Every Piece of Startup Advice is a Lie (including mine)

Well, not all of it. That title was blatant click-bait. You’re here and I’ve won. Nyah!

I’ve long been passionate about reading and digesting every tidbit of information about what it takes to build a successful startup. I’m an avid reader of people like Seth Godin, Paul Graham, Guy Kawasaki, the fellas at VentureHacks, Fred Wilson, Josh Kopelman, Andrew Chen, and more. As a participant in the YCombinator program, I have weekly dinners with entrepreneurs who have “hit it big” (Marc Andreessen, Ev Williams, Paul Buchheit, Chris Sacca, & Joe Kraus, to name a few).

All of the things I’ve learned are incredibly useful and all of it (paradoxically) can be incredibly wrong.

Let me explain my thinking here. Human beings love formulas. Human beings who succeed naturally think that they’ve stumbled onto a magical step-by-step guide on how other people can succeed, too. They blog about it, speak about it, and generally spread their wisdom far and wide.

The funny thing is that when you read/hear enough of this stuff, you start hearing brilliant and successful people presenting advice that directly conflicts with the advice from other brilliant and successful people.

Here are a few examples:

The list goes on. Find me a startup truism and I’ll find you a successful startup which is a living and breathing counter-example. All of the advice that you read and hear is incredibly valuable– but it’s very situational. Add it to your “startup utility belt” and whip it out when you hit a bump in the road that looks familiar. “Andreessen ran into this and solved the problem thusly. That’s what I’ll try!” But don’t think that you can arm yourself with a list of platitudes and expect to build a startup.

The Two Truisms that Aren’t Lies

Now that I’ve finished saying that there’s no formula, I’m going to give you the two pieces of advice that (near as I can tell) EVERY successful founder has followed. Zero exceptions.

  1. Build something people want. This will make or break you. Period. The success of your idea is a function of how much people want it and how many people want it. Make your product better on this front every single week. Every single DAY, if you can. Everything else is a distraction. If you can’t say, “What I’m doing RIGHT NOW will make [people want what we have more] or [more people want what we have]” you should seriously question how you’re spending your time. (Which begs the question, what the hell am I doing writing this blog post?!). FWIW, I think you should exhaust the former (increase the how much your users love you) before the latter (increase how many users love you)
  2. Don’t stop. Persist. Keep going. The idea of an overnight success is largely ridiculous, even if the press loves to tell you otherwise. (just ask Matt Mullenweg of WordPress). You’ll think you are on the verge of death early and often, but you aren’t– and you can make it through if you start with an idea that people want and keep working on #1. Read Paul’s Essay, “How Not to Die“– it’ll help!

I can’t think of a single startup that has died from an over-emphasis on these two points. Can you?

  • http://venturehacks.com Nivi

    Since the classic definition of competitive strategy is to “perform different activities from those of rivals or perform similar activities in different ways” (http://tinyurl.com/2clrst), it shouldn’t be surprising that copying what other people are doing is not the path to success.

  • http://andrewchen.typepad.com/andrew_chens_blog Andrew Chen

    If Google isn’t viral, how did you first hear about it? I’m guessing through a friend ;-)

    Certainly not an advertisement for the site, I would imagine…

  • http://www.tonywright.com Tony Wright

    Heh– True, Andrew. I was talking in the classic “OMG IT’S AFACEBOOK APP!” style of viral. I guess what I’m advocating for is to nail the old-fashioned type of viral FIRST (being good enough to tell your friends)… It’s more important and more lasting.

  • Neil K

    It seems to me there is a corollary from your first two rules: iterate fast.

    I don’t know of any successful startup that did not have a very tight feedback loop with its users. Whether it’s monitoring the forums and pushing new interfaces 8x a day, or having sophisticated log analysis and A/B testing — do something to iterate fast.

  • http://www.tonywright.com Tony Wright

    @Neil What about 37Signals? Or the iPhone? I do tend to agree that that iterating fast generally works better than the alternative.

  • http://www.egorg.com/ dhimes

    Intuit. Scott Cook built something that nobody wanted until he convinced them they actually did.

  • Jake M

    It is especially important to remember, especially those of us who love to read the wisdom of others, that correlation does not imply causation. Do what is right for you and your company, learning from others is great but emulation does not guarantee the same success.

  • http://www.tonywright.com Tony Wright

    @dhimes Nobody wanted it? And then, what– he talked them into it? There is certainly tremendous power in messaging/positioning, but I think it’s more likely that his initial failure was due to the fact that people wanted something, he HAD it, but he was explaining it poorly. Or that his early offering didn’t QUITE have the product/market fit (as Marc Andreessen would put it).

  • http://www.ventureadventure.net Jack Poller

    One of the issues I face as an entrepreneur when reading advice from you list of successful entrepreneurs (and my list mimics yours) is that so many of these folks are focused on the Web2.0 world. Outside of that very small world, many of the issues, such as viral marketing, have a completely different meaning and impact. If you’re market is regulated (medical) or you have a very long development cycle (hardware), you cannot “release early and listen to your users”.

    On the other hand, many of these same folks have brilliant wisdom regarding interacting with the VC community.

  • Lloyd Fassett

    I think you need to weave in the idea of ‘value’. People want more of what they currently get for less. Just creating something that people want is unsustainable if your costs are higher than your income.

  • Rick Mason

    Tony,

    You’re wrong about MySpace, it was built using Coldfusion. They built on the pre java version 5. They switched to BlueDragon which is a CF clone that compiles to dotNet instead of java. I am told they are slowly migrating to asp.net but large portions are still pure CFML ;

  • http://how2livelife.blogspot.com NewWorldOrder

    Nice post. I think there are no real rules. Nobody thought they needed PCs until they became available. Also, everybody thought that Aeron chair were crap initial. I think, in general, there are no rules — you make it up as you go along. However, the “safest” path is to create stuff people want. The hard then becomes determining what people want.

    Perseverance is absolutely essential in just about any entrepreneurial endeavor. Good luck!

  • http://www.networkworld.com/community/stiennon Stiennon

    Great advice. While it may be straight forward to find common denominators amongst winning businesses and, for that matter, losers, I still think there are some flaws in the way most VCs approach business opportunities. They are all trying to bet on the next Google whereas there are many more opportunities to bet on the next Chrysler, NYTimes, or housing development.

    You would think that offering a consistent return on investment of 30-40% would be pretty attractive to the limited partners in VC funds. These types of returns are easy to achieve without hitting the ball out of the park. I think the problem is that VC’s assume they will get one Google for every 9 Webvans. They should shoot for 10 thriving businesses for ten investments.

    -Stiennon

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Ben Yoskovitz

    Advice is always given from the context of the person giving it, not the person receiving it – and there’s a good chance the context of the person receiving it is different. But that’s OK, because as you point out, it’s worth having the information at-hand and leveraging it when appropriate.

    Having said that, I think a lot of interpretation is at play as well, when receiving advice. For example, I haven’t read the posts you link to in your first two points, but I don’t see those as polar opposites:

    * “Release early & listen to users” vs. “Ignore users and build for yourself”

    – To me, these are one and the same. Not taken to their extremes, but I think we see a lot of success stories where people DID release early, DID listen to their users, but ALSO built applications THEY wanted to use. And that’s really the takeaway from that second piece of advice — you can’t ignore users, they’re the people paying. Ignoring them is silly. But you should build something you want to use, and avoid the trap of throwing in every feature your customers want (cause they’ll almost always want -everything-).

    * “Seek out Press early and often” VS “go guerrilla until you have a brilliant product“

    Again, I didn’t read the two posts you link to, but to me you can do both. The press can be a guerrilla strategy in the sense that you don’t have to go out and spend big dollars on marketing campaigns. PR is great. It’s typically inexpensive, it can build you up as a domain expert, and generate results. And in my experience it’s the gift that keeps on giving, because once your name pops into a few articles about X and Y, people keep coming back to you asking for information on X and Y.

    One guerrilla strategy is to start blogging even before you launch. Most startup founders do that. But that’s also a great way of getting press; the press are looking for “expert” bloggers, and the more popular your blog becomes, the more likely you’ll get press opportunities. So I don’t see those points as polar opposites.

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  • http://www.koove.com Eric Willis

    Great advice

  • http://www.cre8buzz.com Antman

    Serendipitious! Timin’ couldn’t have been better to read. Know the feeling of bein’ on the “verge of death” far too well. Thanks money, when we come out the other end, I’ll be sure to reference this article as inspiration. Thanks Tony.

    Peace!

  • http://www.workpost.com Workpost

    Great article and comments. Everybody has their own road to travel (and it may not lead to the promised land) but the road is long and you can never give up. I will think of this advice as I work to make my own site more useful.

  • http://www.misanthropytoday.com Richard

    here’s a nice startup list to add to the soup… 700 some diggs..

    http://www.misanthropytoday.com/2008/03/10/rules-for-startups/

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