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daily articles for founders

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

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.


Dangerous data: three kinds of lies  

Data is a dangerous tool in making decisions. You need to understand the different ways in which it can fail you before you can make good use of it. Otherwise, you might make completely wrong data-driven decisions.

And then, of course, there's also some decisions (for example, high-level design decisions) which must be made based on something other than data.

This article outlines three possible failure modes of data-driven decisions, with Digg's catastrophic failure earlier this year as the backdrop for the points.

  1. Ask boring or loaded questions which can lead to self-fulfilling results;
  2. Get lazy and sample something too small or too favorable to the answers you hope to find;
  3. See patterns and correlations where there are none.
Designer, Architect, Developer  

Tom Preston-Werner, one of the three founders of the hugely successful GitHub, talks about developing a great product.

Someone on the team must be skilled not only in making things pretty, but in making them usable as well. Without a good UX/visual design, you may as well not even bother.

(...)

Once you have an idea of what you’re creating, you need to figure out how to make it happen. That’s where the Architect comes in. (...) The role of the Architect is to choose the best tools for the job, and to decide when new tools need to be created.

(...)

The role of the Developer is to turn the wishes of the Designer into reality while staying within the constraints that the Architect has put forth.

GitHub benefitted from being started by three very well respected and connected members of the rails community. It also was alone in an unaddressed niche. Combined with a great product, this has allowed them to spread explosively throughout the tech world.

Most startups won't have these advantages. Building a great product is important, but even more important is to build a good customer acquisition model. If you can't acquire customers for less money than they bring you, your startup will fail, no matter how good your product.

So, along with your designer, your architect, and your developer, don't forget the sales and business development guys.

Never say "no", but rarely say "yes"  

Great article and advice from Jason Cohen, about what to do if presented with the option to work with a customer who you don't believe is a great fit. Others might suggest sending those customers away, but Jason believes that you should set the price tag on "yes" high enough that you will gain some strong, very tangible benefit from serving this customer.

So the principle is easy: Set the conditions of “yes” such that:

  1. If they say “yes,” you’re happy because the terms or money are so good, it more than compensates for the distraction, possibly even funding the thing you really want to do.
  2. If they say “no,” you’re happy because it wasn’t a great fit anyway, so it’s not worthwhile for a small return on your time and effort.

In other words, make sure you get enough of a financial benefit out of those customers to be able to serve them, and then some.

Your job as a CEO  

Elad Gil presents an approach for dealing with the task overload of being a CEO:

  1. Once a week, take a step back and ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish, and what are the 1-2 most important things that will get you there.
  2. Every morning, make a list of the 1-3 things you absolutely need to get done that day.
  3. Get those things done.
  4. Don't get distracted by the easy low hanging fruit that doesn't matter - it just wastes your time even if you get satisfaction by doing it.

He also mentions that on an ongoing basis, a CEO should:

  1. Make sure the company doesn't run out of money;
  2. Hire and fire.

A third responsibility often mentioned is setting the company vision and making sure everyone is aligned with it.

Join a startup after graduating?  

There's been a few articles on the topic recently. Funnily enough, two of them are around the same time and with basically the same title - this must be on people's minds these days.

Are you about to graduate and deciding whether to join a startup or a larger company?

If so, you may want to read these three articles. Two of them outline reasons to join a startup, and one of them outlines reasons not to join a startup.

As for my opinion, I think that if you're determined to start a company in the future, then joining the right startup is the smart move. It will accelerate your learning by years. You might even consider starting your own business right away - though you should definitely count on the high probability that no matter how certain you are of your success, your first X businesses (where X is between 1 and 5, but almost certainly not 0) will probably fail in some way or another.

If you're not entirely convinced, you may find that having a big company on your CV gives you a bit more security, and more time to make up your mind. It will reduce your risk a fair bit, at the cost of a few more years. You will learn a lot in large companies too, by the way - startups are not the sole keepers of useful business knowledge.

There are plenty of startup founders who started off working for large companies, so you'll be in good company whichever path you choose.

Beware the Maximum Viable Product  

Roger Ehrenberg:

...beware the maximum viable product. Ease of adoption, clarity of the value proposition and lots of feedback far outweigh the risk of people saying “Is this it?” IMHO. Don’t be afraid. There is nothing like seeing your product out in the wild. Go for it.

The key point is nothing new, but worth repeating: launch early and iterate once you have customer feedback. No matter how convinced you might be that you know that your product is worthwhile, without feedback from real customers you are steering your ship with neither compass nor map.

Roger makes another point which I don't quite agree with:

Leaving aside the enterprise (which I believe has a fundamentally higher bar for release than consumer), the biggest mistake I’ve seen has been to delay getting a product out in the wild and over-engineering it in the lab.

Enterprise products are no different. If anything, customer feedback can be obtained even sooner in the enterprise world, by pitching a product which has not been built at all yet, and trying to obtain letters of intent or even conditional purchase orders.

If you can't sell the promise, you most likely won't be able to sell the product either.

How to raise a Series A round  

Elad Gil offers some structured advice for how to raise a Series A round, and how it differs from angel funding. The headlines:

  1. Line up all the meetings in a short period of time.
  2. Create an auction.
  3. Make the first 2-3 meetings "practice meetings" if at all possible.
  4. Find the right partners at the right firms to talk to.
  5. Use back channels to your advantage.
  6. Treat the pitch as a product - iterate on it until it is great.
  7. Know what you are optimising for (control, valuation, expertise, etc).

The best advice missing from the list? As with many tricky aspects of stating up, get advice/mentoring from someone who's familiar with the process.

How to build and maintain momentum  

Jocelyn K Glei starts off with a relatively weak point (losing momentum can be temporary), but overall, this article provides some good and practical advice for how to build momentum, which applies to both personal development and startups:

1 - Know that momentum takes time to build.

Don't expect to go at full speed from day one. Instead, set less ambitious goals first, then progressively build up from those to full speed.

2 - Carve out a consistent block of time to work on your project.

3 - Work on your project every day.

Consistency of effort is a greater differentiator than brilliance or talent, when it comes to eventual success. Quantity always beats quality, so get on a schedule and make stuff.

4 - Once you really get some momentum going, don't be afraid.

It's oh-so-easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When things really pick up, they can feel overwhelming and scary. Keep building up the momentum.

I'd add a final point:

5 - Be prepared for the fall.

It is when you are at the peak of your game, and most comfortable that things are going well, that you are most likely to miss a really serious problem developing. So, always keep your eye on the ball to minimise the chances of a disaster, and be prepared for it in case it does happen anyway.

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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