It’s amazing how little you have to know to dispense startup advice, so take this one with a grain of salt. I am only speaking from the position of having worked on just❤liked for about 9 months without much to show for it.
Looking back at these 9 months it’s patently obvious that we would be in much better shape now if we prioritized some things differently or skipped them altogether. Here is your chance to learn from our mistakes.
This one is really an opportunity for your vanity to kick in. Giddy with excitement about the new venture you start thinking about the names before you have written the first line of code. It’s one of those nagging thoughts that stays with you until you find a good name and put a stake in the ground, i.e. register the domain and start referring to the project by its new moniker.
Total. Waste. Of. Time. You are bootstrapped, and naming your startup distracts you from what you need to do first, which to to put together a minimum viable product and to start showing it to your next of kin, trusted acquaintances and friends. Remember though, all you have at the end of the naming exercise is a name.
Another problem with premature naming, apart that it takes a long time to come up with a name and agree on it (here we did even worse as we also decided to make people pick from our shortlist), is that the idea for your startup will evolve even before you get to alpha. The name that seemed all the rage couple of months ago will stop seeming so hot after your core idea is tossed around some.
Searching for early adopters
I know what you are thinking, and this is what the lean startup philosophy will tell you to do, “you gotta go out and talk to users”. Well, we were not talking to users. What we did was sell them a very vague idea of a service that will do such and such.
This is not customer development per se. It’s more like marketing your idea and getting a pool of people to soft-commit to trying it when you have the first prototype. You can’t avoid recruiting early adopters eventually, but what caught us off-guard is that we grossly overestimated our ability to execute on the implementation, leaving our early adopters high and dry for longer than we originally intended.
The result is that we have early adopters, but nothing for them to adopt. It’s fair to say that you are going to behind schedule no matter what you do, especially so if you are bootstrapped and naive like we are. In retrospect, I would not have spent time seeking out early adopters so early. Instead I would have waited until literally the day before we could show something (that day would then translate into 2-3 weeks of work, which could be used to get early adopter’s attention).
In general it pays to defer searching for users until you are absolutely sure you are not going to be caught making empty promises. In all fairness we never promised to deliver something on a specific date, but I still feel like this is more or less implied when you are signing people up for something and taking their emails.
This is one of those things that just seems incredibly simple on paper but really hard in practice. You gotta scrub your vision free from all the bells and whistles and you have to be ruthless about it. When you arrive at your scope for alpha be ready to throw out half the features on the list before you are done. And I mean it. Literally 50% of the features must be put on the backlog or you will never have your prototype.
We had a reasonable feature list for alpha, but as development sputtered along it became patently obviously that there was no way we could complete it in the foreseeable future. We took the last week to get back to the drawing board and to whittle it down some more, but I feel like this is not the last time we are going to have to do this.
If you are a bootstrapped startup like we are, your first prototype has to be a tiny subset of your vision. Unless you have a track record of launching products on time and hitting those deadlines (especially when you are the one implementing the stuff too), the odds of your alpha being delayed by less than 50% are close to 0. I wish we had enough foresight to prepare for this early on, and it’s not like the startup blogs don’t warn about ‘it will take much longer than you think’ phenomenon.
Alas, learning from other people’s mistakes is just too predictable. Don’t be the next fool thinking that.