Ramblings & ephemera

Paul Graham’s lessons for startups

From Paul Graham’s “The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn“:

1. Release Early.

The thing I probably repeat most is this recipe for a startup: get a version 1 out fast, then improve it based on users’ reactions.

By “release early” I don’t mean you should release something full of bugs, but that you should release something minimal. Users hate bugs, but they don’t seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there’s more coming soon. …

I’ve seen a lot of startups die because they were too slow to release stuff, and none because they were too quick. …

Even if you had no users, it would still be important to release quickly, because for a startup the initial release acts as a shakedown cruise. If anything major is broken– if the idea’s no good, for example, or the founders hate one another– the stress of getting that first version out will expose it. And if you have such problems you want to find them early.

Perhaps the most important reason to release early, though, is that it makes you work harder. When you’re working on something that isn’t released, problems are intriguing. In something that’s out there, problems are alarming. There is a lot more urgency once you release. And I think that’s precisely why people put it off. They know they’ll have to work a lot harder once they do.

2. Keep Pumping Out Features.

Of course, “release early” has a second component, without which it would be bad advice. If you’re going to start with something that doesn’t do much, you better improve it fast. …

By “feature” I mean one unit of hacking — one quantum of making users’ lives better.

As with exercise, improvements beget improvements. … You should make your system better at least in some small way every day or two.

… Users love a site that’s constantly improving. In fact, users expect a site to improve. …

They’ll like you even better when you improve in response to their comments, because customers are used to companies ignoring them. If you’re the rare exception — a company that actually listens — you’ll generate fanatical loyalty. You won’t need to advertise, because your users will do it for you. …

If your product seems finished, there are two possible explanations: (a) it is finished, or (b) you lack imagination. Experience suggests (b) is a thousand times more likely.

3. Make Users Happy.

Improving constantly is an instance of a more general rule: make users happy. One thing all startups have in common is that they can’t force anyone to do anything. They can’t force anyone to use their software, and they can’t force anyone to do deals with them. A startup has to sing for its supper. That’s why the successful ones make great things. They have to, or die.

When you’re running a startup you feel like a little bit of debris blown about by powerful winds. The most powerful wind is users. They can either catch you and loft you up into the sky, as they did with Google, or leave you flat on the pavement, as they do with most startups. Users are a fickle wind, but more powerful than any other. If they take you up, no competitor can keep you down. …

The median visitor will arrive with their finger poised on the Back button. …

There are two things you have to do to make people pause. The most important is to explain, as concisely as possible, what the hell your site is about. … A startup should be able to explain in one or two sentences exactly what it does. … You probably shouldn’t even start a company to do something that can’t be described compellingly in one or two sentences.

The other thing I repeat is to give people everything you’ve got, right away. If you have something impressive, try to put it on the front page, because that’s the only one most visitors will see. Though indeed there’s a paradox here: the more you push the good stuff toward the front, the more likely visitors are to explore further. …

The industry term here is “conversion.” The job of your site is to convert casual visitors into users …

4. Fear the Right Things.

Another thing I find myself saying a lot is “don’t worry.” Actually, it’s more often “don’t worry about this; worry about that instead.” Startups are right to be paranoid, but they sometimes fear the wrong things. …

What you should fear, as a startup, is not the established players, but other startups you don’t know exist yet. They’re way more dangerous than Google because, like you, they’re cornered animals.

Looking just at existing competitors can give you a false sense of security. You should compete against what someone else could be doing, not just what you can see people doing. A corollary is that you shouldn’t relax just because you have no visible competitors yet. No matter what your idea, there’s someone else out there working on the same thing. …

And in any case, competitors are not the biggest threat. Way more startups hose themselves than get crushed by competitors. There are a lot of ways to do it, but the three main ones are internal disputes, inertia, and ignoring users. Each is, by itself, enough to kill you. But if I had to pick the worst, it would be ignoring users. If you want a recipe for a startup that’s going to die, here it is: a couple of founders who have some great idea they know everyone is going to love, and that’s what they’re going to build, no matter what.

Almost everyone’s initial plan is broken. If companies stuck to their initial plans, Microsoft would be selling programming languages, and Apple would be selling printed circuit boards. In both cases their customers told them what their business should be — and they were smart enough to listen. …

5. Commitment Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

I now have enough experience with startups to be able to say what the most important quality is in a startup founder, and it’s not what you might think. The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence — determination. …

Time after time VCs invest in startups founded by eminent professors. This may work in biotech, where a lot of startups simply commercialize existing research, but in software you want to invest in students, not professors. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google were all founded by people who dropped out of school to do it. What students lack in experience they more than make up in dedication. …

In a startup, there’s always some disaster happening. So if you’re the least bit inclined to find an excuse to quit, there’s always one right there. …

You have to be the right kind of determined, though. I carefully chose the word determined rather than stubborn, because stubbornness is a disastrous quality in a startup. You have to be determined, but flexible …

6. There Is Always Room.

… There is always room for new stuff. At every point in history, even the darkest bits of the dark ages, people were discovering things that made everyone say “why didn’t anyone think of that before?” …

The reason we don’t see the opportunities all around us is that we adjust to however things are, and assume that’s how things have to be. …

So for all practical purposes, there is no limit to the number of startups. Startups make wealth, which means they make things people want, and if there’s a limit on the number of things people want, we are nowhere near it. …

7. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up.

Startup founders are naturally optimistic. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. But you should treat your optimism the way you’d treat the core of a nuclear reactor: as a source of power that’s also very dangerous. You have to build a shield around it, or it will fry you.

The shielding of a reactor is not uniform; the reactor would be useless if it were. It’s pierced in a few places to let pipes in. An optimism shield has to be pierced too. I think the place to draw the line is between what you expect of yourself, and what you expect of other people. It’s ok to be optimistic about what you can do, but assume the worst about machines and other people. …

Shielding your optimism is nowhere more important than with deals. If your startup is doing a deal, just assume it’s not going to happen. The VCs who say they’re going to invest in you aren’t. The company that says they’re going to buy you isn’t. The big customer who wants to use your system in their whole company won’t. Then if things work out you can be pleasantly surprised.

The reason I warn startups not to get their hopes up is not to save them from being disappointed when things fall through. It’s for a more practical reason: to prevent them from leaning their company against something that’s going to fall over, taking them with it.

For example, if someone says they want to invest in you, there’s a natural tendency to stop looking for other investors. That’s why people proposing deals seem so positive: they want you to stop looking. And you want to stop too, because doing deals is a pain. Raising money, in particular, is a huge time sink. So you have to consciously force yourself to keep looking. …

VCs and corp dev guys are professional negotiators. They’re trained to take advantage of weakness. [8] So while they’re often nice guys, they just can’t help it. And as pros they do this more than you. So don’t even try to bluff them. The only way a startup can have any leverage in a deal is genuinely not to need it. And if you don’t believe in a deal, you’ll be less likely to depend on it. …

The way to succeed in a startup is to focus on the goal of getting lots of users, and keep walking swiftly toward it while investors and acquirers scurry alongside trying to wave money in your face. …

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