daily articles for founders

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

How to find a designer  

Sacha Greif provides some solid advice for how to find and select a designer. This is something that many startups hit up against at some point in their life, since most startup founders are not professional designers - and, at the end of the day, there is a clear qualitative jump between what you can throw together yourself in a pinch and what a seasoned professional can produce.

Sacha's tips focus on finding freelancers, and cover where to look for designers, how much you should pay, how to pick the right designer, how to select a designer that has the skills you need, the use of multiple designers, and how to get the designer started.

Very much worth a read if you're thinking of hiring a designer for some aspect of your startup.

Understanding your competitors  

In GrantTree, I've lost count of the number of times when, upon being asked about competitors, the client declares that "we don't have any competitors, what we do is unique".

Unfortunately, this mindset is wrong. Here's Des Traynor's take on it:

McDonalds and Weight Watchers are selling wildly different products, but they're competing for the same customers. This is what we call indirect competition. Note that this is different to competing on outcomes. Video Conferencing & Business class flights compete on outcomes. In that case, they're both hired for the same job (business meetings).

Spot on. The rest of the article explains how to make use of this insight in practice, with a real-life example. Read it now.

Four misconceptions about Lean startup  

The Lean Startup methodology is frequently misunderstood, unfortunately. This article by Jim Kalbach is one more attempt to clear up some of the more common misconceptions, namely:

  • Lean startup is not an engineering process, it's a method for building startup, so it won't make your developers happy.
  • Lean startup doesn't mean "let's just shoot from the hip without overanalysing things."
  • An MVP is not a lightweight version of the product, it's the answer to a question, the resolution of your next most pressing uncertainty. More on this here.
  • User testing will not "slow you down" - it's the heart of the Lean Startup method: do stuff only to learn about what your customers need before they can give you money.

Read the whole article here.

Startup sales: #2: Sell at every step

The first piece of advice was here. Here's the second one:

#2: Sell at every step

Until the money is in the bank, every interaction with the client is a sales interaction. When dealing with businesses, even a signed contract won't protect you from pissing off a customer. At the end of the day, if you're a startup and you piss off a company 10x your size and they demand to terminate the contract, what are you going to do? Nothing. You'll agree and let the contract slip.

With that in mind, it's important to make sure that every interaction before the money is in the bank reinforces your sales message. One classic mistake is sending a horrible looking contract. The contract is a sales document, and if your contract looks like shit, you look like shit. It imputes the value of your service or product just as much as Apple's packaging does for the goodies inside. Even your invoices should look good.

Another mistake is sending bad-looking status reports or plans of the ongoing work. Even the report that outlines how the project is slipping should look good and convey your sales message.

In this day and age, it doesn't take much to produce gorgeous-looking sales materials, so if you fail to do that, you fail at something very basic, and will rightly be penalised for it by losing sales.

So, think through every client interaction in the sales process that you mapped, and make sure every point of contact, be it a contract, email, meeting or phone call, projects the image you want to impute to your business.

Customer churn and engagement  

Yet another excellent article by Des Traynor, this one about how to think of "churn" and how to reduce it by engaging with customers at the right point.

Activity churn is where the rubber hits the road. Typical Churn stats use account cancellations as a measurement but cancellation is only ever a trailing indicator. It's the last thing that happens.

Customers don't make a snap decision to quit an app and delete all their data on the spot unless the app has really screwed up for them. Typically customers gradually stop using it, it goes from every morning to every week to once a month. Eventually their data in the app grows out of date and soon they realise they're paying $29 per month for something they don't need and don't use. At this point you can't recover them easily, but this is the first time a churn metric will recognise them.

Des offers some practical advice for how to address the churn. Read the whole article here.

The processes that drive your business

Once your business has been running for a little while, and is starting to make a bit of money, it's worth spending some time to figure out what it is that drives the activity in your business.

Every business will have a different type of "driving process", but in all cases, they are activities (often meetings) out of which many tasks flow out.

The driving process for a project to deliver a piece of software will be the weekly or daily meetings to assign the tasks for the coming day or week. The driving process for sales is a sales meeting where currently active leads are reviewed and actions decided. The driving process for a service being provided to a number of clients might be reviewing the status of all the clients and deciding on next steps for each of them.

Some of those business activities need a certain rhythm in order to pick up momentum. There are various ways to achieve that, but meetings is certainly one of the most common ones. However, in a young company, meetings don't happen unless you make an effort to keep them happening - there's always something else to do that seems more appealing than having a meeting. Unlike the corporate environment, where meetings seem to thrive and multiply until the only thing being done is having meetings, startups have the opposite problem: startups are a toxic environment for meetings.

If, however, you know that a certain kind of meeting drives a key, critical process in your business, you will probably find it much easier to summon up the effort to keep that meeting alive - especially once you see the effect of the meeting on getting stuff done.

Two concrete examples

Here are two concrete examples of meetings driving key processes, taken from my own business, GrantTree. The two most important meetings we have are both weekly, and are scheduled on Monday morning, to drive the work for the rest of the week.

The first one is a sales meeting. We keep all our leads in Highrise, and the meeting consists of simply going through all the active leads in the database, adding any that are missing, updating the information on each of them, and deciding next steps for each lead. This creates a number of actions and follow-ups which end up driving the sales activity over the next few days. It's a clear, tangible, useful meeting.

The second meeting is the tax credit process review meeting. We track the status of all our clients in Trello, and go through all of them (active or inactive) to make a conscious decision as to whether actions are needed, what actions should happen this week, whether a client needs urgent attention, etc. This creates a number of actions and follow-ups which end up driving the tax credit process for the week. It's also a clear, tangible, useful meeting.

Those are the key drivers for GrantTree: sales and delivery. Each business will have its own specific driving processes, which will result in different types of meetings (or even things other than meetings!). I'm not suggesting that your business should have the same structure as mine - however, what you should do is think about what those key driving processes are for your business, and see if giving these activities a weekly or daily rhythm helps to make them more effective.

The right kind of ambition  

A comment by Marcus Frödin pointed me to this excellent article by Ben Horowitz, that I somehow missed when it came out.

Ben offers some great advice on how to select the right kind of people to join your company, particularly when it comes to salespeople:

People who view the world through the me prism might describe a prior company's failure in an interview as follows: "My last job was my e-commerce play. I felt that it was important to round out my resume." Note the use of "my" to personalize the company in a way that it's unlikely that anyone else at the company would agree with. In fact, the other employees in the company might even be offended by this usage. People with the right kind of ambition would not likely use the word "play" to describe their effort to work as a team to build something substantial. Finally, people who use the "me" prism find it natural and obvious to speak in terms of "building out my resume" while people who use the "team" prism find such phrases to be somewhat uncomfortable and awkward, because they clearly indicate an individual goal which is separate from the team goal.


Throughout our interview process, candidates would take sole credit for landing extremely large deals, achieving impressive goals, and generating company success. Invariably, the candidates who claimed the most credit for deals would have the most difficult time describing the details of how the deal was actually won and orchestrated. During reference checks, others involved in the deals would tell a much different story.

Read the full article here.

Finding a great startup advisor  

When I look back at the kind of naive mistakes I made on previous startup endeavours, it almost physically hurts, particularly when considering how avoidable many of them were. I excuse myself by saying that I didn't know any better, that I've learned a bit now.

What gets really scary is that I haven't stopped making those mistakes. No matter how confident I might be today, in one year I will look back and see many silly mistakes that I made, things that in hindsight will seem obvious but which are entirely opaque to me today.

The right kind of advice, delivered in the right manner at the right time can make or break your startup. This is why building relationships to other people within the startup community is so important. Learning to run businesses well can take quite a few years and involve hundreds of avoidable mistakes. The right advisor can help you avoid those mistakes and save you enormous amounts of unnecessary pain and cost.

Here's some good advice from Jason Freedman on why and how to select people to advise you on your startup journey:

There are many parts of the start-up process that don't need significant innovation. An entrepreneur's education is to learn all these conventions that work well and then innovate on their product.

The conventions can vary greatly depending on the year, industry, country, and so on, which is why personalised advice from someone who cares and has been there recently enough is so essential. Jason outlines a few key attributes of a good advisor for your startup:

  • They're only a few steps further down the path.
  • They're happy to help with the small challenges.
  • They will call you out when you do stupid stuff.
  • They're respected by your cofounders.
  • They care more about you personally than about your startup.

Sound advice.


From my father's blog on wisdom:

If you have a gift with words, learn to keep your mouth shut; when you speak, punctuate with pause; and when you have nothing to say, say nothing.


Your silence passes many messages; one is that you are somebody, not nobody, a person able to face a crowd and to wait. This is an almost biological power of the big secure animal looking at harmless ones. People understand or better said they feel. After this, you have a better chance to be listened to.

Silence has tremendous applications in the business world too, of course.

For me, the "aha" moment about silence came when I was working on my first startup, while still working full time as a consultant in Accenture. I was sleeping about 4 hours a night for 9 months, and so I was constantly tired. At the time I was managing a small team of people who often did not get along. So, every once in a while, I would have to set up meetings with me and two other people to resolve their conflict and keep the project moving forward.

Because I was so tired, I spent most of my time in the meetings quiet, minimising even physical movement. I would sit and listen and let the meeting go its way until I came to a moment where I felt that if I did not say something - the right thing - just at that moment, with just the right body language to support it, things would go wrong sooner or later and I would have to pay with even more tiresome activity.

I wasn't scared of being "found out" for doing the bare minimum in meetings. I was starting my first business and I believed I would be out of the corporate world soon (and I was). But I noticed something very strange. Because I talked so rarely, every time I spoke, people stopped talking and took the time to listen to me. By doing much, much less, I had somehow given the little that I did do a lot more weight.

Since then, I've used silence in many other contexts. It can be a very useful tool for sales, for example: when you're trying to close a sale, at one point you need to state your pitch, with the price, and then just shut up. If you keep talking, you will only distract the customer from evaluating the pitch and coming to a decision.

In person-to-person conversations, few people can stand a prolonged silence, particularly when it follows a certain kind of statement. "I don't know what I can do to solve X," followed by silence, will often pull suggestions for solving X out of someone who would not have volunteered them for "how should I solve X?"

Learn to use silence. It is a powerful tool in many contexts.

All startup advice is wrong?  

Evan Williams says startup advice is wrong because it's often not proven properly since it's impossible to A/B test startup advice, and all advice depends on context.

He's right. And wrong. I guess that's ironic? Hah. Anyway.

As I covered in my article on how to write good startup advice articles, when giving startup advice, the two most important points are:

  1. Avoid over-generalisation
  2. Provide context to personal experience

If you avoid over-generalisation and provide context, then people can work out if, and how, your advice applies to their situation.

Obviously, if I dish out advice like "only hire A players", then my advice is wrong. But that's just because it's crappy advice. If, instead, I say: "in a company like the one that I'm running (include description), in this context, I found that hiring in this way worked better for me than hiring in this other way", that's advice that is valuable because it includes the context needed to figure out how and when to use it.

The best advice is disastrous in the wrong context. Startup advice is never universally right, but that doesn't mean it's universally wrong.