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

Why you should continue working on your bad idea

Broken Light Bulb

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!" - Randy Pausch

I’ve recently had a few email exchanges with startup founders struggling with an idea. Often they’ve been working on their idea for a while, and they have found some things haven’t played out as they imagined they would.

When we’re in the early stages of the startup, the valley of death, we will often find ourselves questioning our ideas many times. This is great, as we need to validate our assumptions, but it also means we can find the lizard brain kicking in and persuading us we should give up.

In addition to our own minds suggesting we should stop working on our idea, in the early stages a startup is so fragile that it is very easy for others to influence us. If someone remarks that our idea isn’t useful to them, or that we should do something else, or that we should get a “proper job”, it can easily make us stop and think.

3 reasons you should keep working on your startup

Whilst the many factors can make us feel like we should stop, I want to share some motives for continuing regardless.

Earn the required experience and learning

"Almost always, when you learn the backstory, you find that behind every overnight success is a story of entrepreneurs toiling away for years, with very few people except themselves and perhaps a few friends, users, and investors supporting them. Startups are hard, but they can also go from difficult to great incredibly quickly. You just need to survive long enough and keep going so you can create your 52nd game." - Chris Dixon

One thing I’ve found through personal experience as well as looking at the paths of founders I admire, is that a startup journey is a process which is best treated like a career (read: it takes a while). Unless you are extremely lucky (and there is luck involved in startups), the chances are that you won’t hit the jackpot first time around. It took me a few tries, and in the process I learned a massive amount. I often call my previous not so successful startup my “required learning” which led me to have more success with Buffer.

If you have the inclination to do a startup, then I suggest that you always have an idea you’re working on, because the learning tends to only happen through doing.

You want to have something you’re doing

I think it is very powerful to have something you’re actively working on which is your own. Maybe you call it a project, maybe a startup, but something beyond “work” means that you have something to drive you.

This “something” can be what causes you to reach out to someone key for your success, or attend an event, or even offer to speak at an event. All these kinds of activities create serendipity which can have a huge impact.

I’ve chatted with many successful founders who similarly took the plunge at some point and travelled to Silicon Valley. One thing which always seems to come up, is the power of having a purpose of being there, a reason to get meetings with smart people. For us, we got into AngelPad, raised a seed round and got a great group of investors and advisors on board for Buffer.

Jumping on a plane to the valley is an amazing thing to do, especially if you have something you want to achieve out of the trip.

Good ideas come through iteration

"real startups tend to discover the problem they’re solving by a process of evolution. Someone has an idea for something; they build it; and in doing so (and probably only by doing so) they realize the problem they should be solving is another one" - Paul Graham

In general, the startups which are most successful are vastly different today than the initial idea. I think that this is actually the norm rather than the exception. Here are three examples from a great article by Vinicius Vacanti:

  • Flickr started as a web-based massively multiplayer online game called Game Neverending
  • Instagram started as an HTML5 supported location-based service
  • Groupon started as a way to allow groups of people to band together to accomplish a goal called ThePoint

Sometimes through iteration you uncover learning which invalidates your idea or some key assumptions. At the same time, this means that further iteration can also lead to the exact opposite: uncovering an idea or features which people want and will gain traction.

Have you ever given up on something and feel in hindsight it would have been better to continue? Are you considering quitting your startup? Maybe you dropped an idea and it was actually a great move. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Sergio Alvarez

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