This post was originally published on the Junction blog (http://thejunction.co.il/blog/).
Doing a startup is really REALLY hard. It is much harder than you expect. Trust me.
We have learnt a lot on our journey: about ourselves, about our domain, and about building a startup. Boiling it all down to a readable post is not easy. Nevertheless, I can highlight the most important lessons I’ve learnt:
Commit 100 Percent
Our venture started off as a hobby. For a long time, most of us worked on it in our spare time. And then we switched to part time jobs and worked on our venture 50% of our time. Only at the last 4 months we fully committed ourselves to our venture.
Our progress during the first stage (the hobby) was painfully slow. Even worse, only when we switched to 50%, we understood we were working on the wrong product all along. Working at 50% was much better, as we met more and worked more, but we still deprived ourselves of important things like a working space (“why pay for a place when you are not there 50% of the time”?). Working together, on a daily basis, positively affects your team’s mindset, focus and efficiency.
So my advice is work on your startup 100% of your time. If you are not sure you are willing to do this, than do whatever needed to be sure, or don’t do this at all.
Going slow is bad. Not only because markets and technology change, but because at the end of the day, what your mind really remembers is the time-span you are working on your project and not the amount of hours you invested.
Have a Plan
By having a plan I don’t mean just the milestones for development. If you are a part of the “makers” community you will be able to craft a product development plan (although it will be 2, 3, or 4 times too optimistic than the reality). By having a plan I mean understanding your business plan, thoroughly. I am not saying you need to write a business plan document, but you need to understand your customers and their needs, your market (size, limits, regulations, and competitors), and how will you make money. Your product should give an answer to all of these things. Ignore one of them, and you might be building a piece of software that is doomed to fail.
On our first iteration we were creating a cross-device (Desktop and Mobile) multiplayer gaming platform. We haven’t invested too much time in understanding the market (and its limitations), nor did we really understand how are we going to generate income. We sometimes told ourselves we would open our platform for 3rd party game developers (though we never spoke to them at the time) and users could download games and we would share revenue. So after we invested in building a desktop version of our product (WTF?!), and started thinking of creating a mobile version of it, we understood our whole product model was wrong because one cannot create an app that behaves as market/store on mobile devices.
So, have a business plan. Only after you formed this plan thorough enough, you can design your product, create a development plan and build it (don’t forget to multiply it by 2, 3 or 4).
Have Rigid Deadlines
After you have multiplied your work-plan, set a milestone and commit to it. And I am talking about important external milestones: installing to beta testers, launching the product. It would be even better if the date is external (like a holiday), so you cannot postpone it.
Having a rigid deadline will create focus – what are the most important features to be developed, what are the really important bugs to fix. Having a rigid deadline will create commitment – you and your team will do everything to achieve the goal.
Hitting milestones according to plan is hard. My advice is work iteratively. Some part of the product can (should?) be designed and built in a waterfall method, but most of your product development plan should be iterative.
It enables you to continuously test your product and reflect on it, prioritize features and bugs better, and have an ongoing sense of accomplishment. You might not have the perfect product at launch (yet). But you will have more chances of having a product that is good enough to be shipped on time.
We are a quality driven team, and it’s very hard for us to ship a product that is not perfect. So we have committed to an external deadline: the US elections. Our first game, although not directly related to the US elections, would benefit a lot from the hype around the event. We knew we must ship before the elections, and totally changed our work, our decisions and level of expectations.
Mind Your Potential Customers Not Your Potential Investors
I found it is hard to get funded, especially because we are a team of first time entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, during the last 12 months we were trying to do exactly that. Obviously, reaching investors, require specific tasks that affects your decisions and priorities.
Not only talking to investors takes time (setting meetings, getting prepared, meeting them, following up, etc), if you are not careful you might make bad decisions regarding the product development. For instance, investing (way too much time) in an irrelevant feature only to demo or impress potential investors.
We made this mistake twice (a bad habit for itself). Once, we started building a demo, and found ourselves building the wrong product (because we never stopped to think about the whole business plan); and second, we implemented a design that we knew we won’t ship, mainly because we thought it will be impressive enough for potential investors.
At the end of the day, most potential investors are (said to be) more impressed by traction than by a cool product. So whatever makes your customers happy, will probably make your investor happy.
Get feedback. ASAP!
No matter at what stage your venture is, talk to people. Talk to people about your product, talk to people about your business model, talk with potential users, talk with fellow entrepreneurs. Just talk. And if you having something to show already, than show it (mockup, demo, beta…)
So many times we live in a “world” we have created, that we start to believe it is true, or perfect. It’s not as if every feedback should immediately change what you are doing, but having many opinions will give you a wider view of your venture.
We have been building our first iteration for many months, and didn’t get any real feedback during this time. Only when we started talking about it (and showing it) to people, we got to the sad conclusions we were building the wrong thing.
Bonus: Be ready to make mistakes. A lot!
Nothing will really help you not making mistakes. Not this post, nor TechCrunch posts, or TNW, or any other blog posts. People don’t learn well through other people’s mistakes.
I know, you probably read these lines and say to yourself that you are different, or maybe you even think you are implementing these tips. But it’s only after you make the mistake and understand you did them, you might really learn something.
Therefore, you should just start doing it. It won’t be easy. I promise.