Starting Up Posts

I recently answered this question on a Q&A site: “What generic first order principles should a new technology project or startup follow?” But I used the politician’s prerogative to give an answer to the question I wish he had asked:

  1. Move to Silicon Valley.
  2. Pick a great co-founder with complementary skills.
  3. Select people with intelligence, energy and integrity.
  4. Pick a big market.
  5. Develop the minimum viable product to test your hypothesis about what the market needs. Preferably it’s a product that you’re passionate about since you’ll need to stick with it to an irrational point (the Internet especially is efficiently arbitraged).
  6. Iterate like crazy until you find product/market fit. If you don’t find it, do not raise money, do not pass go. Start over.
  7. If you have found product/market fit, raise money from high-quality people that you trust. Keep control.
  8. Scale. Hang on.

We’ve updated the presentation in A quick and dirty guide to starting up. The new presentation includes the notes that accompany each slide.

I’ve also included the new presentation below. Watch it in full screen mode for maximum pleasure. The full screen button is at the bottom right of the embed and it looks like this: .

(Slides: A Quick And Dirty Guide To Starting Up (pdf))

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the presentation:

“We are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” – Pogo

The most important thing: idea intelligence connections experience determination.

Ideas, and therefore NDAs, are worthless.

“… as in all matters of the heart, don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs, on picking co-founders

Co-founders are the biggest failure mode for startups.

“If you are facing in the right direction, keep walking.” – Buddha, on focusing your time in a startup

Markets are relatively efficient, so your first product is probably wrong.

Naval recently presented A Quick and Dirty Guide to Starting Up to Girls In Tech:

(Slides: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Starting Up (pdf))

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the presentation:

“We are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” – Pogo

The most important thing: idea intelligence connections experience determination.

Ideas, and therefore NDAs, are worthless.

“… as in all matters of the heart, don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs, on picking co-founders

Co-founders are the biggest failure mode for startups.

“If you are facing in the right direction, keep walking.” – Buddha, on focusing your time in a startup

Markets are relatively efficient, so your first product is probably wrong.

If there’s demand, we’ll turn this into a slidecast.

There were a lot of good comments on yesterday’s Do you know any idea investors? post. Here’s a few of them.

Michael Staton says:

“I’d say if you can’t bother to build it yourself, get potential customers lined up, build revenue on an easier offshoot, or convince someone else to build it in their spare time, then you should reevaluate whether you are an entrepreneur.”

Luca says:

“The idea is the easy part. If you are a first-time entrepreneur, try scaling down your concept to something whose value you can prove with friends & family money, then go to professional investors. If your idea does not lend itself to such an approach, try your hand first with something you can bootstrap.”

Ben says:

“An idea has a dollar value of $0. If you don’t believe in the idea enough to commit your cash/sweat equity to build it or a version of it to show it can work, why should friends, fools and family?”

A reader asks:

“I’m an entrepreneur looking for seed investment. All I have right now is an idea and a pitch. I’m presently pitching friends and family and it has been very positive. Do you know any other idea investors I should approach?”

Larry and Sergey had a product and traction before they got their first check from an angel. Investors want to see products and preferably traction unless you already have a significant track record. But,

If you only have an idea.

If you have no traction, track record, or product—if you have nothing but an idea for a product in a large market, the only people who will meet you are:

  1. Family and Relationship Investors: People who already know you and are willing to bet on you, based on your history together. They’re not betting on the company, they’re betting on you. They wouldn’t invest in the company if you were replaced by someone who was equally effective. Todd Vernon calls these people family and relationship investors.
  2. Idea Investors: People who believe there’s a big opportunity to serve the customer because they understand the customer as well as you do. Perhaps they’ve noticed the same opportunity as you but they haven’t done anything about it.
  3. Once Removed Investors: These investors trust or regularly co-invest with one of your family, relationship, or idea investors.

idea.jpgThese investors sometimes have little to no experience investing in companies, but that is not an insurmountable hurdle. You will need traction, a track record, or a product to get meetings with other traditional seed stage investors.

In general, the more you need money, the less likely you are to get it. But making something out of nothing is what entrepreneurs do.

Another option: Cold call funds.

There are a few funds like Y Combinator, Seedcamp, and TechStars who will look at applications from anybody doing anything. But you will probably need traction, a track record, or a compelling product to capture their interest—ideas need not apply.

Salesmen are an exception.

Salesmen are good at getting people to comply with their wishes. That’s what it means to be a salesman. Great salesmen can get meetings and raise money with just a large market and an idea (and maybe a sprinkling of track record).

Also read the exceptional comments to this post: Ideas need not apply.

Mike Cassidy‘s talk on building companies fast is a must-read for all entrepreneurs:

(The slides are here if you don’t see them embedded above.)

Mike founded Stylus Innovation (sold 2 years after launch for $13M), Direct Hit (sold 500 days after launch for $500M), and Xfire (sold 2 years after launch for $110M). Mike is currently the CEO of travel guide and tour review site Ruba.

cassidy.jpgI originally saw Mike’s talk at Dave McClure’s Startup2Startup. The audio from that talk is not available, so I pieced together some clips of Mike on Tim Ferriss’ Art of Speed panel at SXSW: Mike on the Art of Speed (mp3).

You’ll learn a lot more from the slides if you listen to the audio too.

“I kept my day job for over six years while working mornings, nights, and weekends to create Dilbert.”

Scott Adams

[Ed: I enjoyed Tony Wright's contrarian article, Half-Assed Startup, when I first read it on his excellent blog. Tony, a founder of RescueTime (Y Combinator), argues that you can start a company while you're otherwise employed. And he explains how to do it. Tony kindly agreed to re-publish his article on Venture Hacks. Take it away Tony.]

tony-wright.jpgI’ve done two part-time-to-full-time startups. One was acquired by Jobster. The second startup is RescueTime—currently a Y Combinator funded company—cross your fingers.

In the long run, I think Paul Graham has it right in How Not to Die—you can’t half-ass a startup:

“The number one thing not to do is other things. If you find yourself saying a sentence that ends with “but we’re going to keep working on the startup,” you are in big trouble. Bob’s going to grad school, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. We’re moving back to Minnesota, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. We’re taking on some consulting projects, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. You may as well just translate these to “we’re giving up on the startup, but we’re not willing to admit that to ourselves,” because that’s what it means most of the time. A startup is so hard that working on it can’t be preceded by “but.””

In the beginning, however, it’s not always practical to dive in full-time. And when your idea is off-the-wall and easy to prototype, it’s smart to whip something out just to see if it’s as cool as you think it might be—before you take the full-time plunge.

So if you’re too poor or too unsure to do the right thing for your business and dive in full-time, here are a few things that seemed to work for us when we did it part-time:

  1. You need a co-founder and some cheerleaders. If you can’t find two or three friends who are really excited to be beta testers for your product, ponder changing your direction. In a part-time effort, a co-founder is essential to keeping you on-track and working. At some point, you’ll hit a motivation wall… but if you have a partner who is depending on you, you will find a way past that. If you don’t have a partner, you’ll often lose interest and find something else to entertain you.
  2. Pick a day or two per week where you always work, ideally in the same room as your co-founders. Always, no exceptions. We worked one weekday evening and one weekend day. That doesn’t mean we weren’t working other days, but keeping a fixed schedule helps you through the phases of the project that might not be so fun.
  3. Have a boat-burning target. What will it take for everyone to dive in full-time? 5,000 active users? 10,000 uniques a week? Funding? The target should be a shared understanding. You don’t want one founder who is ready to go full-time while the other has reservations. This is easy to gloss over, but you should really nail it down. I’ve lost two co-founders who weren’t ready to dive in full time when I was. It wasn’t fair to them and it wasn’t fair to me.
  4. Pick an idea that is tractable. Every startup is a hypothesis. If your hypothesis is, “we can build a better web-based chat client”, that’s something you could test quickly. If your hypothesis is “we can build a car that runs on lemonade”, that’s just not going to work as a part-time effort. The scarcity of available time should force you to distill the idea to the absolute minimum that is necessary to test the hypothesis. No extraneous features!
  5. Understand that your first version is probably going to suck. Read David Rusenko’s article, The importance of launching early and staying alive—David is a founder of Weebly (Y Combinator). It’s a long road. My second startup was a ridiculous fluke—it was acquired after 2 months. 99% of overnight successes were slogging in the muck for 5 years before the night in question. Be prepared for a long journey and be surprised if your startup is an immediate hit. So with your first version, look for the tiny little flicker than you might be onto something. And use it to motivate you to make it better. Every week, make it better than last week and see if that flicker of light can be fanned into a tiny flame.
  6. If you’re going to screw off at work (everyone does), spend it getting smarter about the stuff you don’t know. If you’re a coder, read a few design or usability blogs. Read up on what motivates angel investors. Research competitors and write down what they do well. Get brilliant at SEO (it’s not hard). Write a lot more (blogging helps). Think about virality and research the heck out of it. That said, be aware of the fuzzy line between using your cool-down time at work for your startup and stealing time or resources from your employer. If you’re paid to do a job, you need to do it.
  7. Be sure you own your startup. I’ve had the fortune of working in companies where there was very clear ownership of “after hours” work. If ownership of your personal intellectual property is not clear, do not rely on the good will of your employer. Greed can do funny things to people, even if they were initially big supporters of your startup. (Thanks to Ivan from TipJoy for this final suggestion.)

In short, you want to prove whatever you need to prove as quickly as possible, so you can dive in full-time. Near as I can tell, there are plenty of startups that have started as “hobbies”, but you need to take it out of that phase as soon as you can. There is nothing that drives a team forward like the fear of public failure, debt, and starvation. Leap off the cliff and start building the airplane on the way down—you might be surprised with what you can pull off.