A dispatch from the startup frontlines

It is a cold rainy day in Atlanta today. Bleak as it can be. My daily startup roller-coaster has hit its periodic low and I find that yet again, I need to remind myself why I am doing this. For me, a great thing about starting a startup is all the new things I have learnt. I find that writing down what I have learnt makes it more concrete. Hopefully this will be also be useful to a few others.

It has been over a year and a half since we started RideCell, less than six months since we pivoted into building a product which has brought us non-trivial revenues and less than three months since I started working full time on RideCell. Here are a few things I have learnt so far:

0) Advice is useful, but mostly after the fact.

If you are sitting there on the couch, with an idea in your head, and you have never built or tried to sell a product, stop reading this article and go do that first. Seriously.

All the ideas, advice, articles, anecdotes, books and events about startups are not very different from a novel. The vicarious pleasure they provide you is as fleeting as infatuation and over almost as soon as you are done reading. A real startup is like marriage. A lot more hard work and much more satisfying.

Get out of the house/office/classroom and talk to the people who you think want your product. Build  a minimum viable product. (Try to) Sell it. It is scary, but doable, and a lot more exciting than reading. It is the real stuff of startups. Try not to indulge in reading about startups or fantasizing about new ideas till you have built and tried to sell the first version of your product.

Advice is 10x more useful after you have tried to accomplish something instead of just thinking about it. I know this for a fact. The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

1) You are building a palace in the air. And that is o.k.

If you are feeling scared about the fact that you have only an idea, don’t be. Be concerned. Act. But don’t be afraid. If you focus on talking to potential customers and building what they want, you’ll find yourself a few months [or weeks, if you use python ;)] down the line with your first user singing paeans to your product (followed, almost certainly, by 10 feature requests).

Build fast. Talk to your customers constantly. Don’t worry too much about potential competitors.

2) Know that inertia doesn’t love you any more.

If you are doing this right out of school or a job at a big company, starting a startup may feel a bit like swimming up stream to you. In school or at a large company, you have your teacher or your boss constantly telling you what they expect you to do next. If you find yourself depressed one Monday morning, everything around you is not going to stop. Meetings will still happen, your boss will still ask for status at the end of the day, and almost counter intuitively, this can be a good thing. If you start working on something because you have to, you forget about the things bothering you and if you do something productive, you become happy again.

At your startup, if you stop, the company stops. You decide what you need to do next, so if you are depressed one Monday, there won’t be a boss or a teacher to tell you to can your self pitying and get shit done. Tuesday will be bleaker because you got nothing done on Monday. So this kind of thing can become a bad self reinforcing cycle.

To fix this, get a good co-founder who can kick your ass into gear or drag you out for ice-cream if you are slacking/sulking. Learn to recognize inertia, self pitying and other self reinforcing cycles of doom in yourself and respond to them with merciless action. Inertia is your enemy now. Pick a task, any task, and get it done.

3)  Re-examine all your virtues.

Anything, taken to the extreme is dangerous. So it is with all virtues. Take perfectionism. As a startup and a two (one?) person team, you are not going to ship the next best thing since sliced bread at version 1.0. In fact, chances are, many aspects of your product will be cringe worthy. As long as your product is still useful, that is o.k. Cut the right corners.

Perfectionism is just an easy example. Re-examine other virtues also: Are you too flexible? Do you always want to say yes to all customers? Is that scalable?  Do you want to build a framework that will scale to a million simultaneous user sessions before you ship your first version? Are your first 100 users going to pay for that?

4) You are two people: Maker and Manager

Makers need to focus on one thing at a time in long stretches. For example, when I code, I always feel like I need at least a couple of hours to get anything significant done. Managers need to focus on fighting a hundred fires and pursuing a hundred fleeting opportunities. If I focused on trying to recruit one customer per day, it would take me years to be cash-flow positive.

It is hard for makers and managers to even work together. But when you are playing both roles, it’s like having full blown multiple personality disorder. The only way I have found to manage it is by setting aside specific chunks of time to do maker type stuff.

5)  Keep an eye on the roller coaster, or it will kill you

The startup roller coaster has higher highs and lower lows than you can imagine. On days you hear positive feedback from one of the leading institutions in the world, you will feel like a young Sergey Brin. When you don’t hear back from them for a couple of weeks, you will feel like the biggest loser in the world. The only way to deal with this is to recognize and acknowledge the roller coaster. “This too shall pass” should be your daily mantra. When you are feeling high, spend no more than a few minutes basking in your imagined glory. When you are feeling low, know that something will likely happen soon that will cause you to feel positively glorious again. Through everything, always, always, keep working.

6) Either your ego dies or your startup dies

At a startup you will spend much of your time either talking to customers or working with your team. It is important that you keep your ego out of these interactions because they will make or break your startup.

Customers: Recruit customers who are helpful and willing to talk. Then listen to them like they are the smartest people in the world. These are people telling you exactly what you need to do to make money from them. If you have chosen your field wisely, this is work you really like doing. So these people are telling you how to do what you like and make money doing it! Sure, you are probably an ace hacker and maybe even a world-class expert in technology. Forget that for the moment and listen to what the customer wants. All the technology in the world is worth bupkiss if the customer doesn’t get what she wants.

Team: Recruit only people who are smarter than you at what they do. When they talk about it, listen to them. Unless your goal in life is pay people to listen to you brag about your superiority, the reasons for this should be obvious.

7) It’s hard to be king. If it’s not, you are doing it wrong.

If you have people reporting to you, you should know that being a boss is a lot more than just “delegating work”. Sure, not having to do everything yourself is awesome; but presumably you have had a boss before; did you want them to treat you like a cog in the machine, just assigning you work and squeezing everything out of you? I didn’t. When that happened, I quit.

Take care of your people. Different people need different things from their boss. Try to understand what. Your job is to try to give them what they need to get their work done and then get out of their way. Think of yourself as their problem solver. Sometimes this may involve guidance with personal problems. Sometimes they will just need technical guidance. Sometimes they will need you to understand what you are doing wrong as a boss without taking it personally. Sometimes they’ll just need to vent. This kind of stuff is supposed to be hard. If it’s not, you are doing it wrong.

8.) Your startup will try to kill every other aspect of your life (again, and again, and again)

The CEO of Coca Cola said it better than I can:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the Air.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back.

But the other four Balls – Family, Health, Friends and Spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these; they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for it.

Except that at a startup, the work ball has expanded and will continue to expand until you make it stop. It is your decision where to make it stop. Naturally, if you expect work to take less time than going out with friends, a startup may be the wrong place for you. Ever so often, think of your friends, family, health and spirit and examine if the balance between these things is where you want it to be.

9) Be relentlessly resourceful

PG said it better than I can. Being Relentless is your hammer, Being resourceful is how well you wield it and where you aim it.

10) Pivot

If your (potential) customers tell you you are working on a problem they don’t have, and/or help you identify a problem they do have, pivot to solve it. Eric Ries said it much better than I can: Pivot, don’t jump to a new vision.

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