I did a quick presentation at the Montreal.rb meeting about startup to-dos — things you should really think about before starting companies. It’s great to see more and more developers and tech folks interested in starting companies. In places like Silicon Valley it’s often tech people who launch startups. We need more startups in Montreal and in other ecosystems that aren’t the current startup hubs. So kudos to the Montreal Ruby on Rails gang for recognizing that and pushing those ideas forward.
The presentation is below. While there are a few points in it that are Montreal-centric, they really do apply to any location.
- Get the best support staff you can: Everyone talks about hiring the best team, that A-players are incredibly more valuable and productive than B or C-players. But don’t forget the support staff too — accountants, bookkeepers, janitorial staff, etc. These people can make a huge difference to how smoothly your business operates, and they come in very handy during big startup milestones like financings and acquisitions.
- Get out of your comfort zone: Don’t start a company as a tech person if all you want to do is code. If all you want to do is code, then get a job coding. Starting a company means to do a lot of things you’ve never done, and a lot of things you won’t be comfortable doing. Get used to it. Make the uncomfortable comfortable.
- Decide what you stand for and believe in: I do think it’s important for startups at the very beginning to work on determining their values and purpose, and to find some common ground amongst co-founders. A startup culture isn’t automatic or easy to build and maintain.
- Do your homework: Although you can never really know what it’s like to start a company until you do it, you need to do your homework before you jump in with both feet blindly. There are ample resources for that: books, blogs, advisors, other successful entrepreneurs. On top of which, you need to do your homework about the industry, market, competitors, etc. You need to get out there and talk to customers before you even build a product. Do your homework. Please. Otherwise you stand a very good chance of being startup D.O.A.
- Iterate quickly and pivot nearly as fast: Developers don’t have to be told to iterate quickly, most guys get this, but what’s harder when you run a startup is to pivot — to essentially take what you’ve done and worked your ass off on and set it aside (I don’t like the term “throw it in the garbage”) to do something different. And often what you pivot to is significantly different. You have to have the wherewithal and maturity to accept that something you’re doing isn’t working, stop banging your head against the wall and change. There’s a fine line between “good stubborn” and “bad stubborn” – be aware of when you might be crossing it.
- Understand metrics and how to optimize them: You need to know what key metrics will help assess success or failure for your startup. It might be repeat visitors. It might be some form of engagement. It might be lifetime value of the customer. It might be all of those things. Whatever the metrics specifically are, you need to know them, measure them constantly and work on optimizing them. You’d be surprised at how small product changes (or even marketing message / brand changes) can have a significant impact on key metrics.
- Know what milestones you need to hit: Focus is so important in a startup. You need a ton of it. And you need everyone in your startup aligned on the same milestones. I think of milestones as gates — gates that you either go through because you’ve accomplished what you needed to, or gates that are closed to you. If they’re closed you circle back and try again (and likely pivot) or stop. This warrants an entirely separate post…
- Build a personal brand: I repeat this quite often in many different situations because you can’t ignore the power of having a strong personal brand. The great thing about a personal brand is that it lives past the life of your startup. Whether your startup succeeds or fails, your personal brand provides future social leverage in your life. And it can help propel your existing startup in lots of ways.
- Get your ass out of X: In the slides above I say “Montreal” but really this is relevant to everyone, including folks in the startup hubs like Silicon Valley and New York. Get out of there! The universe isn’t a 5 mile radius around your office. Your customers aren’t necessarily your neighbors. This is especially true in places like Montreal, where most of your startup’s business will be elsewhere. Get your ass out there and discover the world. Meet as many people as you can. Recognize the speed at which the world is moving (cause you’re probably moving too slowly) and the power of networking.
- Don’t raise money … until you’re ready: You raise money when you understand what you’re going to use it for (i.e. what’s the next gate you have to get through that requires funds) and when you’ve lowered the risk enough to the point that you’ll be able to raise more money at a better valuation. The longer you wait to raise funding as you’re making progress on your product, acquiring customers, etc. the better.