Startups in 13 sentences

Startups in 13 Sentences
February 2009

One of the things I always tell startups is a principle I learned from Paul Buchheit: it’s better to make a few people really happy than to make a lot of people semi-happy. I was saying recently to a reporter that if I could only tell startups 10 things, this would be one of them. Then I thought: what would the other 9 be?

When I made the list there turned out to be 13:

1. Pick good cofounders.

Cofounders are for a startup what location is for real estate. You can change anything about a house except where it is. In a startup you can change your idea easily, but changing your cofounders is hard. [1] And the success of a startup is almost always a function of its founders.

2. Launch fast.

The reason to launch fast is not so much that it’s critical to get your product to market early, but that you haven’t really started working on it till you’ve launched. Launching teaches you

what you should have been building. Till you know that you’re wasting your time. So the main value of whatever you launch with is as a pretext for engaging users.

3. Let your idea evolve.

This is the second half of launching fast. Launch fast and iterate. It’s a big mistake to treat a startup as if it were merely a matter of implementing some brilliant initial idea. As in an essay, most of the ideas appear in the implementing.

4. Understand your users.

You can envision the wealth created by a startup as a rectangle, where one side is the number of users and the other is how much you improve their lives. [2] The second dimension is the one you have most control over. And indeed, the growth in the first will be driven by how well you do in the second. As in science, the hard part is not answering questions but asking them: the hard part is seeing something new that users lack. The better you understand them the better the odds of doing that. That’s why so many successful startups make something the founders needed.

5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.

Ideally you want to make large numbers of users love you, but you can’t expect to hit that right away. Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first. It’s easier to expand userwise than satisfactionwise. And perhaps more importantly, it’s harder to lie to yourself. If you think you’re 85% of the way to a great product, how do you know it’s not 70%? Or 10%? Whereas it’s easy to know how many users you have.

6. Offer surprisingly good customer service.

Customers are used to being maltreated. Most of the companies they deal with are quasi-monopolies that get away with atrocious customer service. Your own ideas about what’s possible have been unconsciously lowered by such experiences. Try making your customer service not merely good, but surprisingly good. Go out of your way to make people happy. They’ll be overwhelmed; you’ll see. In the earliest stages of a startup, it pays to offer customer service on a level that wouldn’t scale, because it’s a way of learning about your users.

7. You make what you measure.

I learned this one from Joe Kraus. [3] Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it. If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You’ll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down.



Startups in 13 sentences