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I launched this blog in 1995. Since then, we have published 1603 articles. It's all free and means a lot of work in my spare time. I enjoy sharing knowledge and experiences with you.

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What I'd Tell Myself About Startups if I Could Go Back 5 Years



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This is, in no particular order, what I’d tell myself about startups if I could go back in time to when I first got involved. Which is probably the same as what I’ve learned. This is most definitely not advice, the “you” here is directed at me. So is “I.” Grammar is hard.

  • You’re definitely going to end up building too much and shipping too late. Be obsessive about avoiding this
  • Someone’s always already working on the same idea and that’s not a bad thing
  • Always refuse if someone asks you to sign an NDA before hearing their idea
  • Like it or not, most networking in London is focused around drinking. Find a way to deal with that without having a constant hangover
  • The people who are really getting somewhere aren’t the people who are always out for drinks
  • Linear growth can be worse than no growth
  • Most people who talk about failing fast, aren’t actually practicing this
  • It’s really easy to kid yourself that you’re “doing customer development” when actually you’re finding ways to make what your customers are saying fit with what you want to build
  • Everyone has a hidden stash of domains they’ve never used
  • It’s really easy to become hyper-critical and respond to every idea with “yeah but that won’t work because of x.” This is lazy, don’t do it.
  • Be especially careful to avoid the above when talking to people who are new to the scene. Call out other people who do it
  • It’s really hard to listen to someone pitching an idea you’ve seen fail several times already and focus on working out if there’s something slightly different and interesting there
  • Someone being a technically competent developer does not mean they know how to ship things. I’d always rather work with someone who ships over someone who’s technically brilliant
  • The programming language / framework wars are great fun in the pub, but of limited value in real life
  • A good developer can pick up any language or platform in a few weeks
  • I still don’t know any real investors
  • Constantly exaggerating how well you’re doing can be very tiring. It makes it harder to publicly celebrate the real victories
  • It’s really hard to build a product if you don’t have a big personal investment in the problem it solves
  • Falling in love with a product (rather than the problem) is really dangerous
  • You can get away without knowing how a hash table works, but it’s really satisfying when you eventually learn it
  • Same goes for Big O notation
  • Overnight success isn’t a thing. The Social Network is still a great movie
  • I still don’t understand PR
  • Most technical solutions are trivial compared to how you get the product into peoples hands
  • Make something people want is probably a less useful heuristic than make something you want
  • But you wanting it doesn’t mean enough people want it for it to be a business
  • If you don’t have first hand experience of an industry, you’re probably wrong about how it works, what problems they have and so how they should be solved. Talk to people
  • “Ads” are where business models go to die
  • “We’ll monetize the data” is the new “Ads”
  • The people you end up wanting to work with (and help) are the ones who always try and work out how they can help you. Be more like them
  • But get really good at asking for things. Most people will give you a discount for no reason other than you asked. If you see someone important and influential, introduce yourself
  • Get good at saying no to things, from people asking you for discounts to interesting projects you really don’t have enough time for
  • Think hard about a pivot which makes good business sense but leads to a product you no longer care about
  • Writing (blogging, books, journaling) is a really positive experience
  • Don’t pay too much attention to internet comments about something you’ve written, there’s always someone who didn’t like one particular sentence (see point about trolls below)
  • One troll can wipe out a hundred positive interactions, be ruthless in keeping them out of your communities
  • If you end up pitching to someone over coffee, ask to hear their pitch afterwards
  • Only say you’re going to introduce someone or send them something if you’re actually going to do it. People quickly get a reputation for never following through
  • Show, don’t tell. “I’m going to build this amazing thing” is a LOT less interesting than “I’ve built this slightly crappy thing that actually does something.” EVERYONE is GOING to build something, most people never do
  • Building things is awesome, don’t get too caught up with the whole “Lean Startup Landing Page” mindset
  • Lean Startup is awesome, but it’s a pamphlet not a book, read the first few chapters and you’ll get the idea. Four steps to the epiphany is more technical and probably a better book
  • Most startup advice is terrible and the good advice is usually obvious. Everyone will give different advice, trust your gut
  • Except when it comes to what your customers want, then ignore your gut and trust them
  • No-one has ever used a Bitcoin ATM for practical reasons
  • Do back of napkin financial forecasts for every potential business model you come up with, just to see if it’s in the right ballpark to a couple of orders of magnitude
  • It’s really easy to automatically dismiss everyone who starts a conversation with “I’m looking for a technical co-founder.” Doing this means you miss talking to some interesting people. But be upfront that you’re not that co-founder so no-one feels like their time is wasted
  • Trying to raise money and apply to accelerators is a full time job. You’re probably either building or fund raising. Not both. If in doubt, choose building
  • The solution to many, many problems, is not technical. That won’t stop people trying solve them with apps
  • Facebook is the Facebook for X
  • The idea you laughed at when you saw them pitch at a hackathon may well be the one that’s still alive and kicking long after whatever you pitched fails
  • If there are people who genuinely like failing, I’ve never met them
  • That was not “your idea” unless you shipped something, otherwise I invented Facebook, Nest and Oculus Rift
  • People don’t steal ideas. Tell as many people as possible. Never ask someone to sign an NDA before hearing your idea, you’ll instantly lose all credibility
  • Being friends with somebody is not the same as being able to work well with them
  • Small teams can move VERY fast, be really careful getting extra people involved in any project where agility is important
  • Multi-tasking isn’t a thing, switching costs are huge, do one thing at a time and do it really well. Find a way to block out interruptions
  • Read every essay Paul Graham has written
  • Tech news (and news in general) has a very low return on time invested. Prefer books and conversations
  • Read Founders Stories, Fooled By Randomness and The Four Steps to the Ephiphany
  • The logo doesn’t matter at the start, find a simple text based logo you can re-use for different projects
  • If you possibly can, open source and write up any side project. Every now and then you’ll meet somebody really interesting as a result
  • Regularly working 12 hour days is probably never a good idea. If this is happening a lot, find a way to optimize
  • Talk to everybody

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