Tag Archives: leanstartup

Free time with guilt

If you’ve ever been a graduate student you’ve probably heard this refrain (and understood immediately what it meant):

Grad school is free time with guilt.

For those of us trying to bootstrap a business, this phrase should ring a very special, personal bell. Our free time can either be spent working on the startup that we love or idling. If you are passionate about the journey you’ve chosen, you should be familiar with the feeling of guilt you experience when you are not making the optimal use of your free time. I know this feeling very well.

When bootstrapping, you are at once painfully aware of the fact that you have very little time to waste and painfully at the mercy of your own motivation. Having no one to bear down on you, no one to impose the deadlines, and no one to assign you performance targets can give you a false sense of security that can prove deadly to the very business you are trying to bootstrap. There are no external motivators. Everything we do in our spare time is self-imposed.

Truth be told, I just wasn’t passionate enough about Computer Science PhD at Berkeley. When the time came to choose between sticking around for another 3-4 years or entering the job force with Masters, I had little reservations about moving on. I couldn’t feel more differently about LinkPeelr, just❤liked, and all other bubbling ideas that keep me up at night. These are the things that no one is forcing (or even motivating) me to do, and yet I invest a large portion of my free time doing them.

At the end of the day, true passion is not a form of motivation. It’s a whole other category that renders the art of (self-)motivation irrelevant. It’s what gets you out of bed on an early Saturday morning to work on things that barely let you go to bed on Friday night.

Free time with guilt? Yes, please.

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Make your bootstrapped startup work

Note from the author (added 29/9/2010): It seems that some readers found this post a little too opinionated for someone who hasn’t yet launched. I’ve tried to address your legitimate feedback in the comments here and on Hacker News. I’ve also done some toning down on passages below.

Don’t waste your precious pre-launch time like we have has been so well-received that I decided to expand on the topic and bring you a few more tips from the hapless entrepreneurs behind yet-to-be-launched just❤liked.

Get something online fast

It doesn’t matter whether you call it the launch, the beta, the alpha or something else. It’s absolutely critical that you make your app (some version of it), available online as soon as possible, and this is something we didn’t too well. In retrospect it seems that ideally we would have put something up within 1 or 2 weeks after nailing down the principles and definitions between ourselves. I’d be as aggressive as possible about this milestone and hold yourself accountable for missing this first and, in my view, the most important of deadlines before your real launch. We too should have been harsher on ourselves slipping that deadline.

Why do I insist so vehemently on having something online as soon as possible? Well, having something online gives you an entirely new perspective on the app. This may seem totally counterintuitive because development environments often do good enough job of emulating what the online experience will be like.  And yet they are not the real thing, especially if your application is a multi-user one.

Many things (e.g. image pre-loading, web copy and messaging, and analytics) you will never plan for unless you’ve gone through the exercise before, and you would be well-served by giving the task of getting online fast the highest priority possible. The approach is also consistent with “iterate like mad” mantra. You can’t iterate without the first iteration. This actually reminded me of the way mathematical induction works. If you don’t have it proven for N, you can’t prove it for N+1.

Avoid Sophisticated User/Customer Acquisition Schemes

I know how tempting it is to make the alpha, the beta, the theta, etc. exclusive for a select set of users, priming your customer acquisition pipeline and virally spreading the news of your glorious app to the rest of the Internet. Yes, it sounds great, except you are a bootstrapped startup with very limited resources to spare on marketing and promotion. We too got a little carried away entertaining notions of viral growth while we should have focused on getting the app online.

If you are a starry-eye entrepreneur like myself and your user acquisition strategy is based on creating artificial scarcity, STOP!

This is domain of funded startups with connections. Chances are you are not going to be able to pull it off just on your own unless you are incredibly well connected (but then you are probably not bootstrapped). More importantly, if you get carried away with your scarcity generation, you’ll soon find out that you are creating scarcity around vaporware, which is a far worse situation to be in when you are trying to build trust around your name and product.

Keep in mind that scarcity doesn’t need to be generated: it’s inherent in every new product, and it’s the scarcity of user’s attention.  I recommend to just open it up to all. Surely, nobody will come, but solving this problem is much easier when you already whetted it against early adopters and have something to iterate from.

Limit Conceptual Discussions and Long Term Planning

It’s important to agree on the basic principles of the application and to define the important terms that you will be operating with for the duration of the project. This will ensure that all involved operate with the same vocabulary. We’ve been bitten by this couple of times while working on just❤liked. Trust me, redoing things just because you misunderstood your co-founder is not fun.

I don’t believe it’s a wise use of anyone’s time to make plans that stretch beyond  MVP. Sure, you may have a notion of how you want it all to turn out in the end, but it’s best to keep that notion to yourself until it morphs into something else or goes away. Because it most certainly will.

Your primary focus should be on building something crippled and putting it online. Make “crippled” a requirement if you must, just get it done. Anything that distracts you from this task or derails your efforts is counterproductive.  Don’t belabor the evolution of the product until you have the first version and your opinions and speculations about the target market and user acquisition strategy are a little more informed.

Thinking about user experience is exhilirating

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After 3+ years of doing technical marketing for an embedded software B2B product I am only now realizing how much I’ve missed all things connected to consumers, user interfaces and user experience.

Thinking about all the great things we can do with our JustLiked app gets me really excited about the future, so is learning JQuery and Django and brushing up on HTML. But that’s just the boring part of learning, the really cool part is putting our humble assumptions in front of real people and iterating like mad. Alas, I know have the opportunity to do so.

The whole lean startup movement (which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately), its product and customer development cycles, its learn and iterate fast mantra are a natural fit for web/mobile/consumer apps where we don’t ship boxes, manufacture anything or have complicated IP licensing terms for legal to review over the course of 2 months. I know the grass is always greener on the other side, I am just hopeful that everyone on the other side appreciates how good they have it there. I do too now.

To say that consumer play is an entirely different ballgame from B2B is to say nothing at all. It’s two different universes, and I am about to find out how well I fare in this new one.