How to start your startup in 4 steps

Having started my latest venture just over 5 months ago, and having just reached ramen profitability, I want to share some of the elements which made this startup “work” compared to some of my previous attempts. The first and arguably hardest part of a startup is actually starting, and that’s what I’m going to focus on with this post. The Internet is literally littered with the remnants of my many failed attempts (not necessarily a bad thing), so there are things I’d avoid repeating.

If I was to create a new startup, here is what I would do:

1. Have an idea

This is undoubtedly a key part, but don’t give it too much focus. If you have an idea, that’s fantastic. If you don’t, try and raise your awareness of the daily activities you carry out. Particularly pay attention in the areas which you are passionate about, because it’s important that you work on something you love. Pay attention to anything which you think could be more efficient or less painful. The best ideas are ones you will use yourself every day, and would pay for if they existed already.

A side point about ideas is that you will learn far more by being in the process of working on a bad idea than you will by waiting for the perfect idea. Even if you have the tiniest idea in the back of your mind, you will probably benefit more by going for that, even if it doesn’t work out. I certainly attribute much of the success I’ve had with Buffer to my previous experience.

2. Cut it down

This is very important. If you have an idea, break it down until you think it’s too small to be of value. That’s what you should consider your first version, in fact that’s probably too big too.

If you don’t cut out features from your initial vision, you’re much less likely to ever launch it. I’ve been there many times myself. Try to develop a fear of not shipping your idea.

Another thing to note, is that the idea of a big splash launch is worth questioning. Firstly, to link the big splash with the software being ready is very dangerous, and secondly a mindset of a big splash is inevitably going to cause you to delay getting feedback on your idea, which is the next step:

3. Share the idea, get feedback

This is one of the most important steps, and often the one which is missed out almost entirely. A lot of the time, it’s the step that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, and that was certainly the case for me. Missing this step could easily kill your startup.

There are, of course, many smart people arguing how important sharing your idea and getting feedback is in order to succeed. I wholeheartedly agree with this, and I believe we should approach our idea as a hypothesis of something we think could work, and we should be striving to validate the hypothesis by rigorously testing it.

However, there is another crucial benefit to getting feedback, and that is motivation. I’ve found myself lose motivation on something when I’ve worked on the development for too long without getting feedback, and I’ve talked to many other people starting up and found that this is key.

Get feedback to validate your idea, but more importantly get feedback so you feel good about what you’re building. One or two people saying “I can’t wait to try this” will do wonders for your motivation.

I can’t stress this point enough. It’s not buggy technology or a faulty marketing plan which will kill your startup, it’s losing motivation. Remember, you can get feedback without the product existing.

4. Go with your gut

If you’ve got this far, then you’re doing very well. In my experience, going forward from here is a matter of going with your gut. In the early stages, it’s not wise to pay too much attention to split testing or other ways to try and be confident about your decisions. Learn to act without complete information. Just be sure to balance building with feedback.

How did you get your startup off the ground? Are you about to start something? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Also, if you want to bounce any questions off me privately, I’d love to help.

Photo credit: aartj

Treat it as finished

One of the most important differences for me personally in how I’ve run my current startup compared to the last one I founded has been how I treat the product at each stage of the process. With ideas such as the Lean Startup, there is a huge amount of pressure for us to ship very early, and rightly so - the sooner we can validate our assumptions and gain more understanding about how our users react to our product the better. However, quotes such as the following can make us feel like we should believe our product is “unfinished”:

"If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, youve launched too late." - Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn

"Build half a product, not a half-ass product" - from Getting Real by 37signals

The problem with “unfinished”

As much as I love the quotes and believe there is a huge amount of truth in both of them, I feel like these ideas can make us focus on having an “unfinished” product for a long time. The issue I see is that there is no mention of when we should stop being embarrassed by our product, or when we should treat it as a “whole product”.

The problem is that if we have in our minds that our product is “unfinished”, it will directly affect how we communicate our product to potential users or customers as well as press. I’ve realised over time that this can have a huge impact on the initial traction you build, and this is a vital aspect of an early stage startup.

Why might we be afraid of treating it as finished?

If you’ve tried to get a startup off the ground or have tried to follow some of the lean startup principles I am sure you will be able to relate to some of my experiences. When you’re just getting started, you have a big vision which has only partly been translated into product, and even the product you have probably has bugs here and there which you know about. Maybe you’re measuring Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates and see there is a strong indication that your retention could be much higher. Perhaps you know people are slipping through your activation funnel. You probably haven’t built in any form of referral into your product. Things could be so much better.

If you let these thoughts take over too much, it will show in the way you talk about your product to people. As soon as that happens I believe you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage. I did this with the startup I founded previously. We kept telling ourselves “we don’t want to get the big traffic now, because we won’t retain the users we gain” or “if we get users now, we don’t have our referral options in place so the traffic spike will just fall straight away”.

By waiting to have a better product before you tell anyone or try and get any press you’re severely impacting the traction you could build.

Why we should always treat our products as finished

I’ve taken a different approach with my latest startup. Even in the first week it launched I treated it as a finished product. Whilst it didn’t do much and there were a few bugs, I was very happy with it and wanted people to try the product. I even had a way for people to pay for it from day 1. I’ve realised over time that there are many benefits to taking this approach.

If you can shift your thinking and genuinely believe your product is fantastic at every stage, you’ll immediately see the benefits. You will naturally be better at driving that essential early traction. For example, there really is no limit to the amount of blogs you can reach out to. Tap into the long tail of blogs and you have an endless number of places you can try to get your product into. Even the features of your startup in small blogs will build up layer upon layer of traffic to your startup. Believe me, you won’t run out of blogs.

I’m not saying we should deny that our product needs to improve, or that we should not build any additional useful features. The sooner you can get a steady stream of traffic to your startup, the easier it is to continually improve things and get fast feedback on the changes you make. However, we should be communicating in a way which implies that the product is ready for real use and solves a problem well in its current state.

Do you believe your product is finished? If not, do you think you’d benefit from shifting your mindset? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: kkirugi