If you are an early-stage founder, and looking for some dos and donts. This blog post is for you.
I have launched two startups in my entrepreneurial career so far. I have had 1 failed startup and another one is doing ‘Okay’ in revenues.
Now as a Head of Growth at another startup, I grew the company profitably as a bootstrapped startup at 40% month-over-month in revenues in the last 13 months, I think I learnt a lesson or two about it. Therefore, I am sharing some insights with you.
Okay, l'll be honest. I was a wantrepreneur. I fancied companies going public, and people minting money and showing it off on TechCrunch.
I thought entrepreneurship was about doing good business, something in tech, innovating, and then getting a big pay off day.
Shoot! But I was wrong.
Actually, entrepreneurship is about solving problems. It’s about the journey, not the end.
The idea of starting an independent business and being your own boss, and has a sort of glory associated with, were the reasons I wanted to start my own thing.
The fact that you have no boss -- it’s a lie. You always have investors or customers to answer to.
Back when I was starting, I had an idea related to crowd shipping, like an Uber for long distance awkward items. You can look at this video to understand my first idea more.
I saw Uber and AirBnB doing well and figured this was my chance. The timing felt right and crowd shipping was in demand. I did my research and I felt like this would hit off. But it didn’t. It failed.
I was in a market that was not in English, it was German. I didn’t know the real behavior, how it is gonna turn out.
Anyway, starting a startup is like playing a new game. You probably suck at it the first time, and then each time you’ll progress. Very few people make it in the first go (this is a reality).
Similarly, an artist’s first drawing is terrible, a writer’s first story is subpar, a software engineer’s first code is full of bugs. No one hits the jackpot on their first try, not if it's worthwhile. So don’t be too hard on yourself.
You should always be open to learning and growing with the focus getting better at it..
It’s about the journey, not the end (some famous guy must have said it, I don't remember who).
1) Passion-founder fit, then everything else
Entrepreneurship is all about passion. You need to love solving problems, and you need to love what you do.
I’ll give my own example: one of my startups (ECOMPLY) was about GDPR Compliance. It should have hit off. I had found a market, investment and attention. But what I didn’t have was passion for privacy. I had been so focused on the idea of a startup that I didn’t think about why I’m doing what I’m doing. So I had to let that go too.
Follow your passion. Not someone else’s.
There are 3 steps you need to focus on when deciding your startup product:
- How well does your startup fit YOU? The better it fits, the more likely you are to succeed.
- How well does your startup satisfy a strong market demand? This is the first step to building a successful venture in which the company meets early adopters, gathers feedback and gauges interest in its product.
- When you find a channel that consistently brings leads for you. You can find more info about product-channel here.
A good example of product-founder-passion fit is below by Sahil (who is a successful founder of Gumroad).
2) Product validation
Most people, first and second time founders, often make this mistake and I did it too. I didn’t validate my product enough.
To validate your product is to provide assurance that it meets the needs of the customers and other stakeholders. It often involves acceptance and suitability with external customers. You need to talk to people, you need to listen to the market. This should be your priority.
It’s as simple as making a landing page and using it to talk to people. These people are potential customers and they are how you’re going to validate your business.
Sometimes, you can validate with a simple slide deck, showing ads, sending cold emails, and much more.
I validated my idea by having a Facebook group for my crowdshipping idea, and it was still not enough. I had 600+ members in it and still it was not enough.
Editor's note: real validation is money, nothing else. If someone is willing to pay you money for what you built, that’s enough, and if it is repeatable. It is validated.
3) Make it mean something
Don’t go after fads. Just don’t do it.
Let's take ECOMPLY as an example again. It’s still going decently but we started pursuing GDPR because it was in back then. We focused our energy on the idea but didn’t think about whether there was an actual need for it.
Even if it’s popular, make your product stand out by attaching a meaning to it. Things with meaning are earnest and being earnest goes a long way in business.
ECOMPLY is not a bad business, it was simply too reliant on external triggers like fines by authorities or complaints by an end user.
Don’t go after recent fad like AI or Blockchain, focus on the problem on how to solve it.
4) Do things that don’t scale initially (as Paul Graham said)
This is the most common issue I find, especially when I consult my prospects at Userpilot. Many entrepreneurs are thinking about scaling onboarding, sales, email automation, and much more. Sure, get those startup programs but do not think about scaling right away until things are getting out of control.
Yazan, Userpilot’s co-founder, he did early sales himself with me for at least first 400 demos. We learned so much from our early users. Similarly, Superhuman is onboarding users personally, to learn from their users. Focus on learning. Doing things that don’t scale is the most beautiful part of startup phases.
Don’t start sending bulk emails. The only thing that should be automatic is your user onboarding emails. Everything else, you need to put manual effort in. Talk to your users, give your users the founder’s attention.
Some resources on doing things that don’t scale:
5) Have monetary goals early on
The best way to understand if your users are here to stay is if they start paying you.
If your product is a B2C one, then focus on usability; how many people are using how many features? This gives you information whether people are actually interested in using your product or services.
If you are a B2B product, focus on getting 1st customer, then 10, and then 100. Have a monthly/quarterly goal.
Your first fee can be a small one but do make sure to charge them. A lot of people don’t ask for money upfront when they really should. If your user finds your product valuable, they will pay for it.
Having monetary goals will keep you focused.
6) Be the first salesperson of your company
Talk to people. It does not matter if you are a developer or business person. You are the first salesperson in your company.
You are the best person to talk to your early customers. You know the market well, you are a specialist, and you know the best solution.
Many engineering focused founders are hesitant, and relying too much on external consultants to do this job. Do not give this job to someone until 25+ paid recurring customers. It’s more about customer development as a product manager than sales itself.
Referring to earlier Yazan’s sales example, remember, this early sales gave Yazan so much insight to know what to build next.
7) No time for NDAs
You have an idea, not a rocket ship. I consult many founders, and sometimes they ask me for an NDA. Sometimes it makes sense, but most of the time, it does not. Asking for NDA for a consultant who is there to help you, is a rookie mistake.
At least don’t ask for NDAs in front of investors. You’ll be considered as an amateur to them.
8) Early-stage agreements
Don’t have NDAs, but do have some form of written founders agreement.
Make sure to discuss founder equity early on.
Different teams have different ways of splitting the equity: some do it up-front, others wait to get to know each other; some go through a careful negotiation process, others are quick to shake hands and get on with it. See what works for you and your team, but make sure to do it. Know your worth and write it down.
More on founders agreement:
9) Have a balanced set of skills
Not everyone can be an all-rounder and that’s okay. So look for people who can supplement the team.
Find a balance in your co-founder team and decide on a combo that works. Look for people who share the same passion and vision. Get some people with excellent technical skills on board. Get people who are experts in your topic. Get people who have a knack for excellent business.
I have learned over time, people who are experienced, passionate, technically well-equipped, and focused, are better to have in a startup than a college grad who is going to learn everything but does not have experience yet.
Plus, it is always great to have someone you can share your work + emotional burden when things get tough. You can motivate each other well.
10) Start blogging and get your name out there
If you are a product/market specialist, have a hypothesis, and some results/data to back. Start - Blogging - ASAP.
This is your idea and it's your responsibility to be an expert in its domain. Once you have some validation in the market, it's a good idea to start blogging. Make sure to invest in various kinds of SEO; that gets your name out there, your business’s name out there and is terrific, long-lasting marketing for you in the future. It takes 12 months to get there.
If writing is not for you, start a podcast! Or do podcast tours (be a guest in several podcasts where your market hangs out), let the word out. The internet is full of multimedia possibilities for you to take and make use of.
Blogging will give you alpha, and beta users. It will give you organic traction. It will give you authority on the topic.
Rand fishkin got Moz to a multi-million dollar business just by blogging initially, and people started recognizing his authority on the topic and buying his software later.
I'm sharing some good resources for you start learning blogging for free and go for it:
- You can read my in-depth article. on SaaS SEO to learn more: The Secret SEO Formula To Get Thousands of Free Leads for SaaS Companies in 2020
- Learn content marketing and writing from Animalz's blog and podcast
- SEO skills from Ahref's blog and Youtube Channel
11) Do yourself first before delegating
It's similar to point 6 but more than sales. You want to have more leads of course, but you need to work for it. Don’t rely on others, like agencies, to market for you, to run Facebook ads for you or to write content for you. Learn what is best for you and how to do it yourself. Once you figure it out, then you can impart that knowledge too. Knowledge is best when it's shared.
Sure, you can get some help and others might know more than you. But you in terms of sales, support, and success. You need to do yourself first to know the process, FAQs and many things before you give it to a new hire.
12) Landing pages are important
Have a landing page/website from day 1.
I cannot stress this enough. We’ve talked about reaching out to people, marketing yourself and what not, but landing pages are that one platform that will bring interested people to you.
Why are landing pages important? When you launch a startup, sometimes people don’t get what you say of what you are. You need to show it. Your website is your first salesperson, let them be curious and read it.
Focus on creating websites, use-cases, features, and pricing pages. Let people have some sort of context.
On top of it, track it with Google analytics. They say, what gets tracked, gets managed. You need to track how people are behaving with your website. Some things they won’t say but do it. You need to have wisdom to understand the difference.
13) Focus -- Probably you’ll do it anyway
There is a thing in startups called -- "Shiny object syndrome"
At its core, shiny object syndrome (SOS) is a disease of distraction, and it affects entrepreneurs specifically because of the qualities that make them unique. Entrepreneurs tend to be highly motivated. They crave new technology and new developments. And they aren’t afraid to start new projects and create new things.
Ordinarily, these are great characteristics, but when SOS sets in, it forces you to chase project after project, and change after change, never settling with one option.
It’s called shiny object syndrome because it’s the entrepreneurial equivalent of a small child chasing after shiny objects. Once they get there and see what the object is, they immediately lose interest and start chasing the next thing. For entrepreneurs, rather than literal shiny objects, SBOs may be business objectives, marketing strategies, clients or even other business ventures.
Shiny object syndrome will get you, and perhaps you might want to pivot to something else. Don’t fall for that trap. If something is working, and you’re doing good. Focus on solving the exact same problem until you have completely exhausted that market.
For example, at Userpilot, we had a choice to go to employee onboarding use-case (WalkMe our competitor is cashing it). It’s a great use-case, and has more money. But we didn’t go after it -- why? Because we believe software inherently and intuitively should help the employee onboard. You shouldn’t need something like WalkMe at all. There are legacy software that need it, but those will die. Hence, in future, there will be less of this use-case.
How did it impact our growth? We achieved 40% MoM growth by focusing on SaaS market than employee onboarding. Perhaps, it is working for us.
You know I would have made both my ex-startups work. People made it work. I didn’t. Why? I was not consistent enough. I didn’t fight hard enough to solve the problems. It’s the perseverance.
You keep pivoting until you hit the product-market fit.
Just keep trying. If you truly believe in your idea, persist and don’t let it go. I would have probably found success in my first startup as well had I stuck to it and kept working on it. Entrepreneurship is risky but it can become a worthwhile risk. I found a job back then so I gave that risk up for stability.
Think about our idols, the people we look up to when we enter this business. The founders of Webflow invested in their idea for a whole 15 years before it took off and became the big name it is today. These things take time, patience, hard work and lots and lots of dedication. There is no such thing as overnight success.
Make sure to listen to people and take feedback, even if it’s negative. All kinds of criticism can be turned into constructive criticism. Things will go wrong and that’s okay. Take problems in stride and solve them as you go.
Did you learn something today? Then try to actively follow it and share this knowledge so that the next entrepreneurs don’t make the same mistakes!
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