6 suggestions for an aspiring founder

This article is inspired by Startup Edition in response to “What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?”

I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to jump on board the path of building a startup. Having hit upon a product that solved a key pain for many people, Buffer has grown rather fast. We now have over 850,000 users and the team is 12 people.

When I reflect on how quickly things happened and what it has required of me, the first thing that comes to mind is Paul Graham's essay entitled How to Make Wealth. In particular, this part resonates with me:

You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years.

There’s a lot to learn if you aspire to build a startup. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and I can only recommend it to others. I can’t think of a better way to lead a fulfilling life. Here are 6 suggestions I have if you happen to be getting started along this road:

1. Experiment. Lots.

"If you’re not already doing a side project, I’d recommend starting one. Although they can complicate your schedule and make life busier, they are one of the few consistent keys I’ve observed in almost anyone who has impressive accomplishments." - Scott Young

I’ve mentioned previously that the Internet is littered with my past attempts to create a successful startup. Even before I knew I truly wanted to build a startup, I played around with countless side projects and they are spread across the web, too.

I think there is often a misconception that to be successful you need to focus and put all your eggs in one basket. That’s not how it happened for me. I tried a ton of different things, and I started Buffer on the side while working full-time as a freelance developer. The key is to focus once you have something that works, that gains traction and people love. Until then, I say experiment away.

2. Stay inspired.

"People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing - that’s why we recommend it daily." - Zig Ziglar

Looking back to the early days of my first startup attempt, I think something that kept me going was that I continually read books about startups and entrepreneurs and watched as many interviews of founders as I could find. In fact, I was especially humbled to be invited to share my story on Mixergy precisely because I have watched tens of interviews by Andrew Warner and they always inspired me to keep pushing forward.

It’s true that at some point you have to stop soaking up the motivation and actually get to work. However, I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful it can be to be take in the learnings of others. Especially in the early days when you might not necessarily be surrounded by others trying to do startups, I think staying inspired in this way can plant that spark inside to help you make it happen.

3. Travel the world and move.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Mark Twain

Travel is something that I always thought would be fun, and I never imagined the impact it could have for me. From simply moving a hundred miles from my hometown of Sheffield to Birmingham in the UK, to then traveling several continents and living in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, I’ve been extremely lucky to have experienced completely different cultures and meet great people.

I truly believe that if you choose to travel you’re immediately much more likely to succeed with whatever you are trying to do. Leaving what you know and stepping into uncertainty, you naturally become more open-minded and create new opportunities for yourself.

Interestingly, many have an attachment to their hometown and want to be there in order to help their town and others who live there. My belief is that you can do a lot more to help your hometown if you make the decision to leave. I’ve never once heard someone regretting their decision to travel.

4. Choose your friends wisely.

"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." - Jim Rohn

One of the most interesting side-effects of moving and traveling a lot has been that in every new place I have settled in, I have had the chance to rethink every part of my life. I reflect on what kind of place I want to live, how close I want to be to all amenities, what routine I want to adopt and even who I want to hang out around.

The clear example of the power of adjusting your group of friends is that your school friends probably aren’t all entrepreneurs. The thing with doing a startup is that it’s an unusual path and one where there are far more reasons it can go wrong than can go right. If you truly want to succeed, surrounding yourself with other optimists is one sure way to have much better odds. The cool thing is, these are really fun people to be around.

I strive every day to meet (and hire) more people I can learn from.

5. Stay laser focused on building something people want.

"In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn’t want the product." - Paul Graham

It’s easy to get distracted when you begin your startup endeavors. You might take a look around and assume you need to incorporate, or raise funding, or countless other things that everyone seems to do.

In my experience, all that really matters is to try and find a real problem to solve. What it comes down to is whether you have hit product/market fit. If you have, you’ll know it, and you’ll start to get traction.

If what you’ve built isn’t working, keep experimenting with new ideas.

6. Be open and vocal

"If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we swap, we each still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we swap, we each have two ideas." - George Bernard Shaw

Before Buffer, I had a few previous startup ideas that weren’t too successful. One of the things that is easier to reflect on in hindsight is that luckily during that time I was Tweeting, blogging, going along to events and generally getting to know a lot of people.

When people ask me what my initial marketing was to get Buffer started, the truth I have to share is that my marketing consisted of sharing the idea with the 1,700 Twitter followers I had at the time. I attribute my previous openness to the fact that I had these followers to help me get Buffer started. As a result, I completely agree with Leah Bursque’s advice:

"Talk to every single person you meet about your idea. Talk until they tell you to shut up. Discover new questions and patterns so you can test and refine your idea. Then find more people to talk to."

What advice would you give to an aspiring startup founder? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Read more on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs at Startup Edition.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

How coffee shops helped my startup

Right now I’m sat in a great coffee shop in Tel Aviv writing this blog post. It’s got a casual feel to it which is relaxing, yet there are people here with laptops hustling away. I come here every Saturday to work on my personal project of helping others through my blog posts and emails.

Recently Jason Shen wrote an awesome post on the importance of coffee meetings in Silicon Valley, and it prompted me to think about the role coffee shops have played for me as an entrepreneur in the last couple of years.

What I’ve realised is that they’ve actually been a big part of my lifestyle and have served me very well as places to both get lots done and have important meetings.

4 amazing things that happened in coffee shops

Only when I looked back at the journey of Buffer so far across four very different parts of the world did I notice that even whilst moving around and being within very different cultures, so many of the key milestones were achieved in coffee shops. Let me explain with four examples:

Getting advice from amazing people

When we first arrived in San Francisco last year, before we had funding, we were pretty clueless about the fundraising process. We came across Mat Johnson, an AngelList Scout, and we reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to chat to us about fundraising and AngelList.

He replied back and suggested we meet at Coffee Bar in the Mission. We had an amazing and helpful meeting, casual yet purposeful and succinct. After the meeting, Coffee Bar went on to become one of my favourite places to work from and we even hosted our “Buffer & Coffee” meetups there.

How we raised funding from coffee shops

After AngelPad demo day late last year, we focused 100% on closing our seed round for a couple of months. I’m not sure how it has worked for everyone else, but for us coffee shops had a key role in our seed round. We had meetings with over fifty angel investors in dozens of different coffee shops across SF, from SoMa to The Mission and South Beach to Hayes Valley.

The coffee shop environment was perfect for raising an angel round. It was great to pitch investors in the relaxed environment of a coffee shop, we just pulled out a laptop and ran them through our deck. In particular South Beach Cafe, right around the corner from the AngelPad office, is the one place we met many investors and advisors who we were lucky enough to get on board. Here’s how we ended many of our emails with investors:

We’d love to meet and explain our vision for Buffer in more detail. Would 4pm on Monday at South Beach Cafe work for you?

Perfect for developing partnerships and strong connections

We’ve also met people in coffee shops in order to discuss partnerships for Buffer and make some very cool integrations happen.

We met Linden from IFTTT at his local coffee shop The Grove and discussed how a Buffer action in IFTTT might work, as well as the whole flow for a user. Within a couple of weeks it was done and available to both of our userbases, and it has been one of our best received integrations to date.

A great environment for helping others

As some of you may know, I love to help others on a frequent basis, and I’ve found it’s a key thing that makes me very happy.

I almost always meet founders in coffee shops when I’m doing a 30 minute session to help them with their biggest startup challenges.

The atmosphere of a coffee shop makes it easy to quickly get into a very open conversation, where we can really get into the current specific struggles the other person is having. I’ve found I can almost always use my own experience or knowledge of other people’s experience to help them with some concrete steps forward.

Have coffee shops helped you in any way for your startup or personal projects? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Photo credit: Martin Fisch

Making money with a product: a myth?

I’ve realised there was a time I didn’t believe people would pay for a product. In my mind, it was a myth. As an entrepreneur, it’s so vital to overcome that.

First, a coffee shop conversation

I was chatting with my friend Joss in a coffee shop recently, and he told me about his new project, Open Exchange Rates, which is gaining a surprising amount of traction. He’s a great hacker and he’s done countless side projects and many open source collaborations, and he’s had great success with many of them. He’s also done work for many different people and has no problem finding great, well paid work.

From traction to a mini brainwave

The traction with the recent project got him thinking, though. This was a turning point for him. He had a hunch that this could be the project he could turn into a startup venture. He knew he could enjoy spending his time building this and scaling it up. The key realisation was that if he could make it work - and the signs were good that he could - then he could stop working for others and spend his days working on something he enjoyed and something he was accumulating value with, which belonged to him.

Thinking more about paying for products

What he shared with me next in our coffee shop conversation was very interesting. He said that after this realisation he hit a problem. He started to think about how he would achieve this, and realised that to make it the only thing he worked on, he’d need to make money from the product. He then thought about other products people pay for. He thought about products he pay’s for, and realised he doesn’t pay for products, or at least it was very rare for him to. He thought long and hard and tried to understand why anyone would pay for anything. In his mind, products generating revenue was a myth and he couldn’t reach the mindset where it existed in reality.

A familiar feeling

The most interesting part for me about the whole conversation, however, was that I suddenly realised that I had this exact same feeling just before I had the idea for Buffer almost two years ago. I’ve now realised by discussing it with others that this is a very natural mindset and feeling. For some like my friend who is a fantastic developer, it seems crazy to pay for something which would only save you a bit of time. Also, as a developer, to pay for something which you could just spend half a day or a day coding and have something almost as good, seemed unimaginable.

Why does it feel like a myth? 5 thoughts.

Since having this coffee shop conversation and talking with a few others about this topic, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and looking back to when I had the very same feeling.

Clearly, getting past this feeling that it is a myth to make money is an essential thing for any aspiring entrepreneur. Here are 5 thoughts on why it feels like a myth:

Saving time seems like a crazy thing for people to pay for

When we get started, we often don’t value our time too highly. We spend a little longer, do it ourselves or find a free solution, and save the money. It’s easy to forget that time is a commodity that many will pay for quite freely.

For a small task, we think people can just do it themselves

Many of us who think about creating products are able to build products, which is why we think about charging for something we build. When we can fairly easily build it ourselves, we forget that this is not the case for many others, especially the target customer.

$10 seems like a lot of money. It can feel unimaginable people will hand over $10

A lot of the time, we start from a situation where we don’t have too much money ourselves. This is great because it puts fire in your belly and you have a determination to succeed and get out of that situation. However, in this scenario we cut costs everywhere we can and do everything ourselves. It’s very understandable to feel that most people will not pay for something. We easily forget how small an amount $10 is.

It requires hustle and practice, things which are rarely taught

It takes a certain amount of courage to ask for money, whether you do it in person or you close your eyes and hit the button to put your site live with a payment process in place. It also takes a lot of practice to know how to ask for money, both offline and online, and it takes persistence to keep going until you make that first buck.

Feeling like it’s wrong to make money

People often feel like it’s somehow wrong to make money. It can be hard to realise that by making money you can genuinely have a positive impact on many other people. This is probably one of the most important reasons we don’t “take the leap”. When chatting with my good friend Isaac about the topic, he shared this article which was the tipping point for him:

"Probably the biggest thing that holds people back from getting money are hangups about it. How do you get over that?
Practice? Philosophy? Desperation?
Probably all of them. But Id bet on the guy with no hangups about getting money and a little drive getting more money faster than someone with tons of skills but hangups about it. Theres silly amounts of opportunity all over the place. The menus at the place I eat breakfast in Saigon are worn out and cheap-looking. I know the top printshop in the city and theyve done work for me.
I could offer the owner to give him a full set of new menus for a few bucks when Im on my way to the printshop anyways, and then drop them off the next morning at breakfast. In fact, Im going to do that tomorrow.”

Making money with a product: no myth

Of course, we all know that there are many products which are very profitable, and making money with a product is not a myth at all.

How I overcame the myth

It personally took me a long time to take that plunge and try to make money. I had many previous projects and a previous startup and none went too far. None gave me the freedom I now have as a result of the success we’ve had with Buffer. The mistake? I never charged for anything. I only ever charged directly for my time. I was so into startups that I even created an event for like-minded people to meet monthly and talk startups.

I gained a reputation as someone who knew what he was doing, but I’d still never made a “scalable” penny. I actually felt like a fraud in some ways because people were coming to me for advice, but I’d never made money with a product. That was the turning point for me, I had to fix it. That’s why I charged from day 1 with Buffer, and luckily I had the first paying customer after 3 days and everything changed.

Do you have any feeling that making money with a product is a myth? Have you overcome this mindset? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme