10 lessons from my startup journey so far

It’s almost exactly a year since I started documenting my startup lessons learned through this blog, and since my first post last November, I’ve blogged 26 times. I’ve been lucky enough to have fantastic comments on many of my posts, and this has always extended my learning even further by hearing others’ experiences and insights.

I thought it would be a useful reminder for myself to pick out the top 10 lessons I’ve learned. I hope it might be useful and interesting for some of you, too.

Let’s get started:

1. Getting regular exercise can improve your sleep

Over the last year, I’ve consistently had times when I’ve felt mentally drained but not physically tired. The single most important change I’ve made in the last year is to become disciplined about going to the gym, and to realise the value of exercise. I now go to the gym most mornings. It gives me a great start to the day and helps me sleep much better overall.
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2. Bootstrapping on the side is a great way to start

We’ve now built up Buffer to almost 80,000 users. We’ve been through the AngelPad incubator in San Francisco, raised a little funding, expanded the team to 3 and have great monthly revenue. Interestingly, however, it all started with me working on the side whilst working full-time. There are many benefits of working on something on the side.
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3. Achieve scale by doing things that don’t scale

One of the biggest influences on my attitude to building startups is Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Methodology. It’s all about reducing waste, and many of the concepts are easy to grasp but very hard to implement. One such concept is to do things initially in a way which is unscalable. One example: to begin with, personally email people instead of setting up an automated system. This is a key technique which, looking back has served me well, and looking forward will be important to keep reminding myself of.
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4. Embrace feeling uncomfortable

This post clearly resonated with a lot of people, as hundreds went on to share it with their friends and followers. It’s all about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and gathers my learnings from people I admire such as Seth Godin, Ben Yoskovitz and Tim Ferriss. The key takeaways are that there is no growth to be made in staying comfortable, but there are ways to grow without being uncomfortable all the time. My key question to you: “What are you doing to feel uncomfortable?”
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5. Learn to fear not shipping

Seth Godin attributes much of his success not to producing better than others, but to shipping more than others. I’ve learned that the main reason we don’t ship as much as they could or should, is that we fear shipping for so many reasons. In this post I attempt to turn the fear on its head and highlight why we should really fear not shipping instead of shipping.
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6. Enjoying every moment is a choice we all have

Perhaps the most profound lesson in the last year for me, and one that I consistently struggle with, is that enjoying every moment is a choice we all have. This is all related to living in the present and valuing day-to-day happiness over ambition. There is enjoyment to be found in doing customer support, and there is enjoyment to be found in washing the dishes. When you’re in this place, you have so much energy for everything and can achieve anything you want.
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7. First time founder? Beware of the social ideas

This particular lesson is one of the ones which took me almost two full years to learn. My premise with this is that if you’re a first time founder, you’ll struggle to raise funding for your startup, especially if you are at the idea stage with no traction. With that situation, you’ll struggle to build a startup which requires a long pre-revenue runway period. The conclusion is that you are far better off working on building a “tool” with immediate value you can charge for and no difficult network effects.
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8. Think carefully about your “coming soon” page

All startups begin somewhere, and more often than not it is with a “coming soon” page. I think it’s a very intuitive action to take when you’re building your startup, but with this article I question the idea of the “coming soon” page. My thoughts revolve around the lessons I’ve learned from Eric Ries’ lean startup concept and how I launched Buffer. I believe that in many cases, the “coming soon” page is a lost opportunity to validate your idea and avoid wasted time building something people may not want.
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9. Consider the different ways to bootstrap your startup

With some luck along the way and many mistakes made, I’ve managed to take Buffer from an idea to a cashflow-positive business with over 80,000 users, great investors and inspiring co-workers. To reach this point, I bootstrapped Buffer for 9 months until hit ramen profitability. I’ve learned a lot about bootstrapping, and in this post I share my experiences.
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10. 4 key steps to kickstart your startup

I’ve found that often the hardest part of creating a startup is actually starting. In this post, I try to distill what I’ve learned from many not so successful ventures and one somewhat successful one into 4 simple steps which to get onto the right path. It’s not that easy, of course, but I truly believe these steps are the key ones. The challenge is in having discipline and executing the steps. I include links in the article to help with that aspect.
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It has been an amazing journey so far, and I’m really thankful to all of you who have supported me over the last year. I’ve been lucky to be in touch with so many of you and I’ve had some incredibly useful comments here on the blog. I’m planning many more posts in 2012 about more of the lessons I’m learning and experiences I’m having, and I look forward to your company.

Which of these lessons resonates with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: scott_48074

I have no idea what I am doing

I want to give a special thanks to my co-founder Leo who listened to and discussed some of these thoughts with me before I turned them into a blog post.

In the last few months, and particularly the last few weeks, I’ve had some truly fantastic moments. Particularly, I’ve reached some defining milestones with my latest venture, Buffer, and this blog has been doing well too. New doors have opened for me, and it has been great.

Looking back to last October when I started Buffer, even though I had learned a lot from my past startup experiences, I truly didn’t know what I was doing and I approached everything with that mindset. I was out there to learn and I knew that the only way I was going to progress was to adopt a very open mind.

I’m writing this post because I’ve recently strayed away from this mindset, and I’ve realised that I lost out as a result.

When success can lead you down the wrong path

In the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to receive some great press and praise for Buffer. In addition to this, I’ve had some of my blog posts featured in great newsletters and some blogs I truly admire, and I’ve also had the opportunity to speak a few times about how I’ve achieved some success with Buffer.

This form of others directly or indirectly appreciating what I was doing, and a few reaching out to ask me for advice, set me off on a path which I can now say in hindsight is not where I want to be. I love to help others, and I will always do my best to share my own experience, but as soon as I took appreciation as a signal that I knew what I was doing, I had taken a wrong step.

Believing that I knew what I was doing

The key turning point was when I started to believe that I knew what I was doing. I let the comments, the kind congratulations and the small successes affect my mind. I actually thought I knew what I was doing.

As soon as I believed that I knew what I was doing, without realising it the style of my writing and communication in general started to change slightly. I became naturally drawn to instructive comments and advice where I would have previously communicated simply based on my own experiences.

The biggest mistake: I became less open-minded

It was with this new instructive style which I realised I lost my open-mindedness. After a few people asking for my advice, I was starting to treat everything in a way in which I needed to have a definite answer.

That’s when I looked back to the early days of Buffer and this blog. At that time, the only way I was going to get somewhere was to be completely open-minded, take every opportunity to learn and make the most of every conversation. This was how I progressed, and it really worked. It felt amazing.

A new start: a beginner’s mind

So the truth is: I have no idea what I am doing. I am taking a leaf from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen. I am going to Let go of being an expert:

"We are all experts. Experts in our job, in raising children, in crossing the road, in signing our name. Its difficult to let go of being an expert. Because it means confessing that we really know nothing. What we know belongs to the past. Whereas this moment now is new and offers its unique challenges. If I let go of being an expert, I can listen to others with an open mind. Then I can find that even a beginner has something to teach me.”

The counter point

This is a challenging subject, because I think it is just as easy to be stalled by “I don’t know” as it is to let “I know” cause you to become less open-minded. I now think there is a middle ground I want to strive for, which is having a curious and inquisitive mind whilst still acting when I don’t know what the outcome will be.

Have you ever felt like your knowledge or experience could cause you to stop being open-minded and learning? I’d really love to hear about your experiences on this topic.

Photo credit: Eric Hayes