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:
- “Release Early and Listen to your users” VS “Ignore your Users and Build for Yourself.”
- “Seek out Press early and often” VS “go guerrilla until you have a brilliant product“
- “Failure to scale kills” VS “you can have tons of downtime and still grow like gangbusters“
- “Take more funding than you need” VS “overfunding kills“
- “Viral always wins” VS Google Search (which is not REMOTELY viral).
- “Design is critical for user engagement and trust” VS um…. MySpace. CraigsList. Google.
- “Starting a business on Microsoft technologies is ridiculous” VS MySpace or PlentyOfFish (2-3 people, classic ASP, a few MS servers = millions of bucks)
- Headcount! VS Keeping your team lean to force scarcity (CraigsList and 37Signals)
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.
- 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)
- 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?