Most entrepreneurial retrospectives are written at the point of success. Once you’ve made your millions it’s easy to be introspective and say where you went wrong. I haven’t got to that point yet, but I will. I’m one year into what I hope I’ll spend the rest of my life doing. If you’re about to jump off the same cliff then maybe you’ll find some of this useful?
Don’t Give Yourself A Year
My wife and I agreed to a one year runway in which to find a repeatable business model. This is far, far too long. In hindsight, we should have said three months or even just one. Given a whole year to do something, you’ll spend most of it doing the wrong things. The fear of failure is a very powerful driver. That’s why people study harder the nearer they get to an exam. Without that imminent risk of having to pack your bags and go home, you won’t push yourself enough.
Don’t Go It Alone
Ideally, this would be a co-founder – someone equally invested and equally in fear of the game ending. But there are plenty of other alternatives if one can’t be found. I have two sets of people that I rely on. Firstly, a number of superb, brutally honest advisers and, secondly, my wife. You need people, who you respect, who can beat you up on a regular basis and really challenge you about what you’ve done today / this week / this month. The reason you need these extra people is covered next …
Recognise Your Abilities
Your technical, sales, business or marketing abilities are as nothing compared to your ability to lie to yourself. Left to your own devices you will convince yourself that:
- users need that feature
- it’s not ready to ship yet
- it’s OK to code all day
- you need to build a platform for X
You cannot see the lies you tell yourself. Let someone you trust help you recognise that.
Assumptions Will Kill You
The reason Lean Startup is so essential is that it requires you to confirm your assumptions. Not with yourself or someone on your team, but with your customer – someone who might actually pay money for your product or service. Here’s one of my biggest assumptions:
Early on I had a prototype application that, essentially, worked. Trouble was, it was slow and wouldn’t scale to more than a few users. I assumed that nobody would pay for that version because it wasn’t quick enough. What an idiot. I never tested whether people would be happy for the product to email them when complete or even if it ran overnight. Bottom line: I could have had revenue from as early as February.
The Wrong Location Can Be Hard
We don’t all live in The Valley or within walking distance of Silicon Roundabout. In today’s global economy it’s always been possible to work remotely and run a successful business. The problem with start-ups is that you need a network around you. Companies are formed, founders introduced, investors intrigued and future users ignited by face-to-face meetings. I live just outside Cambridge which holds an admirable number of events. However, London is where it’s at and it costs me £50 every time I ‘pop’ in. This is not impossible, but it soon ads up. So, if you can, consider making your geography easier.
Know Who Your Customers Are
I have spent a lot of time talking with the wrong people over the past year. This is in no way disrespectful to them, it’s just that they weren’t my customer. For far too long I concentrated on the technology of my product and spoke with those who understood it. This was wrong. Figure out who your customers are as early as possible and spend a disproportionate amount of time engaging them.
I hope this goes without saying? However, it took me a long time to re-jig my working hours for maximum effect. For months I struggled to work evenings before I made a change. We have two young boys and, after stories and bedtime talks, I was falling asleep myself. Now I start work at 5am every day. It means my evenings are shorter and I watch significantly less TV but, hey, make the choice. You can, genuinely, work 14+ hours a day for prolonged periods.
Give Something Back
I was surprised how early it’s possible to give something back to the startup community. Part of being an entrepreneur is learning to learn fast. Within weeks I had some knowledge that some of my peers didn’t. Because we’re all trying to do something unique we all have experiences we can share – almost immediately. I mentored at Startup Weekend Cambridge in March, less than three months into my free-fall, and it was a hugely rewarding weekend. BTW: you’ll find that you can critique someone else’s ideas much more honestly than you can your own!
Attend Lean Startup Machine
Seriously. Go. Now.
I went to the London boot camp in September and the results were astonishing. Being forced to step far outside your comfort zone for 2 days was the best money I’ve spent all year. After the event I came away with a defined, validated customer segment and problem. The next London event is on February 3rd 2012 – you won’t spend better money.
Finally, I look forward to meeting more of you in 2012. I love being part of this pay it forward community and I believe that what we’re all attempting to do can have profound effects on, well, everything.