Now it seems like previous year went by incredibly fast. It was full of lessons from diverse pool of areas. Most of them learned the hard way. In this post, I will share with you the first seven of them. It doesn’t matter if you are already an entrepreneur, soon-to-be entrepreneur or freelancer working on some side projects. There is a chance you will find a way to learn from these lessons and apply them to your current situation. Remember, it is great to learn from the mistakes you did, but it is much better to learn from mistakes other people did without repeating them.
No.1: Sell It Before You Build It
One of the most important startup lessons I learned in previous year was to always try to sell the idea before actually building it. Although many people involved in building products and startups often give this advice, I had to learn it the hard way. What’s more, unlike any of other startup lessons described in this article I had to repeat this mistake couple times to finally get it. Yes, I was that blind and deaf. It took couple couple of unsuccessful projects, thousands lines of code and hundreds of hours of work. Pretty interesting statistics for just one of the lessons we will discuss.
Anyway, the result of behind these statistics was always some project that was almost impossible to sell. One can see startup related lessons such as this one as unfortunate situation. However, I have to disagree. Sure, it would be much more comfortable to learn from successes. But, as Bill Gates once said, success is a lousy teacher. On the other hand, it is painful and expensive failure what has the power to literally drive knowledge to our brain. From this point of view, I see such lessons as incredibly lucky moments. Think about it as touching a hot pan or oven. You will get burned and experience a pain. Although it is uncomfortable way to learn to never touch hot pan or oven again, you will remember it in much more vivid colors. It is painful, but true.
Anyways, back to the lesson learned, specifically to sell your idea first. Here is a secret. It doesn’t matter how many ideas do you have if you are not able to sell them. In other words, there is no big difference between someone who is able to write down ten ideas in one sitting and another person who needs an hour of focused thinking to come up with just one. If neither of those people are not able to find customers to whom they can sell their ideas, they both will end up on the same place – unemployment office. If you are not trying to sell your idea before building it, you are potentially wasting your precious time and resources on something that may never be viable.
When I’m trying to sell this idea of pre-selling to other people, entrepreneurs, wannapreneurs and freelancers, they often see it as some kind if a scam or fraud. In reality, pre-selling your idea is one of the best business lessons and viability tests you can find. Meaning, you can ask random people on the street whether they like your product or not. Unfortunately, many of them will answer in a positive sense only to get rid of you. On the hand, when you offer people the opportunity to buy your product, your data will become much more truthful and useful.
Here is the thing, there is a big difference between liking something and be willing to pay for it. So, instead of asking for feedback or likes, ask for orders. This will be the best litmus test to find out whether the product you are working on has a future or if you should drop it and try something else. Remember, you will never get the time you wasted back. Be smart and invest it wisely.
Takeaway: Test your idea by pre-selling it to your customers. It will be great indicator that will show you the viability of your idea. If no one will want to pre-order your product, don’t waste your time building it. Move on and try something else instead.
No.2: If You Build It They Will Not Come
Another of the lessons I wish I knew in the beginning – if you build it, they will not come. Unless you take care about marketing, nobody will know your product or company exist. This is also one of the false believes I see amongst beginning makers. They often invest enormous amount of their time to perfect every detail of their product. Then, they will put their product on the market and either take a short break or jump right into next project. This often leads to end of entrepreneurial endeavors before they will have any chance to begin. If you see yourself in previous lines, you have to understand that marketing is part of your job. Nobody will do it for you. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked on your product.
When you finish it, it’s actually only the first part of your job that’s complete. The second part is promoting your product on social media, in your local area, et cetera. Imagine it as throwing a stone into still water. Yes, one stone will cause couple small waves, but they will disappear very soon. You have to continue and throw another stone again and again to create more waves. With time, those waves will get stronger and bigger and travel farther. The exact same thing applies to promotion of your product. This is one of the marketing lessons many entrepreneurs forget. Sending just one tweet or posting just one post on Facebook is almost worthless.
Think about how many tweets or Facebook posts is created every minute. The real number is insane. It will literally blow your mind. Let’s make this number more vivid. Imagine a highway with billboard on every two meters. What’s more, every car is driving around these billboards at, at least, one hundred miles per hour. This is how social media looks like when half of the world is sleeping and second half is tired to death. So, what will happen when one of those billboards will show your message once? Not so much. The majority of drivers will not even notice that and just continue. The most of those few who will notice it will not take any action either. Only very small group will actually react.
To turn this into numbers, from hundreds of people on social media only couple of dozens will notice your tweet or post. And, only few individuals will be interested enough to take an action and click on link included. Unfortunately, nobody knows how many of these people will also open their wallets and make the purchase. I know it’s sad, almost depressing. You’ve spent countless hours to bring your idea into reality. And, unless you will approach promoting your product as a full-time job, the chances of success are that small. This is also the reason I started this post about startup lessons with pre-selling. Remember, marketing will NOT take care about itself.
Takeaway: When you finish building your product, your job is only half-way complete. The next step is to promote your product on as many channels as possible. In order to sell it, you have to get your product in front of as many eyes as you can. Otherwise, it will fade out just like the sound of falling tree in the forest.
No.3: Anything That Needs Manual Is Broken
One of my favorite quotes by one of my mentors Elon Musk is following: “Any product that needs a manual to work is broken”. It is as simple as that. Any time you need to explain to your user or potential customers how your product works, it is a sign you’ve made a mistake. This is one of the lessons we often have to learn the hard way, and face it repeatedly. The first time I had to deal with it was actually during discussion with developer. You now what they say about designers working with developers. Well, there is a bit of truth to it.
Although I am deeply technical person (scientist in mind, artist in heart), I too had to go through few situations where I wanted to literally scream: “What the f*ck don’t you understand?? It’s so obvious!” Honestly, it wasn’t. Here is the thing … Any time you have to ask that question or you have to explain something to someone, it is not as simple as it should be. It is unquestionable fact that the most successful products are the ones that are the easier to use. If you don’t believe it, let’s think about how even chimpanzees were able to use an iPad.
This is not a joke. Scientists really did this experiment. Next to chimpanzee, human children were also able to use iPads without any instructions. Considering these results, it is no surprise that this product was such a successes. Lessons learned from it you can apply to your products and projects? Make them all so simple that they don’t need a manual. This lesson can and should be applied to any product, no matter what it is supposed to do.
When you conduct a focus group and have to spend first couple minutes explaining people what they should do, you already found one issue. The best way to find out whether your product is really easy to use is to put it in hands of your customer and just wait. If he or she will be able to figure out how to work with it by using intuition, you did good job. Having said that, customer should be able to figure it out in terms of couple seconds or minutes, not hours or days.
I will repeat myself, but I will take the risk … If person needs half an hour to understand how you app works, you should consider making some changes. Remember that you can’t be there for every customer to explain to him or her how this or that feature works. Next, how many people do you think read manuals or tutorials? Possibly not so much. The last thing to keep on mind is that customers will give your product only so much time before they will move on to something else.
So, unless you want to lose them forever or waste your time, resources and energy on trying to convince them to give it one more shot, you had better do it right the first time. How? Make it simple, easy and intuitive. Stop thinking about UX as something mystical or a magic. Approach it as a science and apply its lessons and methods to your products. Also, don’t be afraid to look over the shoulder of your competition or draw from different industries. Do whatever it takes to make your product user-friendly and lovable because you will not get another chance.
Takeaway: Any product that needs manual is broken. Make an effort to make your product as simple, easy to use and intuitive as possible. In most cases, your customers will give you only one shot. Don’t waste it. If you should apply only one of the lessons from this post, be it this one.
No.4: Choose Your Co-Founder Cautiously
One of the more painful lessons a startup life can give you is when you find out that you and your co-founder are not the best suit. Many entrepreneurs and people interested in startup environment see like to see at as a trip to Las Vegas. You will raise some capital, encourage yourself to take the risk and jump into the game. Unfortunately, such an adventure often ends up badly. The least harmful results can be a hangover and bigger bill for a hotel.
On the other hand, the whole situation can also turn much worse. You might as well end up with a tattoo, married with a prostitute or even with a child on the way. We all know such stories. Although they can be reverted, it is not an easy process. And, you will regret going through these situations for the rest of your life. I guess that you probably want to avoid such experiences, like getting married wrong person, in your life. Do the same thing when it comes to your startup.
Meaning, if you decide to start a business with co-founder, make sure to base your decision on rational foundation. You should always weight all pros and cons before making the final decision and choosing your co-founder. As in case of other lessons, I had to learn this one the hard way as well, twice. In both situations, me and my co-founders were not the right fit. We had completely different opinions on fundamental things related to our startup and just how to get things done.
What’s more, after a short time, we found out that we were unable to work side by side. Seriously. After spending five hours in the same room, we would want to kill each other. As you probably guessed, the cost was existence of the startup itself. Although it was still painful to bury the startup and whole idea, it was also very liberating. It removed all the stress we were living and working on a daily basis. After the decision to break the ties, each of us moved on to pursue his next project.
I was not in contact with my ex-co-founders since the time our paths diverged. However, I was happy to see that they, and I as well, used this and other lessons we learned together to make our next ventures more successful. From this point of view, I don’t see the failing of our startups as a complete failure. As said, we all learned important lessons that we would not probably be able to learn as fast by any other way. Still, my advice to you is to get the co-founder aspect of your business right on the first try.
It was partially luck that we recognized our incompatibility and were willing to terminate it before it was too late. Otherwise, the whole process would be much harder. Just imagine what would happen if we would continue regardless of our incompatibility and turn our ideas into startups. To take this thought experiment even farther, imagine we would hire couple employees and then decided to end it. We would not be responsible just for ourselves, but for our employees as well.
Takeaway: Building a company with a co-founder is like a marriage. Approach it with responsibility and don’t rush it. Take your time and chose your partner wisely.
No.5: Hire Only the Best People
This one, unlike the rest of lessons, will be very short. When you decide it’s time to get more people on board, hire only the best. If you want to keep your team performing at its peak, avoid hiring anyone who is less than A player. Remember that getting just one B player on your team will affect the morale and drive of the rest of your employees. What’s more, it will be a beginning of a downward spiral. You will start with one and before you recognize it, half of your team will be composed of B players.
The only way to avoid this is simple … Never start hiring B players. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against B players and people willing to settle with average results. However, when building a team that will take our startup from ground to peak levels, I focus on hiring only the best. I like to call these people a unicorns. The reason is that they are in shortage. Currently, you have to talk with at least ten people to find just one. Dodge the bullet and invest your time and energy to turn every stone to find the best people. You will not regret it.
Takeaway: If you want to create team that will take your startup to levels you never even dreamed about, hire only the best people you can find. Never ever settle with less than that. Remember, it all starts with hiring one average man. The next you see is how your team’s drive and morale goes down. The only way to avoid this trap is by hiring only the elite.
No.6: Trim and Simplify
Another lesson I learned in 2015 is that you should always make your product as lean as possible. Meaning, instead of implementing four, five or more crappy features focus on one. Write down the rest and save it somewhere for another project if you want. Just don’t delude your current project with that. Trust me in this. Your customers will appreciate one perfectly crafted feature they will use on a daily basis than three buggy. I had to learn this the hard way on one of the startups I worked on. It was a web and mobile app. We initially though that the more will we offer the better. Unfortunately, we were completely wrong.
Although our customers liked our app and all what they could have done with it, our mailboxes were full of bug reports every day. Back then, the whole team was just me, one co-founder and another android developer. In the beginning, we were considering hiring another developer. Unfortunately, the app was not profitable and we couldn’t afford it. So, we turned to our users. We basically told them the truth. We cannot work out every bug or hire more people due to limited resources. The overall reaction was shocking. The majority of them replied positively.
They suggested features we could remove to make more space for the most important one. We were scared to death to cut off the majority of features. We were afraid of losing potential customers. We were afraid of going too narrow. Anyway, after three sessions of discussions and arguing we decided to go with it. Let me tell you that stripping down the features felt like cutting our own flesh. It was painful process. Some of the features were in our app since the beginning and it cost us a lot of time and energy to get them to current state. Anyway, we decreased the amount of code for more than half.
After this “operation” our app was running much faster and the number if bug reports went down significantly. Unfortunately, the app was not success. We kept it running basically as a side project for almost two months and then, we decided to pull the break. Although it had some customer base, it was not enough to keep it going. It was not sustainable without another source of income. And, since one of my principles is that one product should not live from money coming from another one – be a parasite, I convinced my co-founder to consider closing it. Luckily, my co-founder had a similar opinion and agreed on taking our app down.
The next day we sent mail to all our customers, thanked them for their support and announced taking down our app. Was it painful? Yes. However, we learned a lot of things from and I cannot wait to put them into practice on my next venture.
The last example related of overstuffed product, at last in my opinion, is about startup working on browser extension focused on social media optimization. Full disclosure, I came to this startup as an intern and worked my butt off to lead front-end engineer. I liked to work on the extension and website for the startup. The I was at was also good. Unfortunately, with time, I came to conclusion that over product – the extension – was getting too overstuffed with “cool” features. It had about seven features in total. This may not seem as too many, but here is the thing.
Data was showing again and again that the majority of our users are actually using only one or two of those features. Daily usage of these two ranged from forty to sixty percent. The rest of features fluctuated in single-digit values, at their best. Another important thing was that most of the features very pretty buggy. Unfortunately, it was hard to point this fact out due to the minor usage of these features. You know, the fewer user use it, the less likely will you get some bug report. After several unsuccessful attempts to address this issue, I decided to leave that startup.
Lessons learned the hard way? When nobody wants to listen to you, pack your stuff and leave.
Takeaway: What ever project you are about to start, strip it down to bare essentials. Avoid falling into the “more features = more customers” trap. Diluting your product with more features will only confuse your customers and make it harder to workout every detail into the state of perfection. And, if you are in doubt, ask the data.
No.7: If You Don’t Love It, Don’t Do It
The last thing I learned is to never start something unless you absolutely love it. Here is the thing … As you will experience on your own working on your business, for every one good day there are at least two horrible. Seriously. The amount of the days when you will want to throw in the towel and give it up will be at least double. This also why so few people are willing to quit their job and start their own business. You are working insane hours, not knowing if you will be able to pay the rent or wages at the end of the month. Your stress levels are constantly high.
You will have to face copious number of challenges and obstacles in order to make your dreams reality. If you think that you can rely on extrinsic motivation, you are wrong. It doesn’t matter how strong and supportive your friends and family are. If you don’t love it, there will be moments when your life will seem like hell. Even if it’s your hobby, give it a time and you will hate it. The only way out of this is to absolutely love what you do. Will this remove the hard days? Unfortunately, no.
However, it will make it much easier for you to go through them without the loss of enthusiasm. You will be able to keep that inner fire burning. You will be able to keep going no matter how hard your life will get. This is the real difference between success and failure, winners and losers. It is this ability to got hit and keep going. It doesn’t matter how hard the punch will be, it will not knock you out. You will always get back on your legs and continue.
Takeaway: If you are not one hundred percent sure you love it, don’t start it.
Closing thoughts on Lessons Learned in 2015
Previous year is behind us and this is just a handful of lessons I learned. The total amount of lessons I and people I know learned is much higher and you will probably have a chance to learn about them in near future. For now, I hope these seven lessons will help you start and manage your business much better. Remember, it is great to learn from your own mistakes, but it is much better to learn from mistakes of other people without repeating them.
If you have any suggestions or lessons other people should know about, let me know. The more knowledge will be available the more people will be able to succeed on the first try and pursue their dreams. And, this is something we all should strive for. In the end, you have only one life and one chance to make it. Why to waste it on something you don’t like to do?
Thank you for your attention and have a nice day.