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

Getting over the fear of being someone

School and corporate life have this in common: that they encourage people to fit in and punish those who stick out.

Both of those environments punish efforts to reach towards individuality, particularly when those efforts aren't succeeding. It's better to be nobody than to be someone who's trying to be somebody but failing. Someone who publishes science fiction books while working for MegaCorp Inc will get penalised for it (they're obviously not committed to their long-term career there, so they won't be promoted as easily), but someone who is trying to get published and failing will get both that, and a good serving of pity and condescension. You're trying and failing? How pathetic. Get back in the ranks!

Another thing both environments try to do is take possession of your life, and declare themselves owners of your means of self-expression. If you're working for Company X, then any comment you make in public could reflect on The Corporation, and so you should shut the fuck up and stay in your cubicle, not go and write blogs about what life is like inside the asylum. This can last for years after leaving. It took me a long time before I felt truly comfortable writing a post like My life in Accenture before startups. Even today, I sometimes feel "maybe I shouldn't talk about client X or project Y, because someone might get in trouble".

Both of these forces make it very difficult to find your voice, your individuality, and to become someone who is likely to build successful ventures.

Getting over it

One of the things that really drew me to the startup crowd, initially, was that this was an environment that accepted individuality. It's ok to be a technologist who likes to run a productised services business and has published some blogs and likes to write short fiction (I'll try and publish some of that sometime!), and posts crazy amounts of stuff to HN. Most of those things would not be compatible with corporate life. In the startup world, they are not only compatible, but encouraged, useful, and in some cases necessary.

Being someone recognisable, having a platform to express yourself, having connections to people in the industry, all those things are very valuable in the startup world. And at the same time, as we've seen, they are things that are strongly discouraged by the corporate environment many people operate in.

This is why some of the steps to getting out of the corporate world that I mention in the startup escape path are to start publishing a blog and then write something interesting enough for people to vote it up on HN. This helps to get over the fear of being someone, of sticking out. They force you to realise that it's not only ok to be trying to do something different (even if you suck at it), but that it's good, that people will look up at you for it, even if you fail.

Embracing it

At a recent London HN meetup, Harj Taggar was invited, and he highlighted one of the presentations that had occurred that night as particularly worthy of praise. Which one did he pick? Not the slick ones that showed cool, successful, profitable startup products. No, it was probably the most basic presentation of the lot. A guy called Hrishi Mittal shared an extremely simple project called Share What You Make.

Harj picked out that presentation and said, "this is what we need more of": people willing to take their early projects, put them out there, and see what people think, without being afraid of failure. And he's right, because exposure to useful feedback is one of the most important factors to getting from a crazy idea to something actually useful to someone. Paul Graham also expressed this thought when he recently wrote that:

In most places, if you start a startup, people treat you as if you're unemployed. People in the Valley aren't automatically impressed with you just because you're starting a company, but they pay attention. Anyone who's been here any amount of time knows not to default to skepticism, no matter how inexperienced you seem or how unpromising your idea sounds at first, because they've all seen inexperienced founders with unpromising sounding ideas who a few years later were billionaires.

Going back to our initial topic, we all have the potential to be different and unique within us, and unlocking this potential is an essential step towards being a successful startup founder. However, this potential is strangled and extinguished during the long years of school and corporate life that many of us endure. In order to regain that potential and make the most of it, we have to be willing to try and fail, at least a few times, before we can expect to succeed.

Being someone, being extraordinary, being different, standing out - these are part of the promise and the demand of the startup world. So if you're currently stuck in an environment where this is not possible, you will need to take deliberate, calculated steps to make sure you get over it as part of your learning process.


Hiring from Craigslist  

This summer, at Woobius, we hired some interns. We used a British-centric equivalent called GumTree, and it worked well, even for programming interns. The article proposes a repeatable process for successfully hiring from Craigslist:

  1. Create an informative ad with the right information
  2. Create an application form with the right questions
  3. Post to Craigslist and wait for the applications
  4. Select the 10 best applicants and send them 2 further, very detailed questions
  5. Interview the 3-4 people you like best in person
  6. Hire!
Get a VC to mentor you  

Larry Chiang shares some ideas about how to get a VC's attention, including:

  • Don't ask them for investment (that will turn them off)
  • Ask for a phone call, not for coffee
  • Follow up methodically at the right times, consistently over a period
  • Write articles naming the VC directly to set off their Google Alerts
  • Process all their advice to show you're listening
  • Keep showing that you're paying attention to their advice
  • Ask for their phone number
  • Publish thought-leadership articles that the VC will want to repeat to their contacts

Good method on the whole, but be careful about being too aggressive. No one, not even VCs, wants to have a personal spammer.

Working smarter in a startup  

Elliot Loh:

There's this misconception that everyone needs to kill themselves at a startup. Certainly you're working by a countdown clock that is usually wound by funding. But you're not trying to do "whatever it takes" as much as you're trying to do "only what it takes".

Elliot provides a number of approaches to work smart instead of working hard:

  1. Devote time to meta-work; spend some time thinking about the bigger picture.
  2. Cut to the chase; keep the goal in mind so you can sidestep issues on the way.
  3. See if someone has already done what you want to do, and if so, use what they've learnt.
  4. Measure things so you can identify and shut down failed attempts.

Random acts of violence

Point (tru.che / imakeshinythings):

I’m very disappointed in Urban Outfitters. I know they have stolen designs from plenty of other artists. I understand that they are a business, but it’s not cool to completely rip off an independent designer’s work.

Double-point (consumerist.com):

Something is rotten in Denmark, or rather, in the I Heart Destination jewelry line of baubles offered by Urban Outfitters. Turns out those $19 danglers in the shape of the various United States of America with a heart cut-out are exactly like necklaces crafted by an independent jewelry designer named Stevie.

Double-tweet point (myaimistrue.com):

Today has been a fun ride. Behold the power of social media muscle. (...) What I do have – and the reason that my call for a boycott on Urban Outfitters spread so fast and wide – is a tribe. A tight knit group of independent artists and crafters that follow me. My cause resounded with them. They spread it, and their friends spread it, and a few big influencers on Twitter spread it, and then it was gone.

Counter-point (regretsy.com):

Now, I’m not generally the voice of reason, so this is an uncomfortable position to take. But I’m just not sure I want to start a boycott over an idea that many people have had, some for years before Truche even opened her Etsy store.

I’m not saying that Urban Outfitters doesn’t help themselves to the designs of others. They certainly have a record of pilfering designs, and they may very well have stolen this one. The question, for me at least, is who did they steal it from? And if we don’t know that much, how do we know it’s really been stolen at all?

Double counter-point (consumerist.com's ^H division):

While this particular seller may have thought up the idea all on her own, different versions of the necklace predate her shop, dating back to as early as 2008.

Maybe there really are no new ideas out there.

"OMG WTF is wrong with you" point (Urban Outfitters):

In her recent blog post and on Twitter Koerner claims that Urban Outfitters stole her designs or was inspired in some way by the items in her Etsy shop for our I Heart Destination necklaces. In fact, a quick search on Etsy for ‘state necklace’ reveals several other sellers with similar products (as seen here on Regretsy) who offered their wares as much as a year earlier than Ms. Koerner.

We are not implying that Koerner stole her necklace idea from one of these other designers, we are simply stating the obvious—that the idea is not unique to Koerner and she can in no way claim to be its originator.

"Let's learn from this" point (UserVoice):

This week a blogger with a mere 1,000 followers on Twitter discovered (apparently just the latest in many) an Urban Outfitters product that was a rip-off of an independent artist. She blogged and tweeted about it. The result was that thousands of people retweeted it, she & Urban Outfitters became a trending topic, and American Apparel removed the product from their shelves.

(...)

Any customer can deliver a killing blow, and any customer can deliver a fame-creating endorsement. Feel free to focus on courting “big” bloggers and tweeters for press - but don’t risk treating any of your customers badly. You never know what might happen.

My conclusion:

The internet is a batshit crazy place. It has brought a scale of millions to the lynch mob mentality every little village has been capable of for millenia. Like in all of history, many (most?) lynch mobs are uninformed, or actively disinformed, or even deliberately manipulated, but if they're hauling you up a lamppost or lighting a fire under your feet, that's of little comfort.

Be aware of that, be ready for random acts of wanton violence from unexpected sources, watch out for the sudden flash lynch mobs appearing out of nowhere and baying for your blood, and when they do happen, be on the ball and active in managing the mob.

Otherwise, expect to get lynched from time to time.


A moral obligation to society?  

Burak Kanber:

Is that fair? Is that a decision I’m morally allowed to make? I have the skills to help other people out but instead I’m running a startup and writing on my blog. Should I feel guilty? Do I have a moral obligation to use my engineering skills to give back to the world in a bigger way?

This is a question that I have grappled with a number of times. Some people will feel this is irrelevant and doesn't matter. Others will feel that the entire point of entrepreneurship is precisely to control how you give back to society, and be able to ensure you contribute something worthwhile.

After much consideration, I lean towards the latter camp. Running my own business has enabled me to be so much more effective and "direct" in the way that I give back to society. As an employee of a business, most of your contribution will be through taxes. As a business owners, you will probably end up doing your best to reduce these taxes, but suddenly many opportunities will open to contribute back to society in meaningful, tangible way.

Whether those opportunities consist of teaching others who to become entrepreneurs themselves, or building a useful product, or helping other entrepreneurs build useful products, or advising people, or providing them with resources, or even the simple task of deciding to hire someone who deserves a chance and would otherwise not get that chance, opportunities for entrepreneurs to give back abound.

The more successful you become as an entrepreneur, the greater your leverage becomes, and therefore the more impact you can have on the world around you. A broke founder of an early software startup has little chance to contribute meaningfully to the world's big problems. Meanwhile, a highly successful entrepreneur like Bill Gates can influence heads of state and pour vast amounts of money into an attempt to eradicate Malaria.

I say keep doing what you love, get rich doing so (if you can), and keep an eye out for opportunities to align doing good for the world and doing good for you. After all, successful people focus on building more success, not on self-sacrifice.

Growth vs Capital Efficiency  

Boris Wertz:

I often see two entrepreneurs executing on similar opportunities, but with two very different capital efficiencies. First, there’s the aggressive one who spends money very quickly, building a large team, buying early growth through aggressive marketing and sales, and hoping for a large upround in the next financing round. Then, there’s the bootstrapping entrepreneur who hires carefully (sometimes too little, too late), trying to get as much runway with the current money as possible and build a “real” business.

In other words, bootstrapped vs funded.

Boris makes some good points, though I feel he still glorifies the funded path a bit more than necessary (perhaps because he's himself an investor, and is therefore interested in there being more funded businesses). One essential point:

3 . Evaluate your market: is it winner-takes-it-all?

If you’re targeting a winner-takes-it-all (or almost all) market, then focusing on saving money makes no sense. You’d be sacrificing market leadership. Think about it. Nobody remembers Ryze, or Spoke as early LinkedIn competitors. But if you’re operating in e-commerce or other non winner-takes-it-all markets, then you don’t have to be overly aggressive in the early stages. In this case, you can take your time to fine-tune your model before aggressively scaling up.

I'd turn this point around and say, unless your market/idea has a property, like winner-takes-all or an intrinsic huge-upfront-investment (e.g. Tesla or SpaceX - and by "huge" I don't mean "it'll take 12 months to build v1"), it makes little sense to take funding, with all its associated problems.

Freely available programming books  

I personally find printed books more handy for learning a programming language, but if you need to learn and you don't have the money to buy them, or if you prefer to read books electronically, this collection might well do it for you.

If you have no programming experience whatsoever, I recommend starting with this one.

Perspective on the billion-dollar exit  

Adam Siegel:

Instagram sells for $1B. Evernote is now valued at $1B. Pinterest at $1.5B. 3 month old companies coming out of YCombinator are getting investments based on $10M+ valuations. And today will be the Facebook IPO which will likely put a market cap on the company north of $100B.

(...)

As the founder of a small company in Chicago who only took $17k from YCombinator 6 years ago (YC-W06) and now runs a classic “lifestyle” business that support myself and a small team from client revenues, I find myself wavering between being fairly satisfied with the state of my business life to mild depression and jealousy that I’m not in a situation to be cashing in myself.

Adam goes on to offer numerous tips for maintaining perspective while working on a "lifestyle business":

  • Spend time with friends who are not in tech or startups
  • Read the newspaper
  • Go for a lot of walks
  • Go visit some of your customers in person
  • Maintain a healthy relationship with parents
  • Keep a journal (not a blog)
  • Find a therapist, life coach or mentor
  • Appreciate your time more

Those seem like good things to do whether or not you run a billion-dollar startup.

However, addressing the point of billion-dollar-depression head on, it seems to me that the problem is more to do with a fundamentally incorrect perspective than with specific daily habits.

Generally, people looking to build those mega wealth successes are either insanely obsessed with money/control/power/etc (I'm not addressing this post to them), or just wish to have a great impact on the world - to make a dent in the universe, in other words.

It's a commonly repeated fact that the difference to your lifestyle from having $10m (or revenues that provide an equivalent lifestyle, e.g. $500k-1m/year of revenues) versus having $100m is much smaller than the difference between $0 and $10m. There's a very strong law of diminishing returns in application to the value of money. So as far as money goes, having a "lifestyle business" that provides you great but not headline-grabbing returns seems like a perfectly fine deal.

The depression can then only come from the lack of impact. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people should wish to have a great impact on the world, to make a lot of people's lives better, to be a force for good and improvement and progress. So far, so good (though not everyone feels like that - some people are happy to simply enjoy their lives and be good people).

It's well-known that luck plays a huge part in mega-successes like Facebook, Instagram, and so on. There's a good reason why this merry game is called the "startup lottery". The chances that you will pull a billion-dollar business from the magic hat are very slim. Obviously, if you do, great - but you can never count on such an outcome.

The fallacy in that depression is the implicit assumption that your current business is the only or greatest thing you'll ever do with your life. This may be true for someone like Mark Zuckerberg. Topping Facebook is going to be a struggle. To an extent, it's Mark who should be depressed. How will he top what he's already achieved? How can he give his life a meaningful direction upwards?

For most of us, though, we have not only the current business we're working on, but the rest of our lives (short or long) to make an impact and change the world. That your current business will not change the world doesn't mean that your next one won't. If you want to change the world, you are even more likely to be able to do so from a base of wealth and competence (after running a successful business for a few years and becoming a millionaire in the process) than when you're broke and fresh out of uni.

Keep in mind that changing the world takes time, and that you don't have to hit the ball out of the park first time. Changing the world in your twenties is a lottery ticket, not a plan. Viewed through this lens, the "billion-dollar depression" seems, well, absurd.

How to use Business Development in a startup  

Via this post, here's a great set of slides by Charles Hudson, about when to hire someone for Business Development, and how to use them properly.

Here's a summary/extract of some of the key slides:

The purpose of business development is:

  • Licence someone else's technology or content for use in your product or service
  • Distribute your product or service through someone else's network

Revenue growth, sales, "business guy" are not BD roles.

First, make sure you actually need BD. Maybe you want a business hire who is not a BD person, to work on relationships with key partners, do market research, or help you sell your company. BD is costly to staff, more so than even a talented engineer or designer, so make sure you really need it.

BD creates extra work for the product team. If you're not willing to do the extra work, don't hire a BD person. Be aware that internal projects will often get deferred to process deals signed by BD.

Make sure the relationship between BD and product is healthy: don't allow overly padded estimates of delivery time, but also don't allow BD to over-estimate their likelihood of closing deals. In addition, make sure that your BD people don't treat pre-deal engineering work as "free" - spec work and mockups cost, and bringing in your top engineers to a meeting is very expensive. But make sure your engineers respect the BD function too.

The presentation also includes information on how to evaluate Business Development deals, and how to make sure you're not caught out by typical BD problems. It's worth a read.

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