swombat.com

daily articles for founders

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

3 Lessons from launching a product  

No completely new advice in this article, but a very good point about design/usability of your first version:

However, your first design shouldn't matter. You should be solving such a huge need that users and customers will do anything to use your product to solve their needs. When your hair is on fire, the look of the firehose doesn't really matter.

If poor usability or bland visual effects push away early adopters, then you haven't actually solved an important problem (at which time you pivot).

As Sean mentions earlier, though:

Not all advice is created equal (...) If the advice doesn't sit well with you, don't blindly follow it

Not all startups are created equal. Not all startups are solving a hair-on-fire problem. Twitter, which he uses as an example later in the article, certainly did not solve any critical problem initially.

Start with a prototype  

This article is fairly basic, but it does cover the essentials of why and how you should go about putting together a prototype (software or hardware), and also points out that you should test the prototype not only technically, but, even more important, commercially, before raising money.

Validate the customer need and opportunity. I always hate it when I see startups invest millions of dollars in technology before they validate their ideas in the market, only to find that customers seem to be looking for something slightly different. Test your idea early in a form that is easy and inexpensive to modify.

Get more out of your startup reading

How many startup-related articles do you read every day? If you're anything like me (i.e. addicted to Hacker News and other startup news sources), this ranges from 1 or 2 on slow days to more than half a dozen, maybe even a dozen.

How many can you remember reading? If you're like me a few months ago, not so many. There's the odd article that stands out, and, with some effort, sometimes you can recall what the point was. While you're reading it, it feels like you're learning useful stuff, but as soon as you close the article and move on to something else, it fades into the background noise and you forget any actionable information you had encountered.

Reading articles about startup advice should be good and productive for startup founders, but the reality is that most of the time people spend reading startup articles is much like productivity porn - something that you do to procrastinate instead of actually building your startup (or even, instead of even starting it).

There's a better way.

The benefit of taking notes

A couple of months ago, I started this site, swombat.com. Its purpose is to make use of all this time I spend reading startup articles, and turn it into something useful for others. There was a hidden benefit that I haven't realised until recently, though: I remember the good articles and their points much more clearly.

The reason for that is simple, and nothing new. When you quickly read an article (as you must if you're regularly perusing a source of news like HN), it doesn't leave much of an impression. You forget it quickly. On swombat.com, however, I try do several more things with the article:

  • I extract the key points;
  • I determine whether it's worth sharing with swombat.com readers;
  • I summarise the article so that readers will be able to decide whether they want to click through;
  • I try to relate it to previous articles that I've posted about;
  • I try to relate it to my own experiences and come up with an insightful comment where possible;
  • I write this down, make a post, and summarise it even more into a tweet.

Doing all these things forces me to really assimilate the article. Not only that, but I often glance over the articles I've previously posted to judge, a few days or weeks later, whether I posted the right kind of stuff. This reminds me of the key points from these articles and so I forget less of what I assimilated.

Involuntarily, I've created a note-taking system for startup advice articles, and the result is that I'm much better at remembering the points that were made in those articles.

You can do this too

Use whatever note-taking tool you're comfortable with. I prefer a simple notebook for this purpose, because a notebook allows you to look over your previous entries in a way that an electronic notes application does not. But the key point is this:

Whenever you read an article:

  • Extract the key points and write them in your notebook
  • Look over previous entries and try to relate it to previous articles you wrote about
  • Write down your opinion about this article
  • Try to summarise the most important point of article in one line
  • Do the above as if someone else was going to read your notes later

Doing this will force your brain to really assimilate the points of the article in a much more permanent manner. It should help you make much, much better use of all this startup wisdom out there.

An additional benefit of this is that when you will become much better at recognising empty, time-wasting articles. Those are the ones where you have nothing worth writing down by the time you get to the end. Avoid those, or at least treat them as what they are: pure entertainment.


Test your startup ideas for $20  

In the theme of validating and invalidating your business ideas, here's another approach.

Explain that your brother has a crazy business/product idea, and that he's about to get a 2nd mortgage on his house, raid his 401k and quit his job. His wife is a nervous wreck, afraid that they'll lose their house and retirement fund, and he's hit your parents up for seed money that they really can't afford to lose. Your parents and your sister-in-law have come to you for help to try to talk him out of his hair brained scheme.

Suggesting that it's your brother's idea is a good move, because people will often avoid giving negative feedback in person. With this approach, however, you'll really elicit all the negative feedback they can come up with.

Be specific in your requests  

Jason Freedman proposes an approach for people who are looking for job referrals:

Whenever you talk to someone about job search stuff/career advisory stuff, give them a very specific interest. For instance, tell me that you're interested in joining a seed-stage team focused on mobile payments. Or a post-Series A startup doing social discounts. Or a high-growth startup in advertising optimization. Whatever! Just make it very specific.

This is spot-on for job referrals, no doubt, but perhaps Jason is applying his own trick there in being so specific to that field.

Whenever asking someone for help, or for a sale, or for almost anything, being specific about what you want is almost always a great thing.

For example, when doing business development, you can approach it two ways:

  1. Approach lots of interesting people, have meetings/coffees/discussions with them, and let a cooperation emerge.
  2. Figure out what kind of business deal you want, draw up a list of people who might be able to help, then approach them with this plan in mind and let the goal drive the discussion.

Method 1 will certainly yield you more meetings - but guess which method will get you more deals?

Be specific: know what you want, and ask for it clearly.

The value of time, or not  

Here's an interesting article by Jack Groetzinger, making a relatively elaborate argument for how to value one's time.

Every person at every company has an implicit hourly rate of value they create for the business. Perhaps Bob, our traveling salesman, provides $150 of value for every hour that he's working [1]. If Bob catches the flu and is forced to spend a day hunched over a toilet rather on the road selling, then the DCF of future SeatGeek earnings decreases by $1,500 [2].

However, Jack then rightly undermines this point later (though doesn't go far enough in getting rid of it):

The rate at which you value your time value your time is not static; it's constantly changing. If I'm stuck on a plane with no internet, the rate at which I'm creating value for SeatGeek is low. On the other hand, suppose it's 3am in the morning and I'm feverishly working on a presentation for a massive client. The presentation will take place in five hours. Here, the rate at which I'm creating value quite high. If two hours magically disappeared from the clock, it could destroy a meaningful amount of SeatGeek's enterprise value. So I feel justified in, say, asking my girlfriend to get me a Diet Coke so that I don't have to break my concentration (thankfully she's an economics student, so she understands).

Jack then continues with a comparison of the value of someone's time to the company and their wage, but I'll stop here for an important tangent to a point which I think is crucial to the discussion.

Time is worthless

Time is the most valuable thing in the world, and yet by itself it is worthless. Time well used is valuable. As John Gruber said of Jobs in this article:

Late last night, long hours after the news broke that he was gone, my thoughts returned to those grass stains on his shoes back in June. I realize only now why they caught my eye. Those grass stained sneakers were the product of limited time, well spent.

We all have limited time, and we can't buy more of it, so philosophically, we might say it's all priceless. So why do I say it's worthless? Because unless you spend it well, that time does not have any intrinsic value to your business (though it is probably still worth something to you personally).

I believe and have believed for a while that time is not the right thing to measure or preserve. Buying a $700 computer instead of spending an hour searching for an equivalent $640 computer (the example Jack uses) is a valid trade-off, but not because of the time being saved.

What makes the trade-off valid is the energy, the attention that's being saved.

We each have a limited amount of attention and energy (two sides of the same coin) to spend on a vast number of potential attention sinks each day. We can only care about so many different things each day, every day, before our very ability to give a damn gives up and we just don't care anymore and can't bring ourselves to care.

Spending energy caring about saving $60 on the purchase of a new computer is not worth Jack's limited supply of energy.

Whenever you're about to engage in chasing down some rabbit-hole distraction, think of this - if there are only 10 things that you have space to properly care about today, should this be one of them?

Startups can't afford a cover-up culture  

Following on last week's point about not drinking your own kool-aid, here's an article by Steve Blank about the dangers of a cover-up culture in startups:

[My investors] reminded me that failures in startups tell the founders which direction not to pursue - while teaching you how to succeed. This means covering up failure in a startup [is] like tossing their money in the street. So instead of a cover-up culture they encouraged a "Lessons Learned culture."

A key element of a "Lessons Learned" culture is rapid dissemination of information. All information, whether good or bad, must be shared rapidly. We taught our company that understanding sales losses were more important than understanding sales wins; understanding why a competitor's products were better was more important than rationalizing ways in which ours were superior.

Use good copywriting to reduce customer support load  

Here's a very good article by the IDoneThis Team illustrating, with concrete examples, why copywriting is important for startups, and some essential advice for how to get it right. In summary:

  • Explain your service using the fewest possible words - every piece of detail is an opportunity for confusion.
  • Use help documentation to handle corner cases.
  • Users won't read most of the words you write - understand how context shapes meaning.
  • Include help text on every single page.

Perhaps I'm biased as a writer myself, but I believe that good writing is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. In fact, I've covered a more general example of this in an earlier article on how to get better at writing.

Shutting down blaster.fm  

Continuing the topic of moving on from failed startups, Josh Sharp writes about his blaster.fm project and why he's shutting it down:

Choosing to let it go wasn't easy. "Why can't you just let it sit there and keep running?" I have been asked several times. But even though it doesn't require active maintenance, it still exerts a mental toll. It weighs on me, the site-that-could've-been. The site that missed its opportunity to get big.

Yep. Moving on is good.

There's also a comment to be made about Josh's approach to building blaster.fm. Reading his article, I noticed a lot of "I built this" and "I built that", but not a whole lot of "I went and talked to people" or "I saw this opportunity to make some money". Perhaps that did happen and is just missing from the write-up.

However, on the assumption that it's not just a writing omission, this approach of building things and waiting for people to find them is perfectly fine for a side project, a hobby that may randomly pick up and become interesting, but ultimately it means that the project was fundamentally a lottery ticket. In this case, a lottery ticket that didn't win (the prize was acquisition by last.fm, it seems). One hopes that most of the enjoyment was derived in the building of the site and the learning that came with that.

In the long run, it's hard to get motivated about a project that sucks a lot of time and gives very little back. I believe in working on side-projects, but in my opinion, if you're going to do that, then you should probably err towards side projects that have at least some vague commercial potential beyond "a big company will want to buy it". I'm sure Josh would feel differently about blaster.fm if it was making even just a meagre $2k a month.

Public speaking for normal people  

Public speaking is a fundamental entrepreneurial skill. If you can't do it - you should learn to do it.

Tragically, many people come out of the European educational systems with little or no public speaking experience, not even in front of their classrooms. By contrast, in America, most children are regularly forced to do "show and tell" or other classroom speaking activities, which eventually takes away much of the fear of public speaking.

Ultimately, the only way to get over your fear of public speaking (if you have one) is to do it, repeatedly, until it goes away. One place to do so is Toastmasters, a non-profit organisation which has chapters all around the world.

However, practical tips are also welcome. Here are some tips from Jason Freedman. Summarised:

  1. Have a standard "routine" that you do before very speech, that gets you in the right frame of mind.
  2. Do not use powerpoint - if you do, have only a few words per slide and don't look at the slides.
  3. Pick two people in the audience and speak to them.
  4. Don't worry about your "Ums" and other filler words/sounds.
  5. Don't memorize your talk or, even worse, read it out.
  6. Practice in front of real people, not alone.

Read the whole article here.

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