20 Pieces of Startup Advice I Should Have Posted A Long Time Ago

Disclaimer: I am not a successful tech entrepreneur, so you probably shouldn’t read this.

  1. Build what people need and build it in the quickest and easiest (read hackiest) way possible that is barely acceptable to them. There are a lot of very bad implementations out there making millions right now.
  2. Do not build what you want (or what you think people need/want). As a tech entrepreneur you are an anomaly. Most people don’t care about the things you care about. eg. “I want a way to sync my scrobbles to my own server in case LastFM gets taken down by the FBI.” – Only 5 people care about this.
  3. Build products around use cases, NOT use cases around products.
    If you can’t explain what your product does in 20 seconds then you don’t have a product, you have a big idea. Unless you have unlimited resources and funding you’re going to need to tame your idea. Find a specific implementation of your big idea in action that resonates with the masses and run with that. If building that specific instance of your idea doesn’t sound sexy enough, think about how sexy it is going to be when you go back to your old boss and ask for a job. Once you’re making a profit off your not-so-sexy idea you can start self-funding your big idea.
  4. Big ideas don’t get funding. Google was not a big idea, it was a vastly better search engine in a market flooded with search engines. It was a product. Angels and VCs need to be able to understand your idea and then be able to communicate your idea to other people who will also understand it and immediately see how it will make money.
  5. Don’t let VCs lead you down the garden path and never commit. They’re doing you a disservice. If they truly like your idea and believe in you they can do their due diligence in 2 weeks and have (some) money in your bank account in a month. Too often it seems that VCs who don’t really “get” an idea are too scared to tell the founders to go away, just in case their idea starts to make sense. (No one wants to be the record exec who told the Beatles to go away). But this can give youa false  impression of how good your idea is, because if a VC seems interested, then surely your idea is a good one, right?
  6. Don’t make friends with VCs. Friends don’t want to tell friends that they “don’t really get it“, or more specifically that they “get it, but don’t see how you will be able to sell enough of it“. This kind of feedback can too easily come off as a personal insult for anyone to ever say it… so they’ll lead you on in the hope that one day you’ll say something to convince them because they really want you to do well.
  7. Don’t get too personal or precious about your idea. You are a smart, attractive person with great hair and a wonderful personality, you don’t need your product to validate your worth. Getting too personal about your product leaves you unable to change anything because it’s like gazing into the eyes of your beautiful new born baby and wishing they had been born with with nicer ears. You need to be ready to dump that baby in the dumpster at a moments notice.
  8. It’s all about cash, sales and runways. Building the product is the easy bit. Any nerd with a laptop can build a product. Selling it is HARD. You need to realise up front that your “tech startup” is 90% on-the-street-corner-sales. If you think you’re immune to this you’re a fool. If you aren’t earning 50% of what you need to break even after 50% of your runway you are in trouble.
  9. If your runway is 100 meters long, you need to be selling your product at 25m. The next 75m is refine, sell, refine, sell, repeat.
  10. Make sure know how long your runway is from day 1. Count down in days, have it up on the wall in big print.
  11. If you can’t build a product that people would pay for in 25m, make it simpler. If you don’t think you can sell this new simplified product then charge less for it or try and find some more runway… But figure this all out before you start.
  12. If you think you have a longer runway because you will obviously get more funding, don’t quit your day job. Negotiate all your funding before you quit your job. You might need to develop an MVP to get this funding. Do that at night or on weekends.
  13. Selling isn’t sexy but don’t avoid it. Rather get your hands dirty from day one so that you get used to the smell. (You’ll also get better at not stinking up the room every time you try)
  14. You need to realise that there is a difference between what people are impressed by and what they will pay for. If you’re removing some significant pain or frustration from their life, they might not be impressed but they will pay for it. People pay for lots of very unsexy things all the time.
  15. Design and field-test products until something resonates. Mock something up in photoshop and then go and see if you can sell it. You need to get to the point where someone is willing to give you cash out of their wallet in order to go home and use your thing.
  16. Sell to people you don’t know and who don’t know you. If you’re going to be successful then 99.9999% of your market is going to be people who have never met you, so why would test your sales on people who know you? Firstly they’re biased (they want to help you and may even give you their hard earned money out of guilt/pity/just-to-be-nice) and secondly, you have insider knowledge– you know who to sell to and which of your friends to not even bother with. That’s not reality.
  17. If there is more than one of you in the startup, don’t assume roles like “sales guy” and “coder”. Send the coder out to sell (especially when you’re still faking it)… He/She might just surprise you, and, at the very least they’ll learn more about how the product fits in the real world.
  18. Get a simple office (or even a room in the back of someone else’s office). Be there every day from 9 until 5 (or 10 till 6, or 11 till 7 etc) from day 1. Stick things on the walls, decorate your corner… get a crappy coffee machine. There is something about a humble office that will bring out the best in you. Working from someone’s home, even if you all work together just doesn’t have the same effect.
  19. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
  20. Read The Personal MBA before you start. Even if you have an MBA.
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