Learn From My Mistakes. 10 Crucial Start Up Tips

May 1, 2007

The following are some tips that I’ve learned through experience, mostly in the last 2 years, working at and with several start ups. I have quite a few more, beyond these initial 10, but these are a good introduction. If you have any rules or tips you’ve learned yourself recently, please do post them. I’d love to hear it.

I. Set limits.

Work time should end at a certain point during the day. Period. Just because you are focused and energized by a specific task doesn’t mean that it should be worked on until you conk out on your keyboard at 4 AM. The rest of your week will be completely ruined. Conversely, stopping work on a project you are really into will mean that you have a jumpstart on the following morning, which will hopefully last into other things you are working on later in the day.

  1. Once you are in no-work mode has passed, don’t even do minor related work things.
  2. Don’t check your email.
  3. Don’t check your blackberry
  4. Don’t browse the net.
  5. Don’t answer your cell phone.
  6. Kick back and spend some time with family, read a book or watch (something intelligent on) TV.

Now obviously this doesn’t apply to deadline days. If you have a project due the following day, you should never blow it. But as a general rule to live by, don’t work into the late hours of the night and always have some time set aside for yourself to not work.

II. Document your time carefully.

One of the greatest baseball players of all time, Kirby Puckett, was notorious for watching videos of his at-bats after every game. By seeing where he fails and where he succeeds he was able to make adjustments for the next game. Business is no different. A visionary cannot be at the top of his game if he is not constantly fine tuning his efficiency.

  1. Keep a diary of your time from when you start work in the morning to when you end it.
  2. Be as detailed as possible.
  3. Make notes on which tasks are incomplete.
  4. Make notes on which tasks you spun your wheels.
  5. Make notes on which tasks you completed, and the amount of time it took. Was it better or worse than expectations?
  6. At the end of the day, list the day’s highlights and completed tasks. This will be invaluable for the following items.

III. Be aware of your achievements.

Often when you are faced with a monumental task ahead of you, it is quite easy to forget just how much you have accomplished and how far you’ve come.

  1. Each Friday, look over your daily highlights for that week. Felt unproductive this week? The list will make you feel otherwise.

IV. Have a clear and possible mission.

Your business must have an attainable realistic purpose driving all the decisions it makes and must never vear from it. If your mission is to “enable environmentally friendly commerce”, the company car should not be an SUV.

  1. Your mission should be 5 words or less.

V. Only work with people who believe in your company’s mission.

Organized religion is pretty similar to a company. You know why the Catholic Church is so wealthy? Because everyone who works for them believes in their mission. Don’t hire employees. Hire missionaries. Everyone, from the lowest level employee to top-tier management should believe in the mission or they are working at the job for the wrong reasons.

  1. Your interview questions should be structured around the mission.
  2. Your job ads should be structured around the mission.

VI. Don’t go anywhere without a map.

You wouldn’t drive into the middle of a desert without a map or navigation system. Why would you do the same in business. Know where you are going, before you start out. Make a business outline that details your plan. Keep focus on the path you laid out for yourself. It is extremely easy to lose focus of what your company’s mission is when another exciting opportunity comes along. But stick with your map.

  1. Review your outline once every 2 weeks to see if you’re still on course.

VII. Stick with what you know. Only do what you love.

If you’re not a musician, you shouldn’t be creating the next social site for musicians. If you’re not an artist, you shouldn’t be creating the next RIA (rich internet application) for artists. Your biggest advantage is knowing the industry you are building for better than your competition.

  1. Don’t take on projects you wouldn’t be interested in if the opportunity hadn’t been presented to you.

VIII.. Be frugal.

It is impossible to treat an investor’s money the same way you would money in your own bank account. Money you earned is something you will inherently be careful with. Money you are given is as easy to spend as monopoly money. It’s human nature to want a fancy office, fast car and a salary you really don’t need. But how far you can stretch a dollar will determine how many employees you can hire and how quickly you can get your product out the door.

Here’s a list of easy places to save money:

  1. Work from a garage or spare bedroom for as long as you and your team can fit.
  2. Don’t buy a fancy phone system. Voice Over IP lines cost about $50 a month.
  3. Don’t pay for conferences. People don’t share their real secrets at sessions. You can usually get into the showrooms for free and the parties / pubs afterwards is where the real secrets are spilled anyways, courtesy of the alcohol (Vino veritas).
  4. For larger projects that are less likely to be long term, focus on finding a really good overseas firm to freelance it for you, instead of full-time employees. It will take 1 or 2 people more than a year (and a year’s salary) to accomplish a task that it will take a remote team 2 months at a fraction of the cost. Not to mention the savings in lessened learning curves and the costs of finding and hiring employees.

IX. Be transparent.

Your left hand should always know what the right hand is doing. The same goes for your team. Your engineers should have a say in the business direction and your business development team should have a say in the software design. Even if they don’t care to offer their advice, they should at least have a knowledge of the business. This goes to the point about everyone sharing the same feelings about the mission. A person cannot get fully behind something he does not fully understand. And you won’t get 100% out of your team unless they are fully behind the mission. The same goes for your web community.

  1. Have weekly staff-wide meetings where everyone (or the division leaders, for brevity’s sake) shares what they accomplished during the week and what they plan to do next.
  2. Keep your userbase informed of your plans before you act on them. Let your users offer input into the direction you take the site. Let them decide what features your team works on next.

X. Share.

There’s a reason the Open Source movement has been so succesful. Giving without the expectation of reward brings out the best in everybody. Embrace your competition, learn from them, share with them, assist them and always take them out for drinks at conferences. Karma does exist and you’ll gain far more by giving back to your industry than you could possibly anticipate. Your reputation is ultimately what is going to get your company sold.

  1. Let your data be used by other companies and people. Make it accessible. Don’t put frivolous restrictions on it’s use.
  2. Keep a company blog, and don’t just post news on it. Post your individual experiences, for good and bad. Post your advice.
  3. Let others learn from your mistakes.