There are 3 things that are critically important to your startup.
You must balance all three of these things to be successful.
1. What you did (the past). 2. What you’re doing (the present). 3. Where you’re going (the future).
What you did:
When I asked a founder why he thought his new startup would succeed, he claimed it would happen because his previous ventures did. Your past is a part of you, but it doesn’t define you. Just because you were successful (or your venture failed) in the past, doesn’t mean the same outcome will happen in the future. You can extrapolate data from the past but don’t let it blind you to your current reality. Previous experiences are nothing more than blueprints for us to build the future with.
What you’re doing:
If you only get one thing right, make it this one. You can at least tread water if you’re successfully capitalizing on the present. Focusing on the present allows startups to focus on real world issues immediately and you can actually start selling your product. As Steve Jobs said, “Real artists ship”.
Where you’re going:
It’s important for startups to have a dream that they can barely see. A goal that you have to be crazy to believe you can reach (but you and your team try for it anyway because you believe in it so much). I would rather achieve 50% of the extraordinary, than 100% mediocracy. This line of thinking is huge for teambuilding as well. One of my favorite quotes is: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
What do you think?
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“$40k for 15% equity” Cooed the smooth talking angel investor. “We will take over the world together and I will make both of us very rich”.
It was a cold dreary day and as “Entrepreneur X” sipped his coffee, he contemplated selling a stake in his company to the smoothest talking angel investor he ever had the pleasure of meeting.
The percentage looked fine, the terms were great, but something didn’t feel right.
As Entrepreneur X gazed out the window, mindfully mulling over the decision, the waitress came back and refilled their mugs. The investor took a sip and began screaming at the waitress. Apparently she accidentally gave the investor decaf instead of regular. The child-like behavior of the investor brought Entrepreneur X crashing back to reality. If the investor cracked that easily over coffee, how was he going to handle things if shit hit the fan with his venture?
“Entrepreneur X” immediately stood up and apologized for “his friend”, left a huge tip (my favorite part of this story), and walked away. He ended up bootstrapping the startup himself.
Taking an investor onboard is a lot like being married. It’s something that can be fantastic, it can improve your quality of life, and it can be a great source of encouragement if you “find the one”. On the other hand if you settle for someone because it’s easy, it can be hell.
My question for TSF readers is “Have you ever had to turn down funding”?
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You can follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry. I would love for you to share your stories in the comments, or get in touch with me personally at email@example.com.
Often times it’s easy for me to get focused on “the next big thing” and it’s difficult to meditate on past experiences. Entrepanuers need to be forward thinkers, but great ideas aren’t forged in a vacuum. Paradoxically, we need to reconcile these two competing lines of thinking.
Growing up, I was a PC fanatic. I built all of my own computers, I worked an I.T. job, and I did some light consulting on the side. In 2007 my needs changed. I was moving to South Africa for 6 months and I needed a laptop that I could do heavy video work on. I picked up a 15 inch MacBook Pro, Final Cut Pro, and a couple external harddrives I could use for a scratch disk. I unboxed all of my equipment on the kitchen table and began to install all 40 gigs of Final Cut Pro. My nieces were visiting and were quietly playing in the other room.
I got up to grab a water across the room and play time suddenly shifted to the kitchen. In slow motion I watched my Niece race around the kitchen table (where my laptop was) and she came face to face with a freshly unboxed MacBook Pro. Instead of tripping over the cord and pulling my laptop to an early demise, the cord simply popped free and my laptop sat on the table unscathed.
I can thank MagSafe for saving me several thousand dollars. For those of you not familiar with MagSafe, I have embedded a video below. Notice how the MagSafe connector stays in place unless it force comes from an angle (for example, a running child).
Fast forward to Apple’s unveiling of the iPad 2. Introduced alongside the new iPad was an accessory called the “Smart Cover”. It’s really cool tech that allows you to add or remove a case. It can also be used to double as a stand.
Apple has been working on the iPad 2 for over a year but work began on the smart cover when they started experimenting with magnets for MagSafe. Apple was able to leverage it’s past learning with magnets into future thinking products. The past is a great source of inspiration for the future.
App Sumo is a startup that focuses on deals for web apps. They send hundreds of thousands of emails each month, and Noah Kagan (The founder) Skyped in to share what he’s learned from the world of email marketing. In this 15 minute video Noah explains 10 things that you should know about Email Marketing Companies before you give them your business.
1- You have weak control over placement of unsubscribe link. Your email should have an unsubscribe button, but you should be in control of it.
3- If a reader hits “Unsubscribe” you have no control over the unsubscribe page.
2- Setting up new campaigns takes 2 hours.
4- They require double-opt in. This is okay in some circumstances, but this decision should be left up to the company.
5- You don’t realize how many people need email confirmation. Email Marketing companies typically don’t handle this gracefully.
6- Hard to connect to your database for stats.
7- You can be banned from emailing if your unsubscribe rates are too high.
8- A/B testing consists of time, subject line and from, not body text.
9- Security is a big issue. Example: Aweber got hacked.
10- You should use two IPs – one for marketing and another for transactional emails.
Imagine you are sitting down at the dinner table and you have a big juicy steak right in front of you. You have a fork and a knife laying right next to the steak.
A) Ask the person next to you to feed you
B) Stare at the steak and wonder why it’s not gravitating towards your mouth
C) Use the Fork & Knife to feed yourself
Simple Question right? Now let me rephrase this question.
You just launched a web startup. Do You:
A) Send an e-mail to every relevant blogger in hopes of getting covered
B) Stare at your website and wonder why there isn’t much activity
C) Start a Blog and bring traffic to your startup (e.g, feed yourself)
Stop trying to get other people to feed you, and feed yourself.
Here are some ways a blog can help your startup, feed itself:
1. It gives other people a reason to link to you multiple times
The keyword here is multiple times. If you don’t have a blog why would they blog about your startup twice? It’s the same startup it was 3 months ago. If you have good content, they will link to different blog posts bringing attention to your main site (your startup website) that it otherwise wouldn’t garner
2. It gives you another reason to tweet
You know that saying: “I tweeted to let you know I blogged” ? It couldn’t be any truer.
It’s not “I tweeted to let you know that my website is still up and nothing has changed in the past few days, but in case you missed my tweet the first time here it is again and don’t worry I’ll remind you again in a few days to my websites existence”.
3. It gives you a platform to launch your next startup
What happens when this startup fails? What happens to your customers that were loyal to you and not your startup? If you don’t have a blog, they don’t know where to go next & they will have no idea that you even had a next startup. When you do launch your next startup, use your existing readership to be your beta testers.
4. It gives you something to do when there is nothing else to do
Everyone has those “OK, What Now” moments after launching their website or while waiting for something out of your realm to be implemented. Write down what’s on your mind and post it. Get it out there.
5. It’s FREE!
WordPress is your friend. Use it. Stop trying to get other people to feed you, and feed yourself.
What other ways has your startup been able to “feed itself”?
Chris Jennings (@ckj) from Disqus spoke at Superconf in Miami this past week, and I had a chance to chat with him after his presentation. In this video Chris shares how Disqus uses 3 hacks to ensure a clean UX for its 400m users.
Summary of the video: 1. Design with constraints – Restraints fuel our creativity – Example: Quroa 1.0 was written just in HTML. Restraint keeps you focused on what’s important. 2. Selectively deploy – Roll out – Example: When Disqus rolled out their new theme, Houdini, Disqus employees could interact with the theme on major sites without disrupting regular users. 3. Design for delight – This gives fans something to talk about, and it can help diffuse anger if something breaks.
Every company makes mistakes. Startups by definition are more prone to making mistakes. Your app is at version 1.0, you’re slowly getting traction, and you’re scared you might screw something up.
I’ve seen startups that get so scared they become paralyzed by fear that the tiniest little mistake might bring their whole company down. I’ve heard companies internally debate button placement before they had a single customer even interested in their product.
As your startup grows there are things that you won’t be perfect on, and that’s okay (as long as it’s not a security hole). When you make a mistake, iterate quickly and fix it. Your goal as a startup is not to be perfect at version 1.0, but to not make the same mistake twice.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said: ‘If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.’
Two days ago I published my first (“real”) interview with Andrew Warner. Before the interview I practiced a hundred times, recorded several demo interviews with friends to make sure my equipment worked, and I memorized all of my questions. You know what? I still sucked (I botched a question, Skype auto color-corrected me green, there was a slight echo, etc.). However, it was a fantastic learning experience for me. I learned more in those 15 minutes with Andrew then I did in all of my rehearsals. My next interview will be a little bit better as I have learned from my mistakes. It still might not be perfect, but I won’t repeat those mistakes. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Planning is incredibly important, but you will learn so much more by actually getting some skin in the game. You have to get out of the boat to walk on water. Pick something your company sucks at and fix it. Don’t suck twice.
My girlfriend lovingly describes herself as the “geeks tech resistant girlfriend.” That description is quite accurate. She has an iPhone (which she got about three months ago) that has four non-Apple apps on it. Some days I am surprised that she can even find the Internet. As such, I thought it would be an interesting to see what she had to say about the dead simple list making startup Workflowy. We’ll get to that in a moment in the form of a he said/she said discussion. First a bit on Workflowy…
Workflowy is not exactly new to the startup arena. They have been around since November 2010. Mike Turtzin and Jesse Patel, the two cofounders, were accepted to Y Combinator in summer 2010, but what is interesting is that Workflowy was not the idea they were accepted for. They were working on some sort of a platform for web gurus to give and get advice. Which just goes to show that most angels or investors are looking at the person rather than the idea.
Workflowy was a product of Jesse needing a way to keep track of lists and ideas. While working on their original YC idea he was using an older version of Workflowy to keep notes and lists. Other YC members were using it as well and liked the product. As a result, they realized that they may have been on to something and the notion of keeping your brain on a single sheet of paper developed into what we now know as Workflowy.
So how good is Workflowy? Very very good. I have been using it for what I thought was six months. Turns out it has only been available publically since November 2010. Apparently it is so good it has skewed my interpretation of the passage of time. Nonetheless, my Workflowy account has been a godsend. I use it for anything and everything. It works great for this geek but what about his non-tech girlfriend?
She said: There is minimal set up—truly easy for anyone. I am the ultimate test.
He said: She is right. She is the ultimate test. If it involves tech and she thinks it’s easy…it is. She thought the activation process for “Find my iPhone” was difficult.
She said: Workflowy will eliminate the need for those annoying little scraps of paper holding your notes and lists. Unless you lose your computer, you won’t lose your list!
He said: When Workflowy gains traction 3M’s Post-it notes might be put out of business. Those scraps of paper are annoying. Digitalize them by shifting all your hot to-do items to Workflowy. Worried that you won’t be able to access your notes on the go? Or that you’ll lose your computer? They’ll have an app out soon.
She said: The intuitive nature of this program would make you think it is an Apple application.
He said: I love my Apple products but not in the hyper-rabid monomaniacal way that MG Seigler does. She came up with that one on her own. I will say that it is super simple, which is a large part of the appeal.
She said: For the “Type A’s” out there—you will love the fact that you can hide your completed items—rather that just deleting them. You can look back at all of your “honey do’s” and feel great about your productivity!
He said: For the deadbeat boyfriends or husbands out there, your significant others will be making “honey do” lists like starved beaver in a toothpick factory. Which is an interesting part of list-making psychology. I find that the easier it is to input notes, lists, or tasks, the more likely I am to actually to the inputting. Which is usually the downfall of reminder notes: the actual writing of them to remind yourself. And it seems that most people that use Workflowy find the same thing. The simple Workflowy interface lacks all the bells and whistles that your usual to-do apps include, which spurs the user to use it more.
She said: I am strangely bonded to my lists, so I thought an electronic surrogate would not fit the bill. Sorry paper. After 36 years, I am leaving you.
He said: Yikes! Pretty strong words for someone that loves her lists and note taking materials. I will keep you posted on whether she sticks to this very declarative statement.
She said: If you love detail, let it all hang out. If you don’t, a few clicks will condense your list into more general headings and subheadings.
He said: It’s true. I just looked at my Workflowy account. By my estimation I have about 10-15 pages when everything is expanded. (Not counting completed items, which are hidden). When it is minimized it consists of nine headings taking up about as much space as this paragraph.
So what advice does this startup have for other startups? A couple of things:
1.) Have a vision for your company and product. That vision needs to be the basis for which you measure all decisions about your product. In the case of Workflowy, their vision is your brain organized onto one page. This means that requests for more features or other add-ons are weighed against that vision. If it doesn’t make the cut, it doesn’t find its way into the product.
2.) Don’t spend eternity in beta. A startup won’t benefit from every detail being perfected. The less time you spend in beta the better your efforts will be because as you move along with your idea, the startup and the company will change. If you are in beta forever there is no way to experiment with the outside world and truly better your product.
3.) Do you know when to say goodbye to your baby? This is the perennial problem of an entrepreneur: when to let the idea go and begin anew. In the case of Workflowy they moved into the list making area after they realized one thing: Their users wanted it. If you are forcing your product on them, it’s time to head in a new direction.
4.) Jesse wanted this to be the headline for this article: “Mike is A Champion.” My editor wouldn’t allow it but I think the message he was trying to convey was that a successful company depends on a solid relationship between the cofounders. Pick your cofounders wisely and once you have, make sure you cultivate that relationship to its fullest.
Andrew Warner (from Mixergy fame) recently sat down with The Startup Foundry for a one-on-one interview. In this video Andrew first established why founders should give interviews, and then gave 3 tips on how to give a great interview.
Cliff notes below.
Andrew’s three key points in giving an interview:
1. Practice – The old adage “Practice makes perfect” is true. Especially on film.
2. Shut up – Don’t trust a producer or editor to cut something stupid that you said.
3. Tell a Story – People remember stories.
Links in this video: Mixergy.com – Andrew Warner’s Company Balsmiq – The mockup company from the story Andrew Told Superconf – The conference Andrew and I will be attending in Miami. MediaTemple – Our sponsor
I’ve had several readers ask me what services and software they should use to build their startups. I asked the HN community for input and then I created this list. This list will help you get your startup up in running in no time. If you have any more suggestions for apps, please list them in the comments.
Billing / Invoicing: Billing and Invoicing can suck up a lot of time. It could be more efficient to let a trusted 3rd party do it for you. Recurly Managing recurring payments @recurly Chargify Helping over 3,600 merchants manage recurring billing @chargify Freshbooks Track time, organize expenses and invoice clients @freshbooks
Email handling: Email is critical to your startup. These are some of our favorite companies that handle email. Mailchimp Really easy to use service for email newsletters etc.@mailchimp Sendgrid Email Delivery. Simplified. Increased deliverability, APIs, & analytics. @sendgrid Google Apps for your domain Powerful communication tools – all hosted by Google
Hosting and Database: When you hit the front page of Reddit, you can’t afford to have your app buckle under the pressure. Mediatemple We use these guys for hosting. They’re fantastic. @mediatemple Linode For hosting or Amazon EC2 @linode Amazon AWS Scalable services in the cloud Heroku If you’re using RoR, use this @heroku Expandrive – Ridiculously simple online storage – SFTP/FTP as a network drive@expandrive