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
One of the most interesting and simultaneously challenging realizations I’ve had is that as a founder, especially the CEO, you essentially have chosen to never become an expert of anything. Oh, and if you don’t embrace that reality, it’s probably going to affect your likelihood of success.
Danielle Morrill wrote that there are a handful of roles that she became very good at, yet she no longer cares to play. As she continues her fascinating journey with Referly, I feel I can relate to a lot of what she’s going through, from my experience with Buffer.
Huh - I was a coder?
It’s crazy. I haven’t coded more than a day every two weeks for over six months now, and I haven’t coded at all for the last two. If I look back at the whole of the last year, I wasn’t coding, I was doing a bunch of other things. Important things.
Yet, looking back at my life and my identity, it’s largely been defined by programming. It was such a core part of who I was. I learned to code when I was 12, I was a freelance developer and I did Computer Science. So it feels odd that in just a year, I can be so distant from it. And that’s exactly how I need to feel. That’s what needs to happen for Buffer, and it’s what will help me grow the most, personally.
Repeatedly firing myself
If you’re a founding CEO, I believe that you are doing your company a disservice if you don’t fire yourself from your skill position.
For much of the first year, I was coding. I did whatever was needed to build the product, from design and front-end work to back-end and server admin. Then, we started looking for investment and everything changed. I had to learn how to pitch investors, how to describe our traction. Then I had to work with Leo to learn how to get press. We got into AngelPad and Tom immediately joined us. That was when I first fired myself. I was no longer the main coder, Tom took over and gradually all of my code was touched and improved in some way by Tom.
That was a shock for me, to let go of my main thing. I got over it, and found a joy in the immense personal learning and growth of Buffer which we found as a result of my doing all these other things.
A few months later, we realized the power of mobile for Buffer. I jumped in and learned to code Android, just enough to build a decent version of Buffer for Android. It was hard, I was stuck almost every day with a new challenge in Java. Then, just as I found my feet and gained confidence in the coding, I knew how truly fundamental mobile will be for us, so I knew I needed to hire someone to do it full-time. Sunil joined us and I gradually reduced my involvement in Android development. I never became an expert, then I fired myself and we found someone else.
Feeling lost, and getting used to it
Being an expert of nothing is draining, and something I never anticipated. There is a lot to do, and you don’t really know how to do any of it. On top of that, you’re supposed to be the leader, to know everything. You’re meant to be the expert that everyone can look to. They’re counting on you.
It’s pretty hard at times, if I’m totally frank. There are days when I wonder what it is I even do anymore. Everything used to be so tangible - I would write a line of code, and it would do something for me. These days, there are these fluffy things like culture (and it’s so important), and I have to direct product and hire new people. I have to manage much of the team, and talk with investors. I truly have no idea what I’m doing - I have zero previous experience of hiring, or managing people, or being a product manager.
Every day I’m an expert of nothing. And just when I finally start to feel like I know how this role works, and the activities I need to do? That’s exactly the point when I need to hire someone to replace myself, so I can move onto the next thing I have no idea how to do.
I’m starting to find a kind of peace and comfort in this place now. I quite like it. It is a real privilege to be able to experience it.
Photo credit: Daniel Novta
I was recently back in the UK for two weeks and had the chance to speak at an event in London about the incredible journey with my startup in the last two years.
When I speak, I try my best to share useful information and this generally consists of mistakes I’ve made along the way and some of the greatest lessons I’ve come away with from the experience. At the same time, I also aim for my talks to be a little inspirational too, by sharing how I’ve been lucky enough to achieve some astonishing milestones despite the fact that I’m certainly no smarter than anyone else.
At the end of this particular talk, someone asked me a really fantastic question, which was “you’ve shared great lessons, tips and some amazing achievements, but what has been the lowest point in this journey so far?”. It is a great question and there’s certainly one moment that stands out amongst others as one of the hardest times I’ve had with Buffer.
A choice to raise funding
When Leo and I jumped on a plane to San Francisco around one and a half years ago, what we didn’t realise at the time is that in hindsight this was a clear turning point for us personally, and for Buffer as a startup.
When we first arrived, we quickly set up a number of different meetings. Notable people we met were Hiten Shah and Daniel Brusilovsky amongst a number of other founders at different stages of their startup career, including a few YCombinator founders.
What we quickly realised through conversations with people was that we could keep growing slowly and solidly without funding, but we were at a point with good traction and a clear bottleneck in terms of me being the only person working on the whole product and all technical aspects, where if we had some funding we could grow the team more quickly and get much faster growth.
Leo and I always have a very positive outlook which helps us a lot, so we quickly decided it made sense to raise investment and whilst we had no idea how to do that, we agreed that it was simply another thing we would figure out.
Switching our focus to fundraising
Of course, since we had literally no idea how raising funding worked, we asked many many people for advice, and we started to take action right away to attempt to make progress. One thing we were sure of was that we should try our best to reach out to investors and have meetings. We were scared to talk to investors since we didn’t know how to pitch or how the process works, but we knew that was exactly what we needed to do.
Due to our lack of experience and knowledge, we worked jointly on fundraising. We sat down together in various coffee shops and sent out dozens of emails to investors, to other founders and to people who had become casual advisors. We learned many things, including that you should always get an introduction to an investor, and that you should be very specific with a call to action in emails.
One of the important things we discovered, was that there should always be a clear focus of any pitch. Most pitches have similar content sections such as the market, a problem, your solution, current traction and the team. However, each individual startup will have a single aspect which is the strongest part of the pitch. For us, this was definitely our traction; Buffer already had 25,000 users, monthly revenues around $1,500 and we were growing 10% week over week.
The great thing was: it is often said that when pitching, traction trumps everything. Certainly looking back, since we were first time founders with no track record, traction was even more important. The problem was, whilst traction was the key part of our pitch and the traction was good, as soon as we switched our focus to fundraising our traction slowed.
A difficult few weeks of learning
The traction which we were proud of was largely driven by a lot of hard work. For the six months previous, the only focus Leo and I had was to build a great product which solved a real need, and to market it so that people who would find it useful knew that it existed.
We learned that fundraising is a full-time task, so what happened next was that around three weeks into fundraising, around three weeks after we had almost stopped working on the product and marketing altogether, our traction started to slow dramatically. We had some long-tail traffic, but a large portion of the traction was driven by articles about Buffer which we were triggering on an almost daily basis.
We essentially started to lose our most valuable asset in pitching Buffer. To add to the struggles, we were almost one month into our allowed three months in San Francisco on the visa waiver program, and we were also quickly running out of money because we didn’t realise how expensive the Bay Area is. With only two months left before we would have to move on from San Francisco, we were eager to raise the funding we had decided would be so valuable for building the startup further.
However, one of the things we learned while figuring out how fundraising works is that two months is a very fast amount of time to close a seed round, even for the most experienced founders.
A tough Saturday morning conversation
One Saturday morning around three weeks after we started our attempt to raise a seed round for Buffer, at the apartment where we were sharing a single room (alternating between one sleeping on a bed and the other on the floor on an airbed), Leo and I talked about what we were going to do to try and turn things around.
We had been trying for three weeks, and we had learned a lot about how to raise funding, but we now knew that a joint effort from both of us in order to try to quickly close a seed round was not going to be successful. We needed our traction to continue, since the fundraising was going to be a longer task. We had very little cash left, in fact I was actually borrowing money from Leo, who was well into his savings.
So we needed a new strategy. Since I was the coder, we decided that I would be the one to work towards keeping our traction going, which I would do by building the product but also by doing all the marketing tasks which I was much less experienced with. Leo, on the other hand, would focus entirely on fundraising and learning more, and trying to figure it out. I would be pulled into meetings only when we reached a point where we were discussing terms.
We knew it was going to be extremely difficult, with many highs and lows for both of us, which we would need to shield each other from and remain positive and optimistic. I think we both believed we could pull it off, but we knew there was a good chance that we might end up back home on a plane to the UK without closing the funding we sought.
An amazing high: Being accepted into AngelPad
The next few hours taught us how crazy life as a startup founder can be. We were both truly at a very low point, and we often look back with fond memories of that moment since it was a great example of the struggles founders have to go through.
Around 2 weeks into our attempt to raise funding, we had noticed that AngelPad had a class coming up, and that even though the deadline had passed, they were accepting late applications. Since we were struggling, we applied. We didn’t take too long over it, though, and we quickly moved back to focusing on our fundraising efforts. We had a number of emails back and forth with Thomas, Gokul and others in the AngelPad team, and even had a Skype interview with Thomas. Still, we weren’t too confident we would get in.
After our memorable Saturday morning discussion, Leo got a call from Thomas. We had got into AngelPad and would receive $120,000 in funding for Buffer. We’d go through the 10 week program with 14 other startups and have a demo day at the end, and we would be taught about how to raise funding. It was simply one of the most incredible moments of my life and I remember a real feeling of elation, compounded by the fact we had just had to make a very difficult decision a few hours prior, which no longer mattered.
AngelPad proved to be a significant part of the Buffer journey, and enabled us to get some amazing advisors and investors on board when we did our fundraising after demo day. Although it was not easy, after the struggles and learning we had gone through we were fortunate to be able to raise a $400,000 seed round for Buffer.
I have realised that when I have low points, they are the times where the most growth and learning occurs. I would therefore not change a thing about those tough weeks.
Have you had some truly low points during your startup journey so far? Have you found that these moments have taught you some valuable lessons? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Photo credit: TexasEagle