Before you pursue your startup idea, remember that some of the most successful people in business have failed. Many have even failed repeatedly but they have never given up. Successful people are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and keep going. My point here is that whatever your original business idea is you might face failure at some time. You'll eventually succeed if you keep fighting with and improving your idea ‘til it works. If you want to be successful the only question you should ask yourself is, "Am I ready to accept failure and get up on my feet?" If the answer is "yes," you are ready to build your idea and start your own business.
In my case, the lack of knowledge about what a startup meant was holding me back from starting my business. Some people have mentors that help them along the way. I didn’t. Nevertheless, throughout my career I had the chance to talk to many successful managers and startup founders. I thought that the secret of success could be unrevealed by understanding what they were doing.
Being a successful startup founder is a process more than an innate superpower. Starting up is most importantly a very complicated and bumpy road. Because of this fact, I wanted to share some tips that were given to me by successful founders. This list non-exhaustive and will be updated regularly. Your feedback and/or input is very much appreciated.
Make sure you have the right co-founders
It’s hypothesized that a major cause of failure in startups is the dispute between founders. I wrote a blog post about how to find the best co-founder. My personal suggestion from this blog is that it’s much more important to work with the right person than the business idea itself. Thus, before launching your startup, make sure you are doing it with the right person.
Make sure you do things that people want or need
This may sound obvious but doing things that people really want or need is the first pillar of success. No matter your idea or the business you create, you should be able to solve real problems of your prospective client base. If you don’t follow this principle, you will lose time and money, in most cases.
The presence of strong competition shouldn’t scare you because it proves the presence of an established market. In some cases, it’s enough to enter this market with an improved or more efficient service to be rewarded economically.
If you are building a newly disruptive product or service, it can be more difficult to understand to what extent people will use it. In this case, experts strongly suggest testing it very quickly with a small, targeted population to make sure people really want what you are building.
As soon as you have an idea, start talking to people around you to see what they think of your idea. Ask them if they would use it or not and the reasons why or why not. After you talk to friends and colleagues, you should go talk to field experts to get a higher level of validation. Only after this process should you build your idea.
Always test your assumptions in practice
I can no longer count the number of times I’ve come up with a “great” idea for a new feature to propose to my clients. However, most of the time I’ve realized the idea was unsuccessful in practice, either because it was too difficult to implement or because people simply weren’t as interested as I thought.
This isn’t something to be alarmed by. It’s completely normal since real life testing adds new dimensions to a product, making it more complex. This means it’s fundamental to test all assumptions in practice as quickly as possible. By doing this, you can discard bad ideas and focus on the ones people really want and that can be implemented.
Make as many mistakes as possible
“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
The best way to never succeed is to never try anything. I believe many very successful entrepreneurs make mistakes repeatedly. Their strength lies in the fact that they are able to stand up, learn from their mistakes and move on. Mistakes can have much value for us if we acknowledge them and make use of what they have taught us. I would suggest committing to as many mistakes as possible and remembering that immobilization is far worse than making a mistake.
Don’t try to scale too fast; focus on organic growth instead
If you have found something people want, you should now focus on growth. You certainly want the biggest number of client to buy your product as quickly as possible. This is almost certainly the ultimate goal of every startup founder. The dangerous part of this line of thinking is that if you scale when your product/service is not ready for scaling, you can seriously harm your business. For instance, it is estimated that 74% of digital startups fail because of premature scaling (http://www.geekwire.com/2011/number-reason-startups-fail-premature-scaling/). This can happen in many forms, including hiring too many employees too fast or spending too much in customer acquisition.
With this in mind, the right question should be, “How fast should a startup grow?” The answer is difficult and can change based on the business you are in. For a digital startup, it seems the right answer would be “exponentially.” If your starting number is small—let’s say 100 users—you may grow very slowly at the beginning in terms of absolute numbers. Even a growth of 50% in a month will give you only 50 new users. This isn’t cause for concern because at the beginning you still probably do not understand exactly what your users want. At the same time, your infrastructure is not yet ready to absorb more users. However, if you manage exponential growth from this point, you can find yourself your absolute numbers will grow very quickly. For instance, let’s say you have 100 users to start with and you grow 10% week by week. If this rate of growth continues for 24 months, you’ll find yourself with more than 300,000 users.
The best way to generate exponential growth is by focusing on organic growth instead of one-shot growth. Using the press or well-prepared commercials can generate many clients in very quickly. The problem with this type of growth is that it will stop as soon as the “show is over.” Organic growth, on the other hand, means that people like your product and talk about it to their friends. Organic growth is certainly not easy to trigger but it is much more powerful than any commercial you may run. In order to trigger organic growth, you need to add real value to your users. This is why organic growth has the advantage of making you focus on the real startup challenge, which is adding value to your users.
Launch your product/service as soon as possible
Many people tend to wait ‘til their product/service is 100% ready before proposing it to their potential clients. I’ve even witnessed people spending months trying to perfect every detail of their already good enough product before going public. This is a huge mistake because they were wasting time adding features that were not important for their clients. Instead, startup founders should ask for feedback as quickly as possible. Success is an iteration process that happens by asking for feedback and adapting the product based on the feedback.
Successful people also ask for feedback all of the time so they can improve. You shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback. In my own startup experience, I’ve found people tend to be nice when asked for feedback. They are probably afraid to hurt us with their opinion. This is problematic because if nobody tells you what’s wrong with your product or service, you’ll never be able to improve it. That is why when I ask for comments, feedback or suggestions I specifically ask customers to give me rude answers. This is the only way I can correct what’s wrong and create solid solutions to these problems.
For example, Ben Silbermann of Pinterest began by recruiting users manually. He even walked into various cafes in Palo Alto and asked random people to try out Pinterest, gathering precious feedback in the process.
Get face to face feedback
Whatever your business is, get on the street and talk to real people in person. Emailing and phone conversations are certainly a good way to communicate if you’re looking for quick answers but if you really want to understand your users, you should create a plan to meet them in person.
There was a time when I was developing an Internet site and got stuck. People seemed to exit at the same page and I couldn’t figure out why. I decided to go talk to them. I found random people willing to help and I asked them to use the site as if they were new users. I was silently standing behind them, watching what they were doing on the site. It was very interesting to see their emotions while they were browsing the site. During this process, I starting understanding what was not working and, most importantly, I learned why. Thanks to this user testing I was later able to solve the issue and move to the next step.
Fight for every single client
Every single user is important. This is especially true at the early stages of your business. I was bootstrapping an online business and I will always remember the day I received an email from one of our users asking to delete his account. I replied within few minutes, trying to understand what was wrong. We had discussion until he had no further questions. After this conversation, he decided to keep his profile on our platform and, after a few days, he came back as a client because he appreciated our user support.
While nobody knows for sure if this secret to success, it certainly it helped improve the site and could also have generated organic growth, which as I described earlier is a powerful engine for growth.
A/B test as much as possible
A/B testing is jargon for running an experiment with two variants, A and B. The goal is to identify which of the two variants maximize your selected metric. The metric can be the bounce rate on an Internet page, the number of clicks on an email campaign or any other metric you may set. This is very helpful when you need to improve your current site but you don’t know exactly how. In practice, you have to set two different scenarios that are identical except for one variation that might change the final outcome. The two scenarios are randomly proposed to the targeted clients and the final outcome is measured.
For instance, e-commerce Internet sites can use A/B testing to increase the conversion rate and maximize sales. It is possible to see which landing page converts more users to active clients by testing the result of two different versions of the landing page against each other. Each page of an Internet site can be improved by constant A/B testing. After running each A/B test, you keep the variation that gave the best result and discard the other. For digital startups, this process should be reiterated as much as possible. Airbnb created a blog post to explain how they have used A/B testing on their site (http://nerds.airbnb.com/experiments-at-airbnb/).
Sales, sales, sales
I believe the sales process is the equivalent of talking to potential clients and getting real feedback while simultaneously trying to make money. If your product or service is solid and you are targeting the right client, you should be able to sell it to him. This means if you can’t make a sale, there must be something wrong with your product. It can be the way you sell it, the channel you use to generate these sales or some other factors, but if you don’t sell, something must be improved in terms of what you’re offering or how it is being offered.
By trying to sell, you typically get real feedback about the quality of your product or service. This gives you the chance to improve it. For example, the founders of Airbnb went to New York every week to meet with hosts. Through this process, they learned important ways to make their listings more appealing, such as the importance of taking high quality pictures of spaces.
Frequently startups are also short on cash. Many startups fail because they don’t pay enough attention to their cash flow. Founders suddenly realize they don’t have enough money to pay salaries or maintain the infrastructure required for their business and are forced to shut down operations. This is another reason to start thinking of sales as soon as possible, even if the product or service you propose is not perfect.
Find your market from the bottom up if you want to be disruptive
Take the example of Henry Ford. When he created the first car, he didn’t look at the market and say, “There are this many horses, which means we can have this only the same number of cars.” Instead, he created the market from the bottom up by creating the need for his product. This is the problem of all disruptive companies that propose a new service or product. How do you define your market if you are the pioneer?
Disruptive startups almost always start narrow and deep. Take the example of Facebook, which was initially designed only for Harvard University students. Though they didn’t have a large user base, all of the users were interested in the service. Apple started out in the same way when Steve Wozniak made his first computer simply to impress his friends.
By targeting narrow and deep user bases, successful startups are able to get feedback so as to improve their product or service. In this way, they build their future clients from the bottom up.
Avoid associations and partnerships
Don’t waste time. Starting up and setting a business on the right path is complicated and requires all your energy. No shortcuts are possible. In the early stages of a startup, the time you spend doing something that is not your core business will only slow you down. Setting up associations and partnerships takes time and effort. In the early stages of your startup, if someone is interested in your service or product you can establish a client-seller relationship but don’t waste your time trying to build any formal partnership.
In a later stage, when the business is established, you can strategically go into partnerships to expand your client base or product/service offers.
Always have a hill climbing approach
Succeeding is the process of overcoming all difficulties one by one. Many successful startup founders told me, “I wouldn’t have started if I had known how many problems you have to solve when starting up a business.”
This is where the hill climbing approach enters. In mathematics, hill climbing is used to derive a local optimum when it is not possible to directly determine the best global solution. By reiterating the process and finding successive local solutions, it is possible to get closer and closer to the global optimum.
This can be translated to a startup process by trying to find the best local solution for the given moment. This means solving problems one by one as soon as they arise. If you take the illustration at the beginning of the post as an example, this means one doesn’t have to immediately worry about the final destination since it is not possible to get there in one step. Conversely, one will succeed simply by solving all obstacles found along the way.
For example, if your target user acquisition growth to succeed is 10% week on week, you should only think of getting this done. Every week will be like a different hill. So you the first week might you’ll be able to reach the target only by one on one sales. After a few weeks, you’ll probably need to add some new sales channels to keep the 10% growth. After a few months, you’ll be thinking mainly of inbound marketing. This means every week will be different and you have to overcome every obstacle as if it were its own hill. If you follow this model, you’ll find yourself surpassing your final goal.