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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Ten things

Get your priorities straight
There is nothing more important than enjoying your life. Making sure that other people are enjoying their lives comes in at a close second. You are not a useful human being if you are not enjoying your own life.

Don’t sweat the small stuff
Gary Player famously said that the more he practiced the luckier he got. You can reprogram the way your brain reacts to truly stressful situations by practicing positive, stress-free, reactions to the little things that go wrong every day.

Get some perspective
Most of the stuff you worry about is simply not important. Your family and friends are what matter. They are irreplaceable. Your car getting stolen, your house burning down, losing your job, while all sad and frustrating, should not result in emotional trauma.

Emotional trauma is scar tissue
Years ago I broke my big toe by kicking a wall. It was stupid and every now and then my toe hurts for no reason. If you repeatedly kick a wall your toe is going to hurt all the time and you are not going to be able to enjoy your life.

It’s not over until you’re dead
Your health is important, but not more important than enjoying your life. I’m not suggesting you start a small heroin habit, but worrying about your health is futile unless you’re doing it while calling a doctor.

Put on your big girl panties when dealing with family
There are situations in life where you just need to make hay, even if you’re allergic and the sun isn’t shining. The normal rules of engagement do not apply for family. “Not talking” to some branch of your family is an incredibly sad outcome that should be avoided at all costs. No one is asking you to paint each other’s nails while watching Thelma and Louise on VHS, but for everyone’s mental health, including your own, sometimes you just need to get out there in the rain and start throwing around some hay.

Appreciate what you have
Be thankful for the things you have, not because one day they might be gone or because others don’t have them, but simply because you do have them.

Stretch
This is not a computer game. When you die your life is over. Try and be incredible or die trying.

Yourself is the best you you can be
Countless Facebook posts will encourage you to sing like no one is listening. That is rubbish. Being yourself is the only way to be happy. This is not rocket science. If you want to sing, sing. If you want to spend your weekend reading a book to your cat, do that.

Stop
Close the door, put away your phone, sit down and spend some time thinking. Call it whatever you want but just do it, daily if possible.

Danny the capturer of the world.

Many years ago I worked at company that sold widgets. These widgets were very complicated and required lots of customisation. The company had developed a pretty large piece of software to help their sales people build complex widget quotes with lots of line items.

This company also had a big off the shelf enterprise accounting system that handled their real accounts.

I had worked at the company for almost 2 years as a software developer when one day I found myself sitting in the accounts department helping Danny with something unrelated. It was then that I learnt what Danny from Accounts actually did.

Every morning Danny would print out the previous days ‘accepted’ quotes from the quoting software resulting in a small pile of paper, one for each customer, with hundreds of line items, for every day. Then, using a ruler and pen to scratch out the lines, he would manually re-enter all of the customer data and their quote information, line item by line item, into the big accounting system. This process took him most of the day, sometimes more if business was good. He occasionally made mistakes that either cost the company lots of money or pissed off the customers.

As a software developer I knew that both systems ran off MSSQL databases. I knew that all the relevent information probably already existed to do the “job” programmatically. I knew that it would probably take a day or two to write a piece of software that did Danny’s job, perfectly every time, in a few milliseconds.

Danny had been doing that job for almost 6 years.

Since that day, whenever I start working with a new company, I try my best to meet everyone and get an idea for what they do and how they do it before I put my head down and start trying to solve any problems. That habit has served me well. In a team of ba/tech/strat/arch people I’m often the only one who knows how the accounts actually work, or how the stock is really procured, or what the weird hippies on the third floor do. (They’re always copywriters.)

But I’m not trying to pretend I have special powers. My point is that you can never assume that other people will have looked at problems like you do, with your knowledge-set. Most of the time other people won’t even see something like that as a “problem”. Danny’s boss never thought to question the process that admittedly pre-dated him. They all have no idea what SQL is and neither should they need to. It’s not their job. It’s yours. (Assuming you’re in a tech field)

What really excites me is how this kind of technology-discovery can be applied to people who traditionally live without the exposure to technology that we do. We now live in world where mobile phones can do things that sometimes even I think are quite magical (think SoundHound and Shazaam). I don’t know what “Danny the capturer of the world” situations exist in an under-resourced high school in a Soweto. I don’t know what efficiencies might just be waiting to be discovered in a clinic in Khayelitsha. I am however convinced that if a large corporate focused solely on profits with a really good, international, management team and a chartered accountant CFO all couldn’t spot that Danny was unintentionally wasting his time (and their money), then I can only imagine what amazing, albeit probably simple, tech-opportunities are waiting to be discovered in the “real” world.

I may not be ready to tackle the townships just yet, and I’m by no means assuming that there aren’t already smart people doing this kind of stuff, but I do look forward to one day being able to spend a few weeks immersed in the daily grind of a township school teacher or a minimum-wage worker, and maybe finding some way to bring a little bit of technological awesomeness and efficiency to their lives.

I know you’re wondering. I did write that software and Danny did need to click a button every morning and watch as the script whizzed by in less than a second, but he didn’t lose his job, instead he was able to move on to tackling more challenging things that actually needed his accounting skills. Everyone’s a winner.

Why we do what we do.

Weather permitting I’ll be leaving next Wednesday. I’m going to sail about three and a half thousand miles, across the South Atlantic, from Cape Town to a tiny group of islands called the Falklands off the coast of Argentina. I like to think that the reason I am doing this is obvious and for most of my friends the reason seems obvious too.

Though, every now and then I get asked “Why?”. As if it would be simpler to just fly there. Which is true. It takes 44 hours to fly from Cape Town to Stanley on the east Falklands. 44 hours and 5 separate flights. Sailing there takes 25 days and you sail through some of the roughest seas on the planet. The Falklands are about as close as you can get to Antarctica without actually being on Antarctica.

Is it dangerous? Of course. There are more dangerous things one could do, but when you’re 2000 miles away from the nearest hospital and in a very unpredictable environment, anything can happen.

Will I miss home? Of course! I’ll miss my wife, my cats, my comfortable bed, being able to take a warm shower whenever I want, deciding what I want to eat, being able to be alone, going out to get a coffee etc etc. I’ll be stuck on a 75 foot yacht with 7 people I barely know.

So why am I doing it? I don’t really have an answer. I have answers. But the sum of all those answers is not the answer.

I want to stretch my mind. I want to sail away, leave land behind, wake up in the morning and have to check a map to know where I am. I want to be surrounded by nothing but sea.

I want to learn to be a better sailor. We live in a world full of experts who know nothing. Rockstars who learnt everything they know in the previous 3 weeks. We’re all bullshit and truth bending. Teach yourself brain surgery in 24 hours. When your life is in your own hands you’re forced to be honest about your abilities.

I want to push myself and see where the cracks appear. I want to be bored and be forced to write. I want to spend an idyllic evening on deck eating freshly caught fish. I want time to think. I want to be scared. I want to ride out a storm and watch the sun rise on a perfect morning. I want to see land and long to touch it. I want to have a story to tell and to write those stories that are banging around in my head. I want to miss my wife, my friends, my family and my country.

I want to fly home and know why I sailed away in the first place, but I’m sure I won’t, and that is why I am doing it.

You can, satellite gods willing, follow my adventures here http://arbitrarysailor.tumblr.com/.

Letter to my 15 year old self.

Hi, it’s me, the 30 year old Jonathan. Here’s a list of things I wish I’d known when I was 15.

  1. Stop trying to be cool.  Being “cool” requires you to act “cool” so you end up acting like other people who are also acting “cool”… Eventually everyone is acting like someone else. Just be you.
  2. You have an extraordinary amount of free time, most of which you waste watching TV.  This might be your single biggest regret. STOP IT. Do something else, write software, hitch-hike to joburg, whatever, just stop watching TV.
  3. Take risks, be unpredictable, do things spontaneously. You might get in trouble but it’ll be worth it.
  4. Don’t let yourself become a nerd, but also don’t worry about being a nerd. Nerds are cool.
  5. History is actually very cool. Don’t drop it. Accounting is lame.
  6. God, in any form, does not exist. Humans have always created gods to explain the things they could not understand. Creation, Solar Eclipses, “miracles” etc. Native Americans dancing around a fire asking god for rain is no different to Christians praying for healing etc. Read up on the Placebo Effect and then think about religion.
  7. Be a good person. You don’t need a book to tell you what is wrong and right. Don’t tease anyone for any reason.
  8. Don’t waste your time trying to get a girlfriend. Girls are awesome but you don’t need a girlfriend now.
  9. You’ll make some great friends over the years. Make an effort to be a good friend back.
  10. You can be anyone, achieve anything. Who you are is as much a journey of discovery as any other great adventure.

The end. Don’t stress kid. You’ll be fine.

ps. Invest all your money in Google and Apple, but only after they fire Steve Jobs the first time

Who invented the lightbulb?

Lets get one thing straight. Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the lightbulb.

This story requires context:

  • In 600AD the greek writer Thales of Miletus started writing about Electricity. Mostly this was all about rubbing Amber together and noticing static charge
  • In 1760 French physicist Charles-Augustin Coulomb starts actually making sense of electricity.
  • In 1779 Alessandro Volta builds the first true battery.
  • In the late 1700s and early 1800s every scientist, tinkerer and hacker is playing with electricity.
  • 30 years later, in 1809, Humphry Davy builds the first true electric lamp. This is 38 years before Edison is even born.
  • 50 years later, in 1860, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan builds an electric light bulb and starts tinkering with carbon-filament incandescent electric bulbs (The same stuff Edison eventually used).
  • Ten years later in 1877, the American Charles Francis Brush manufactured carbon arcs and was lighting public parks and office blocks.
  • In 1879, three years after Brush already had electric light in office blocks, Thomas Alva Edison discovers that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb was able to stay glowing for up to 40 hours.
  • Two years later some dude named Lewis Howard Latimer makes a better filament.
  • 20 years later another guy called Willis R. Whitney invents a process to stop the globe getting dimmer as it got older
  • Seven years later, in 1910, a guy called William David Coolidge invents a tungsten filament that lasts a lot longer than the carbon ones.
Thomas Alva Edison - Douchebag Extraordinaire

So all that Edison ever “invented” was that a vacuum increased the lifespan of the filament.

So, the next obvious question is, why does everyone think that Edison invented the light bulb? The answer to that question is an interesting one because it has more to do with propaganda than it does to do with invention.

A lightbulb is useless without electricity, Edison knew that… and, like any clever businessman, Edison knew that real inventors are generally very bad at making money out of their inventions because they’re always too busy working on version 2.

Edison realised that the only way to make real money was to get electricity into people’s houses so that you could sell them lightbulbs, and electricity… This was brilliant because it’s the “Give away the razor, sell the razorblades” plan except both lightbulbs and electricity are consumables… so its more like “Give away the connection and sell the lightbulbs and the electricity”. Edison also wasn’t the first person to figure this out, he was just really really good at marketing… Or really really bad at marketing, depending on how you feel about Elephants.

Topsy the Elephant

Another person who realised that Electricity was going to make a lot of money was a rich businessman called Westinghouse. Westinghouse had become friends with an eccentric Yugoslav scientist called Nikola Tesla who had been experimenting with electricity his whole life. When Tesla wasn’t busy building Tesla Coils or trying to harness the power of lightning (or trying to harness energy from outer space, I shit you not) he worked with Westinghouse to build electricity generators and plan electricity distribution systems. Tesla knew more about electricity than pretty much anyone else alive at that point and early on had realised that Alternating Current (AC) was far better at distributing electricity than Direct Current (DC). So Westinghouse and Tesla started generating and distributing power to the rich and famous.

Edison didn’t like this. Not only were Tesla and Westinghouse competitors, but they were also proposing a different, better, system (AC) that Edison knew would eventually win the battle. Edison had managed to market himself as the father of electricity — a magician and folk hero — and he was getting incredibly rich.

Nikola Tesla - True Genius

So Edison did what any self respecting douche-bag marketer would do… he started publicly torturing animals… and filming it. Thomas Alva Edison, the “inventor of the lightbulb” went out into the streets and publicly electrocuted, to death, animals in a bid to show the public that Alternating Current was far too dangerous to be in their homes. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that reference to elephants earlier is because Edison even electrocuted, to death, an adult elephant.

Of course AC isn’t really any more dangerous than DC and Edison knew that… While there are some issues with AC’s 50-60 Hertz frequency being closer to that of your heart, both AC and DC are equally able to kill elephants and small children.

Sadly the public was gullible and Tesla was devastated… He went from being an eccentric socialite magician to being that guy who wants to murder small children and animals. Westinghouse had thicker skin and managed to keep his chin up, but Tesla became a recluse and started working in isolation on increasingly crazier ideas like harnessing power from the stratosphere. Tesla believed that it would be possible to get this power so cheaply that it would become free. Whether Tesla was onto something or whether his eccentric genius mind had finally snapped will never be known… In 1943 he died, alone, drowning in debt, in a hotel room.

Thomas Edison was no doubt a very clever man, but he was also ethically a disgusting person who thought nothing of destroying others to elevate his own fame.