Success

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

Want to create a new habit? Get ready to break it.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

I’ve been obsessed with thinking about, adjusting and building upon my habits for a long time now, and working on good habits is probably one of the things that’s helped me the most to make progress with my startup. In addition, it seems like habits are now becoming popular again. This is a great thing, and books like The Power of Habit are helping lots of people.

I’ve discovered that perhaps one of the things which is rarely discussed with habits is failing with them. How do you keep going with building habits when you fail one day, or you have some kind of momentary setback? I thought it might be useful for me to share my thoughts on habits, and particularly the aspect of failing with habits.

Building an awesome habit

There are the steps I’ve found which work best for creating an amazing habit:

  1. Start so small you “can’t fail” (more on the reality of that later)
  2. Work on the small habit for as long as it becomes a ritual (something you’re pulled towards rather than which requires willpower)
  3. Make a very small addition to the habit, ideally anchored to an existing ritual

How I built my most rewarding habit

The habit I’m happiest with is my morning routine. It gives me a fantastic start to the day and lots of energy. To build it, I took the approach above of starting small and building on top.

I started my habit two years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. The first thing I started with, was to go to the gym 2-3 times per week. That’s all my routine was for a long time. Once I had that habit ingrained, I expanded on it so that I would go swimming the other two days of the week, essentially meaning that I went to the gym every day at the same time. I’d go around 7:30, which meant I awoke at around 7am.

Next, I gradually woke up earlier, first waking up at 6:45 for several weeks, and then 6:30. At the same time, I put in place my evening ritual of going for a walk, which helped me wind down and get to sleep early enough to then awake early. Eventually, I achieved the ability to wake up at 6am and do 1 hour of productive work before the gym. This precious early morning time for work when I was the freshest was one of the things that helped me get Buffer off the ground in the early days.

The next thing I made a real habit was to have breakfast after I returned from the gym. I then worked on making this full routine a habit for a number of months, and I had times when I moved to a different country and had to work hard to get back to the routine after the initial disruption of settling in. It was whilst in Hong Kong that I achieved being very disciplined with this routine and wrote about it.

My morning routine

Today, I’ve built on top of this habit even further. Here’s what my morning routine looks like now:

  • I awake at 5:05am.
  • At 5:10, I meditate for 6 minutes.
  • I spend until 5:30 having a first breakfast: a bagel and a protein shake.
  • I do 90 minutes of productive work on a most important task from 5:30 until 7am.
  • At 7am, I go to the gym. I do a weights session every morning (different muscle group each day).
  • I arrive home from the gym at 8:30am and have a second breakfast: chicken, 2 eggs and cottage cheese.
  • At 9am we have the Buffer team standup video Skype call.

It may seem extremely regimented, and I guess perhaps it is. However, the important thing is the approach. You can start with one simple thing and then work on it over time. I’m now working to build around this current habit even more.

Failing whilst building your awesome habit

One of the most popular and simultaneously most controversial articles I’ve ever written is probably The Exercise Habit. It’s one which has been mentioned to me many times by people I’ve met to help with their startup challenges. I’ve been humbled to find out that a number of people have been inspired by the article to start a habit of daily exercise.

Whilst in Tel Aviv, I met Eytan Levit, a great startup founder who has since become a good friend. He told me he had read my article and was immediately driven to start a habit of daily exercise. I sat down and had coffee with him and he told me about his experience, it was fascinating. He told me that he did daily exercise for 4 days in a row, and he felt fantastic. He said he felt like he had more energy than ever before, and was ready to conquer the world. Then, on the 5th day Eytan struggled to get to the gym for whatever reason, and essentially the chain was broken. The most revelatory thing he said to me was that the reason he didn’t start the habit again was not that he didn’t enjoy the exercise or benefit greatly from doing it. The reason he failed to create the exercise habit was the feeling of disappointment of not getting to the gym on that 5th day.

Get ready and expect to break your habit

"I deal with procrastination by scheduling for it. I allow it. I expect it." - Tim Ferriss

What I’ve realised, is that one of the key parts of building habits might be to know that you will not flawlessly create your habits. You are going to break your habit at some point, you are going to fail that next day or next gym session sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid a feeling of guilt and disappointment, because that is what will probably stop you from getting up the next day and continuing with the routine.

In a similar way to how Tim Ferriss deals with procrastination, I believe we should not try so hard to avoid breaking our habits. We should instead be calm and expect to break them sometime, let it happen, then regroup and get ready to continue with the habit. Perhaps we took too much on, and we cut back a little or try to add one less thing to our habit. Or maybe we just had a bad day. That’s fine, and a single failure shouldn’t stop our long-term success with building amazing habits.

Is there a habit you were building and are not anymore? Why is that? Which habit are you happiest with? I’d love to hear your experiences on creating habits.

Photo credit: darinaniz

Start something small

The other day I was listening to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and and I found it amazing how this book, which has now sold over 15 million copies, originally started:

I prepared a short talk. I called it ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ I say ‘short.’ It was short in the beginning, but it soon expanded to a lecture that consumed one hour and thirty minutes.

After giving this talk for some time, Carnegie found that the attendees started discussing their experiences and some “rules” emerged. Eventually the talk became a course, and there was a need for a textbook of sorts. Here’s how the now famous book became a reality:

we started with a set of rules printed on a card no larger than a postcard. The next season we printed a larger card, then a leaflet, then a series of booklets, each one expanding in size and scope. After fifteen years of experimentation and research came this book.

I found that absolutely fascinating. The book came out of a short talk and a few notes on a postcard-sized piece of card. Interestingly, I think a lot of the really big successes start like this.

The dangers of “big”

The challenge for a lot of us, is that when we go about our lives we interact with so many “big” things, and we forget or don’t even know how they originally started. It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today. We also all have big aspirations and want to get there fast.

I’ve personally made the mistake of trying to jump to “big” too soon many times before: the goal my previous startup was to kill the business card, and we struggled to execute effectively on a much smaller scale. I think there are probably countless other examples out there where founders try to have an immediately huge vision.

Great things start small

What I’m starting to notice more and more, is that great things almost always start small. Most of us know that Branson started the Virgin brand with a student magazine, but Virgin is just one of many examples which shows that the reality is counterintuitive: actually, the best things we know and love started as tiny things.

I’ve found that if I look into my own life, I find similarly that some of the most important achievements I’ve made started as little projects. My startup Buffer itself is a great example: it started as a two page website and in addition the short blog post describing this process has now turned into a talk I’ve given more than 30 times.

Make it smaller: you’re more likely to succeed

One of my most interesting realisations from this thinking and from seeing many examples is that actually in order to succeed, we probably should think and execute on a smaller level. If we do this, we’re more likely to succeed. I wrote about this previously, in the context of not trying to change the world right away. I was pleasantly surprised when Paul Graham wrote a comment in the discussion on my recent article which suggested similar:

Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.

Start everything with an MVP

I think Eric Ries really nailed this concept with his notion of the Minimum Viable Product. The great thing is, we see that even historical successes like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, started as just a short talk and a few notes on a small piece of card. That was the MVP, and it was a perfect way to start. And if the content in this smaller form hadn’t resonated with people, my guess is that the book wouldn’t even exist.

I believe that we could and should start to think about everything beginning as an MVP, starting much smaller than we might currently think about it. Andrew Chen has a great example: decide what blog posts to write based on Tweeting the potential headline. I think there are countless other opportunities for this too, in all areas of life.

Have you thought about the relationship of big thinking to success? Did something work out better when you started smaller? I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Toby Bradbury

Want to be successful? Be inconsistent

Recently 37signals published an article titled Some advice from Jeff Bezos. This wasn’t your usual advice, and I found it interesting to read and how familiar it felt as I read each next line. The post was all about “changing your mind”. The way I would describe the overall theme, is “inconsistency”. Here’s the key part of the post, paraphrased:

People who are right a lot of the time, are people who often change their mind. Consistency of thought is not a particularly positive trait.

I find this fascinating, because one of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a founder for the last few years is the times when I change my mind, when have a realisation and I become inconsistent on a thought I previously had. This is amplified as your startup grows, because you have users, co-workers and stakeholders who you are in touch with who are there to witness and be affected by your inconsistency.

Success and inconsistency

If you’re part of a startup, I believe that your success might actually be defined by whether you are willing to be inconsistent. This means that actually changing your mind is not just a good trait as Jeff Bezos has mentioned, but “staying consistent” might actually be the reason your startup fails. I think this also probably applies to a much wider context than startups: I think your success might be determined by how willing you are to be inconsistent.

The reason you need to let go of consistency at times, is because as a founder you need to act and move forward without having complete information for each decision:

"Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right. They move the ball forward every day. They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct." - Mark Suster

Making decisions where 30% of the time you will be wrong is just the pace you need to move at to make progress with a startup. It’s a change from a normal job, where everything is laid out. It also means that when you realise which were the wrong decisions, you’re going to have to make changes - you’re going to have to be inconsistent.

When you’re early in a startup, a founder or one of the first few people to join, you will at times realise that new information from customers or a smart mentor shows that what you were working on for the last weeks or months is the wrong thing to do. The hardest thing now is to accept that and move on to other things. Letting go completely is really tough, but you can’t “keep it going on the side” and expect to succeed. You’ve just got to move on to the next thing you’ll try. If you’re a leader, it can also be hard, because you’ve got to be the one to deliver the news to someone who’s been working and had their mind immersed in something you’re about to ditch. It’s not easy at all, but these are some of the key calls to make.

The inconsistency of my startup journey

If I look back on my journey with startups to where I am today, I cringe with how many things I’ve changed my mind on, with how many things I was super passionate about for a while, and then dropped completely. It causes so many ups and downs, and you question yourself and your ability a lot, but I’ve now realised that this was exactly what I needed to do. In fact, I’ve also had this on my lessons page from the very start of my blogging journey:

I don’t know whether the same lessons will apply to you, but I hope you’ll find my thoughts useful. Take what fits, and tell me what doesn’t work for you: I’m always learning. I’m pretty sure I’ll even contradict my own advice at times as I learn more.

Here are some other examples from my experiences in the last few years:

The study project turned startup

Back when I was at the University of Warwick I worked on a little project, or at least it started small. It was something I did with 4 of my Computer Science classmates, and it soon took over my life and I saw it as a true startup. It was a location based startup on web and mobile, but this was back when the first phones with GPS was released, the Nokia N95 and N82. It was early days.

I ended up at an event and was asked on the spot whether I wanted to join the panel. I said “sure!” and ended up speaking in front of around 50 people. I was asked “where do you see lasyou being in the next 3 years”. I said I would see it expanding from just Warwick and be global, with millions of users. I was passionate, and I wasn’t just saying it, I truly believed we could pull it off.

Fast forward a few months and I’d decided that I couldn’t continue with lasyou, and I moved on to another startup. That time it was a realisation about the dynamics of the team that meant it couldn’t work. I went back on my word which I had told everyone at that event, with such determination. And it’s exactly what I should have done.

Bootstrapping vs fundraising

One of the things I’ve probably been most inconsistent with in my journey as a startup founder is the decision about whether to raise funding or to bootstrap. It’s one of the most widely debated topics, perhaps the most interesting discussion was Jason Calacanis vs. David Heinemeier Hansson on This Week in Startups.

So, I’ve been a huge believer in bootstrapping and still am, we’ve also taken funding for Buffer. With our funding announcement, someone called me out on my inconsistency in the comments on Hacker News, pointing to slides from a presentation here I advocated bootstrapping:

Joel was standing in front of me practically a year to the day in the UK advocating bootstrapping and now he’s suddenly raised $400,000

So why the inconsistency? Well, the answer is quite simple. I gained new knowledge, new information. I spoke with Hiten Shah and some smart folks who had been through YCombinator, and someone who had sold his startup. I had conversations and realised that with the position we were in after 10 months of bootstrapping, raising money made sense. We could move faster by having funds to hire people.

Let’s focus on web. Let’s focus on mobile.

On the product side at Buffer, we’ve also gone back and forth many times in lots of different areas. We focused for many weeks on doing consistent updates to the Digg Digg WordPress plugin, then practically stopped working on it to focus on other areas. We created basic mobile apps, then decided we should instead fully focus on creating a great web experience. Then we decided we were wrong to drop the mobile apps, and we’re now so focused that more than half our engineering effort is in mobile. To some, it looks like we’re very indecisive. However, right now we’re in a better position than ever and there are some super exciting things on the way for Buffer users.

Embrace being inconsistent

My conclusion on the topic of consistency is that it’s not required for success. There is a lot of talk about hard-nosed businessmen needing to be true to their word and never change their mind. I think a better approach is to be open to making adjustments as you learn more. That’s the smarter thing to do. It’s also much more difficult.

I’m glad to see Jeff Bezos mentioning this and 37signals sharing it so openly. I was also glad to see Travis Kalanik, the CEO of “Private Driver (read: not a taxi) service” Uber, stand on stage yesterday at Startup School and announce Uber TAXI, a cheaper, more taxi-like service.

Even Zuckerberg said in an interview from the early days of Facebook that they’d never expand beyond being a college network.

Inconsistency is everywhere when you actually track successful people for long enough and notice the patterns. My failure with a previous startup I worked on for a year and a half was largely that I didn’t change the idea in a big enough way, quickly enough - that I stayed consistent. So go ahead and be inconsistent, it’s exactly what you need to be. Some don’t realise it, and you’ll drive a few people crazy by doing it. You’ll also feel weak and guilty every time you have to tell people you’re changing your mind, but you just need to get used to doing it, repeatedly.

Have you found changing your mind and your path difficult as you’ve learned more? Have you been inconsistent many times? Or do you think you could do better by being more inconsistent? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Christo de Klerk

Want to be happy and successful? Bring happiness to others

For the last 3 months I’ve regularly been meeting startup founders here in Hong Kong to try and help them with the biggest challenges they have. It’s been truly enjoyable and fascinating. I feel I’ve had a positive impact on many, and at the same time I’ve learned a huge amount and made some great friends I’ll definitely stay in touch with.

I’ve been meeting 3-4 founders most weeks and almost all of the meetings I had were 45 minute slots during lunch time. This worked very well as I needed a break and to get lunch anyway.

After doing it for a little while, I started to notice that in the afternoon after I’d met a startup founder I was always extremely happy.

A lesson from the happiest man in the world

I’m currently reading Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, who has been called the happiest man in the world.

Ricard discusses the “joys of altruism”, relating altruism to happiness. He mentions a series of studies which found a very strong correlation between altruism and happiness:

"The satisfactions triggered by a pleasant activity, such as going out with friends, seeing a movie, or enjoying a banana split, were largely eclipsed by those derived from performing an act of kindness."

He concludes the section with the following concise explanation:

"Generating and expressing kindness quickly dispels suffering and replaces it with lasting fulfillment."

When I read this, it hit me. This was exactly the reason why I was happy. Helping someone for 45 minutes during lunch is a far better way to be happy than watching a funny video or procrastinating on Facebook for 45 minutes.

Hiten Shah: bringing happiness to the startup world

"You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want." - Zig Ziglar

Every email Hiten sends has the above quote in his signature. He is the person who I’ve seen best embrace the methods Ricard talks about.

The amazing thing about Hiten is that he truly helps anyone. When I first had contact with Hiten two years ago, I was nobody. However, he took an hour of his day to jump on a call with a stranger in the UK.

I’ve found Hiten is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He seems to have really ingrained this idea of constantly helping others, and I imagine it may be at least partially triggering his happiness.

Taking this approach to the level that Hiten does is something which I have always aspired to since we first spoke. This is also main reason I started meeting founders here in Hong Kong.

Building a startup around this philosophy

"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success." - Albert Schweitzer

At Buffer, as a whole team we try to internalise this philosophy. Every day we have a Skype call at 6pm where we help each other to work on personal improvements which will make us happy. We know that if we can simply be happy, we will produce great work and be productive.

On the other side of the equation, we also try to apply this to our approach with user happiness, largely inspired by Zappos. In general, we try to make this all we do. We sit down, we type, and we try to bring happiness to others. We do this hours on end with email support, and we do this by writing thousands of lines of code to create an amazing experience.

What are you doing to make others happy? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Jill G