daily articles for founders

Here are 10 quality posts from the Founder's Library:

Hand to wannabe "product guys"  

Is a potential business cofounder pitching himself as a "product guy", without any evidence that he can do it? Aaron Harris has an answer for them:

The first, and I suppose seemingly easiest claim and means to justify your place in the startup world, as someone who has no experience, is to call yourself a product person.

But that claim generally comes with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to do product. It is not code for a person who doesn’t really know how to do anything but thinks he can boss engineers around. It doesn’t refer to marketing guys who had an idea. Understanding what it means to drive a product means understanding the full scope of the vision of your company. It means understanding your engineering team, their capabilities, and their priorities. It means understanding what your next move is, and what your 6th move is from every angle.

Aaron also proposes a development plan for people who want to become product guys in reality as well as in title, which involves both practicing the craft and reading some product development classics.

Coding isn’t easy, but it is learnable  

Pamela Fox, from Khan Academy:

These campaigns are telling students that “coding is easy,” and then they’re trying it, and now not only are they struggling to learn something new, but they’re feeling bad about themselves because hey, “coding is easy”, they shouldn’t be struggling.

Nobody should feel bad for struggling to learn something new. They should be commended for trying to learn something new at all.

It's interesting that most founders are brazen and keen to tackle a load of business challenges, figuring things out and learning new skills - but we often put "the technical stuff" in another category. Then, the only solution seems to be finding a tech cofounder.

I was introducing JavaScript to a few Roma kids the other day, and they asked “will this be easy or hard?” I had to fight my first instinct to make say easy, but I still wanted it to feel achievable. ” My answer: “It’s gonna be hard, but you’re smart.” They got mentally prepared — one step closer to being self-educating hackers, rather than “learning to code.”

Coding is getting easier to teach and learn, due to recent pedagogical advances. It's still not easy though - the question is, why is this stopping you?

Visual dashboards for startups  

If you have an office and several people on your startup, having an "always on" dashboard that shows the state of the business can be a great tool to motivate people to work on the right things (although, don't mistake it for actionable metrics - unless, that is, you put up the results of your ongoing tests on your dashboard.

I think it’s vital to have a visible, clearly accessible (and always-on) display machine in your office so that all members of the team can see metrics. We have a Mac Mini running two 24” displays constantly, and I’d like us to go bigger soon. Total cost, about $1,000 (and it functions as our stereo via AirFoil). The reason it’s important to share visibly is that you should be seeing the data not just when you’re thinking of it, but all the time.

This solid article by Robert Laing of MyGengo oulines a number of approaches, tools, pieces of advice, and other miscellanies of use when putting together a visual dashboard for your startup team.

Hair of the dog  

Lucas Rayala:

And I’m closing down my startup.

I need to go for a run. I need to clean up my desktop and emails. I need to hire a tax attorney to straighten the jumble of receipts and ticket sales, so the government understands that Altsie was definitely a net loss.

I need to send my last checks to my last distributors and thank them for their trust. I need to throw a party and tell my friends I appreciate their support. I need to find my friends again and thank them for sticking by me. I need to call my filmmakers and thank them for taking a chance with me. I need to take my wife to dinner and thank her for her love.

This is what you do when you close down your business on a Thursday night.

Speaking from personal experience, the end of a startup is tough. It's not just the mechanical act of winding a company down. Throwing away your dreams is painful. For some, if they really invested everything into that one venture, and have nothing left to take the next swing, then it can be the end of the road.

However, I really do believe that entrepreneurship is a career, not a one-shot thing. If you play your cards right and don't throw everything at your first idea (especially since it's very likely not to work out), you can just keep taking swings at it until you get it.

And, with businesses as with many other things in life, there's no better cure for a heart-broken ending than a fresh beginning.

Giving discounts impacts your brand  

James Nichols makes the case against giving discounts willy-nilly:

At its core, a brand's value is represented by the premium a company can charge versus its competitors. If I can get millions of people to pay $5.99 for Kellogg's Corn Flakes versus $2.99 for generic corn flakes, that's a strong brand. If I have to pass out $2.50 coupons to get folks to buy them, that's a weak brand. And if people get used to receiving $2.50 coupons all the time, they'll ultimately think less of the coupons.

It's a fair point, although this later statement doesn't ring true:

(...) he told me that they were in the business of giving consumers what they want. OK fine, but the consumers aren't actually paying his salary. Brands are.

Excuse my cynicism, but what the consumer wants is everything for free.

Even consumers don't want everything for free (in the B2B world, that's even more the case). They want good value, certainly, but they're willing to pay for quality, convenience, etc.

Some consumers do want everything for free - these are the people that get marketed expensive financial products like credit cards that give a sign-on bonus, payday loans, lotteries, and other similar dubious products. See for yourself (look at the adverts on the right hand side).

If you build a product specifically for that crowd, though, you've got bigger problems than giving away too many coupons.

How to write good startup advice articles

Startup articles, much like some other content niches, have a tendency to be addictive but content-free. Everyone is guilty of doing it. I've done it too. I don't think there are any regular authors of startup-related article who don't sometimes produce articles which are perhaps entertaining, perhaps even enticing, but which add nothing to the reader's life.

Those articles are, by definition, a waste of time.

Since I spend a lot of time both reading and writing startup articles, here are some key points to bear in mind if you prefer to write articles of substance, which others can learn from and apply in their own startups.

1. Avoid over-generalisation

The most common flaw of pointless startup articles is over-generalisation. Entrepreneur brains are by necessity obsessed with finding patterns in chaos. That's what we do every day. So it's natural that we see many patterns that look like they could be general rules.

A wise man once said, "the plural of anecdotes is not data". When writing a startup article, be very careful not to extrapolate from one experience that happened to you to a general rule for startup. "X startup mistakes" or "Y startup tips" like this one (written by me a long time ago) are basically collections of generalisations based on personal experiences. Some of your points may even be correct by sheer luck, but the short-form nature of a list of tips means that even those don't have the necessary context to be really useful.

2. When talking about personal experience, include context

Some parts of running a startup can be analysed scientifically, but a great many cannot. You cannot a/b test your ability to close a sale in person. You cannot a/b test your pitch to Paul Graham on YC interview day. Each sale, each pitch, anything involving person-to-person contact is unique. Some general principles may apply, but unless you repeat the process a lot (e.g. you're a sales person who has pitched 500 enterprise customers), it is very hard to come up with any kind of reliable "law".

Even things that don't directly involve people are often contextual. "The best technology to build your statup" depends on the kind of business you're building, the sorts of products you're considering, available talent nearby, your long-term objectives, your budget, and so on. And it will change year by year, if not month by month.

That's fine. Not every post needs to be declaring a new law of nature. But when you post something which is a personal experience or opinion offered up to others, be sure to include as much context as possible. Otherwise, people will not be able to properly make use of it, because they won't know if it might apply to their specific context.

"This is what you must do so that your startup can be successful" is useless. "This is what I did and it helped my startup succeed" is marginally less useless. "In this context, I did that and I believe it helped my startup be successful" is potentially useful.

You don't need to preface every sentence with "I believe" or "in my experience" - doing that will make your writing weak. But make sure you give the right amount of context, and qualify those of your statements which are really just wild guesses rather than tried and tested theories.

3. Avoid posts with no actionable points

Posts like this or this, listing attributes of successful entrepreneurs, or programmers, or businesses, or whatevers, are not actionable. They're just entertainment - possibly even a damaging form of entertainment, since they contribute to the myth that successful entrepreneurs are heroes and goddesses that are out of the reach of the common man.

Whenever writing up advice for startups, ask yourself "what do I want readers to change about what they do after reading this?" If the answer is "nothing", your article is entertainment, not advice. If the answer is not "nothing", then make sure the advice is clear to the reader by the time they reach the end of your article (even if they skim!).

4. Be brief, but not too brief

Entrepreneurs are busy people. The ones who most need your advice are often juggling a full time job along with their startup. They don't have the time to read a 3,000 word rant in order to extract a couple of meaningful points. Be respectful of your readers and their limited time.

After you've written your article, but before you post it, ask yourself "is any part of this outside the scope of this article? is any part long and rambling? is there any section that I added just because I wanted to talk about it, rather than because it's useful?" Cut mercilessly.

At the same time, don't cut too much. Seth Godin's blog is a good example of advice that's been cut down so much that it becomes useless. Startup advice is only useful with context. If you cut the context out, you might as well not post the article. (of course, Seth's goal is probably not to post startup advice, but merely to maintain readership so he can sell his books)

If you just have too much content and all of it is relevant to your points, you're trying to make too many points. Break the article up into several articles in a series. As a bonus, this is said to be good for getting RSS subscribers...

5. Present your article properly

Presentation matters. If you wrap your life-changing, mind-expanding point in a badly formatted post on a generic wordpress (or posterous, or tumblr) blog, you are hurting your chances of making a positive difference. Make sure your article comes in a credible package.

Consider also the visual appearance of your article before you post it. It should be clear, at a glance, what the article is about. It should not look daunting, with huge paragraphs and no subtitles. It should be possible to skim it and still get the gist of it.

In conclusion

If you have advice that you'd like to share with the community (and many entrepreneurs do), try to follow these points when doing so:

  • Avoid over-generalisation so you don't give thoroughly incorrect advice by wild extrapolation
  • Include enough context for the reader to be able to decide whether this applies to their context
  • Avoid posts with no actionable points: they are just entertainment, not advice.
  • Be brief, but not too brief. Respect your readers' time, but include enough context to be useful.
  • Get the presentation right, so that people take your article seriously and can read it efficiently.

The 90/10 rule  

Vince Baskerville makes some good points and some not-so-good points:

When deciding on adding new features, take a moment to really think about what it will cost. Every feature has an associated price. One of the many things people hear me say is “What is the negative value?” Meaning, just because it seems to give a temporary gain, is it genuinely worth whatever loss over time?

This is certainly spot on. However...

(...) this is the basic concept behind the 90/10 rule. If you aren’t familiar, it is basically a concept that states on average, your user will spend 90% of their time using only 10% of your product. Only 10%. Think about some of your non-tech friends. How many of them continue to use a product like Microsoft Word, yet barely know how to actually do anything outside of the 10-15% range of what it could actually do? Now peer back at your tech. friends, what about products like Adobe Photoshop, or any plethora of computer software? Many software companies keep coming up with feature after feature for every new release, yet almost no-one actually uses them all (and I would put money on how this is a small minority), and frankly it just makes the programs unnecessarily more complex.

This is, unfortunately, a thorough misunderstanding of usage patterns.

Take Excel as an example, bloated software par excellence. Yes, each user uses maybe 5% of Excel. Power users perhaps use 10% of its capabilities. So, should Microsoft chop off 90% of Excel?

Absolutely not.

The fallacy of this 90/10 rule is that even though 90% of your users only use 10% of your product, they each use a different 10%. Every single feature in Excel is being used by someone. Most of them were paid for, directly or indirectly, by someone who really needed it. Cut a single feature of Excel, and a hundred people across investment bank front office departments will scream out in horror and refuse to upgrade.

Photoshop is another great example. Photoshop is a program with incredible depth. You can spend years learning to use Photoshop and still only use a small fraction of its features. But Photoshop is used for so many different things, that every one of these features is in fact being used. Cut a single one out, and Photoshop will lose sales - possibly a lot of sales. That's why they don't cut features.

On the good side, this cuts both ways. Any specific, niche group of users will only use 10% of the potential feature set. So you can focus on just those users, and build that feature set better than any other player on the market, and therefore capture that niche.

As software development gets continually cheaper, new niches become commercially viable all the time - and you don't need to build all of Photoshop to get them.

True ecosystems  

I somehow missed posting this last year, when it was published. An excellent article by our very own Salim Virani, on the topic of ecosystems.

Sal and the rest of the FounderCentric team spend a lot of time working with incubators, accelerators, governments, outreach teams at large companies, etc, and helping them develop their startup scenes. Their mission comes from the heart (they really care about helping startup founders), and they are, as far as I know, the best at it at this point, in Europe.

So their thoughts on the topic of how European ecosystems should develop are worth paying attention to. Here's one of the points that particularly stood out for me:

He leaves us with the final takeaway “Support only the best people who have set the objective of being the 1 in 50,000”. So, only support the hugest successes - and leave the others stranded?

From a broad ecosystem perspective, investors are often stumps we have to ignore and grow around to get to the next level. “Like a rotting treestump in the forest, they've established themselves from a past leadership position, still get all the attention, but get in the way of progress.” They do what works for them, but we have to see the broader picture to grow a successful ecosystem.

Investors aren't bad guys; most work in the best interests of startups from their point-of-view.

The problem is when they perpetuate the idea that the “best” startups for them are the best startups for everyone.

Taking the Silicon Valley definition of a "successful startup" and requiring that everywhere in the world as a bar to entry is short-sighted for people who want to bootstrap a startup ecosystem in a city where there is none. There are many ways to build successful businesses, and the "funded mega-high-growth startup" way, the unicorn chasing approach, is simply not a smart approach for most parts of the world.

If you're interested in startup ecosystems, read the full article here.

Bootstrap marketing  

Spencer Fry:

A quick Google search for "bootstrap marketing" brings up a bunch of useless nonsense. The results are either in the form of "Top 10 Bootstrap Marketing Tips" or "Bootstrap Marketing 101" guides. They're outdated and uninformative — full of obvious suggestions such as: "you should blog" and "use Twitter to get the word out." Not to mention that all the ads are hurting my eyes. So here are some things you can do that won't cost you a penny and will hopefully give you an "aha" moment.

There follows an excellent list of atypical "bootstrap marketing" approaches that aren't usually covered by other blog posts on the topic:

  • Let your users market for you (in other words, make your application viral)
  • Give paid accounts away for free
  • Issue refunds when you have to (note: I actually believe that if a customer isn't satisfied, I don't want their money, so I will always refund on request)
  • Provide great customer service
  • Show that the website is active
  • Build your reputation as a founder

Great read, as usual from Spencer.

Build businesses, not apps  

A point that bears repeating, by Bryan Doll:

I’m not suggesting anyone stop building prototypes. I’m not suggesting we don’t explore the idea of an application through its development. However, the next time you have that “aha” moment, think first of the value you can create and the app will follow. The app, it turns out, really is the easy part.

A startup is not a web application. A startup is first and foremost a business, and to be a successful business it needs to fulfill some important function for its customers, so that they will be willing to pay for it.

Of course, this doesn't mean that every startup needs to follow this approach, but Twitters and Facebooks are few and far between.

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