that we can provide when we’re a college network which we couldn’t provide if we went to other types of things."

This means that in the early days the growth of Facebook was largely affected by Zuckerberg deliberately choosing to do things which wouldn’t scale. By taking this approach, he built huge value for his target users.

What does it mean to do things that don’t scale?

This technique is one I read about so many times throughout my journey with OnePage. When I made the decision to take everything I had learned and build Buffer, this was one of the things I disciplined to experiment with.

In the early days and even to this day, I have made an effort to do things that don’t scale. I’ve found that there are two key characteristics of “things that don’t scale”:

They help you avoid development before validating it’s required

This is certainly a key factor, especially in the early stage of a startup. Any time you can save on an activity which you haven’t yet validated as beneficial is worth doing manually until you can no longer do it manually.

Doing it “manually” gets you more benefits than if automated

I think the more important characteristic may be that when you do the task manually to begin with, you actually get more benefits than if it was automated. For example, emailing someone personally and taking care to read a little about their interests and find something to relate to, will give you a much higher response rate and trigger fascinating and useful conversations.

How can we use this approach for our startups?

With my latest startup Buffer I took this concept and used it to my benefit more than I ever did with OnePage. To briefly share real examples, here are two from the course of the journey so far:

Personally email the first 1000 signups

This is something Rob Fitzpatrick’s great article reminded me of. In the early days, I was in touch on my personal email address with almost everyone who signed up for Buffer. With low volume, I could always respond immediately and people loved it.

Charge without fully implementing a payment system

Some of the very early Buffer customers will know that I not only launched the product with paid plans from day 1, but that I also didn’t fully implement the payment system. When someone upgraded to a paid plan, I would email them personally as soon as I received the email from Paypal.

I didn’t do this to avoid the work, I did it because I had no idea whether it would be 4 days or 4 months before the first payment for Buffer. It would be a waste of programming effort to implement a slick payment system without validation with a few paying customers. Luckily, it was only 4 days until the first payment and after about 1.5 months and 6 new customers I implemented the full system.

With Buffer, doing things that don’t scale has brought us a lot of success, and the times when we make the big progress always comes back to doing new things which will provide enormous value but which we will have to adjust as we scale further.

What are your thoughts on doing things that don’t scale? Have you tried this approach before? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments.

Photo credit: OZinOH

What is your coming soon page for?

"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain

When you’re building a startup, it’s very important to question assumptions. I think one of these assumptions which needs to be questioned is the initial few steps people normally take when they have an idea. One of these steps is the “coming soon” page.

The concept of a “coming soon” page before you have a product is something that has been on my mind for a while now. On first thought, it seems obvious what the purpose of these pages is: surely it is to collect interest from potential users of your product in order to let them know when you’re ready. I think that is probably a good reason for a “coming soon” page, but recently I have been questioning the purpose of “coming soon” pages and how startups can be much more effective with their first landing page.

Why we create “coming soon” pages

With the websites many of us startup founders check out regularly such as TechCrunch always reporting massive growth numbers for startups, it can be easy to assume that the primary aim for a “coming soon” page should be to collect as many emails as possible. It seems logical that when we launch that is the way we are most likely to succeed. I’ve done it myself countless times in the past.

At the same time, there’s a new idea gaining a lot of traction which I think could be sending startup founders down the wrong track. The idea of the “viral launch page” was popularised by Hipster, and the title of the article on TechCrunch makes me cringe: "How A Startup Named Hipster Got 10K Signups In Two Days, Without Revealing What It Does". These launch pages are now available for any startup thanks to LaunchRock.

What is the goal of a “coming soon” page?

All of the current hype around “viral launch pages” combined with how ingrained the idea of a “coming soon” page seems to be in peoples minds made me question what the purpose of a “coming soon” page is.

I think in many cases, the goal in the mind of a startup founder is to gather as many emails as possible so they can have their big bang launch when the product is finally ready. There is a big flaw with this strategy, and it is that if we take this approach we are assuming that our idea is certain to take off when the product is ready. At the very least, we are putting more focus on the number of emails rather than on whether any of the people whose emails we’ve got will actually use our product. Do we really want to gather hundreds or thousands of emails, like Hipster, without people knowing what our product does? That sounds like a risky strategy to me.

Skip “coming soon”

Quite frequently I hear about other startup founders launching a new idea, and I often hear from them how many emails they’ve collected on their coming soon page. I rarely hear about conversations they’ve had with people. One piece of advice I’m encouraging new startup founders to take on more and more now is to skip the “coming soon” page completely.

By skipping the “coming soon” page, you can really focus on what matters. Instead of a “coming soon” page, put up a landing page for your product. Make it look like the product exists, and then when people try and sign up, show them a page letting them know that you’re not quite ready for them yet. The effort is the same, but this tiny change can give you massive rewards.

Instead, aim for conversations and validated learning

The key benefit of skipping the “coming soon” page is that you can gain validated learning about your startup. Validated learning is the measure of progress Eric Ries defines for the lean startup methodology. The concept here is that every change you make should help you learn more about your customers. By skipping the “coming soon” page, you gain validated learning about the emails you collect: they are people who thought your product existed and showed a real interest by trying to sign up. If you have people hitting the page and no one gives you their email, you know there’s a problem with your idea or the way you’re describing it.

Treat your idea as a hypothesis that needs rigorously testing, and treat the emails as people who are happy for you to get in touch with to discuss your product idea further in order to validate that it would solve a real problem for them and that they might actually pay. I don’t think the idea of having a conversation with the people who give you their email comes into the minds of new startup founders enough.

The benefit of this method is also that you can work on your product in parallel with learning about your customers and about how clearly your landing page is getting across the idea of your product. With a few tweaks, you’re very likely to be able to launch the actual product with the same landing page. Your first landing page can be very simple. This is also how I launched my latest startup, Buffer, and it worked pretty well.

Did you have a “coming soon” page for your startup? Do you have one now? Would you do things differently in the future? I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Jason Tester