When you are running a startup, there are countless concerns to hold in your head at any given time. You might be concerned about an employee's work output, whether or not a funding round will close, or whether that big first client is going to make a purchase. I've cofounded two startups and I know all too well how the chaos of the moment makes it easy to worry about the wrong problems. There will always be the unexpected, but there are three pieces of categorical advice that don't change. These issues get brought up on Hacker News often, but (as the title of this piece asserts) I believe that these topics need to be repeating frequently to keep them in the forefront of your mind.
Design interfaces for real people.
There are always going to be new design fads, don't let them distract you. Always get real people to sit down and try your prototypes. Having people go through that workflow that you think is "totally idiot-proof" will give you valuable insight not just into how they are navigating your site, but how they respond to such critical things as your value proposition.
Also realize it's going to take a long time to really polish the UI. Don't expect to tape together a new version and have it fix all of your usability problems.
At Skritter it took one of us about 1-2 months of part time labor to overhaul and redesign our vocabulary system. We did that 5 times. Our 6th attempt worked pretty well, but the process taught us it's about incremental improvements and persistence.
Business partnerships are mostly a waste of time.
Guy Kawasaki describes partnerships like this: "Men have a fundamental genetic flaw[...]: The desire to partner (verb!) with anything that moves."
But most partnerships fall through. Those that don't fall through are unlikely to solve any of your pressing business problems. There are always examples of business partnerships or client relationships that take a struggling startup and make it a mind-blowing success. There's a reason you've heard those stories: they are the lottery winners of the business world. Like all success stories, business partnerships suffer from a strong file-drawer effect and for every success you hear there are hundreds of failures. Resist forming partnerships as much as possible.
At both Skritter and CodeCombat, we were asked to form business partnerships many, many times. We have had several partnerships that worked out really well, but it took a lot of time intensive trail and error to find those. My advice: protect your most important asset (time) and avoid partnerships, especially early on.
Don't build too many features.
Call it feature creep, call it over-engineering, call it whatever you like, it is an insidious, subversive problem in web startups. In Skritter's first funding pitch we actually had a point that said "we will avoid feature creep." A year later we were still not measuring exactly how our paying customers used the product. As a result, we built things that deep down only satisfied ourselves. Our customers said they liked our new features, but most didn't make us money.
Worse, building all those features was inefficient and hard on morale. Every time we added a new feature we thought "great, this new feature will definitely boost the value of the product by 5%!" What we found, time and time again, was that the new feature had no discernible effect on the bottom line. After you've spent 6 months building a boatload of features that were supposed to increase sales dramatically, you and your co-founders have probably exhausted a lot of positive morale that you will need later.
You've heard all these points before, but they bear repeating.
- Buckle down and spend real time designing for actual people, not just those user stories in your product spec.
- Be wary of partnerships and hoard your time jealously. Very few partnerships are worth the costs.
- Create a sign for the office that asks a simple question "Will this feature help us achieve our business goals?" Answer the question honestly when deciding to built new stuff.
Even after founding two companies, going through YC, and reading thousands of startup blog posts, I still forgot these basic tenets and my forgetfulness has cost us. Everyone needs to be reminded about the basics now and again.