Life Hacks, Startup

5 Steps to Surviving and Thriving in Startup Life

Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nomadicentrepreneur/

 

On Climbing the Startup Mountain

Life in a startup is a non-stop business. Whether you are aware of it or not, your work-life balance suffers, your relationships are strained, and your personal health and motivation may waver. Yet it’s the most amazing rush in the world.

Working in startups gives you the freedom, opportunity, and responsibility to build an uncertain product for am uncertain customer in an uncertain market. There is more change in a startup day (and sometimes, intraday) than most businesses see in a week or a month. And that change brings stress, excitement (sometimes anxiety) and an intense need for resilience.

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” 
-Nelson Mandela

Failure Happens. How do you get up?

We often fall in startups. And we need to get up stronger and faster to make the changes that prevent the same mistake from happening again.

With that in mind, here are 5 steps to help you survive in startup life as you scale new heights:

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Life Hacks, On Writing, Product Strategy

The hard thing about realizing it’s a hard thing

If you haven’t already picked up Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, you should. When I started to read Ben’s book, I thought that I already knew many of the things he would share, and that the payoff of reading the book would be learning about his particular struggle and viewpoint on startups. I was wrong. Full stop. Reading this book made me realize that when you’re working on a hard thing there are no easy answers and that you have to do everything you can to solve them. I knew these problems are hard – I’ve worked in startups before – but this realization was different.

Doing everything to solve a problem also means you don’t have the ability to solve every problem all of the time. You don’t have the ability to spend all of your time at work. And you don’t have all of your time available to be with your family. And you certainly don’t have time to be alone in your head not thinking about the problem. What you do have is the ability to work on the most important thing possible and to keep asking yourself at different points in the day, “Am I working on what’s most important?” Ben’s point is that you have to be brutally honest with yourself to know what’s important.

The meaning of important will change throughout the hour, day, week, and month. And the insight I gained from Ben’s book is that the most important thing isn’t always evident – it’s a combination of what you feel in your gut and the data that you gather – and you need to try very hard to stay true to that instinct. You won’t always be right, and it’s in fact guaranteed that you will make some mistakes. So what should you do when you realize you’re working on something hard?

You need to keep your body and brain going. That means that you need to eat right, get at least some exercise, and figure out when you can get sleep. When you’re working on a hard problem you often need to put in extra hours. If you put in extra hours every night you’ll run out of gas before you solve the problem. I’m not sure what works for you, but it helps me if those aren’t consecutive late nights. And family time? Yes, that’s important too. Turn off your phone. Turn off your laptop. Try your darndest to make some of your time real family time (no, not multitasking time, but actual family time.)

There are only so many hours in a day. If you want to spend your time solving hard problems, you will have to give up some of those hours to solve the problems. Make the hours you spend count. You’ll only know how hard the the problem was when you look back and see how high you climbed.

Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Entrepreneurship Starts with Asking Someone to Buy

bracelets

Remember to ask for the sale. You’ve probably heard these words of advice many times – whether in the context of a prospective deal, a request for a favor, or in an interview prep – and the first time you made the ask it was probably really scary. Asking for the sale is the first step to becoming an entrepreneur. When you ask someone to buy what you’re selling, you really know whether they will vote with their wallet and trust you to provide them with value.

My son has been talking about selling the friendship bracelets he makes for months. I heard about many potential business models. There was the “set up a stand at the end of the road” during the summer, the “find people at school to buy it” model, and several other less promising ideas. And the one that won the day today was “Mom? Can you give me your phone to take some pictures? I want to sell my bracelets to people I know and I hope you can post the pictures on Facebook.” The simplest business model sometimes is the best.

When you face a challenge, it’s really easy to say “I’ll think about it tomorrow” or “it’s not quite right yet” or “I don’t have all of the answers.” It’s really important to take the biggest small step you can take to move toward that goal. You won’t get it right, but one step forward is better than no steps at all.

My son is now getting orders for his bracelets, learning how to fill orders, take commissions, and deal with inventory. He is selling these bracelets for a goal – earning enough money to buy a concert-level trumpet – and he’s also learning about the details of small business. (I believe there is some side negotiation with contract labor and his little sister.) What stopped him from doing this before? Inertia. Today he decided to ask for the sale and people are buying.

“I think it’s so cool that you would do this for me,” he told his Mom today, “thank you so much.” Very soon I think he’ll figure out that he did most of this for himself. We enabled him to take the first step toward starting his business – and I hope it won’t be his last one.

Customer Service, Innovation, Productivity, Startup

Turn Off Your Lizard Brain

Seth Godin - "Quieting the Lizard Brain"
Seth Godin – “Quieting the Lizard Brain”

Seth Godin

“You don’t need to be more creative – you need a quieter lizard brain” –Seth Godin

Your brain is not your friend. At any moment now you might encounter something scary or unexpected or just plain wacky that will inspire your lower brain functions to conduct a simultaneous takeover of your higher functions (it’s for your own good, your brain tells you before quickly pulling out the rug.)

The hijack of your brain does happen to all of us. Emotional stimuli cause you to protect the most important things, not to think critically about the next step you need to take toward your goal. If you resist this effect or at least learn to recognize when it’s happening, you’ll spend more of your time (as Seth Godin suggests in the video above) getting ideas out the door in the form of product.

The first product that you build is probably not your best. And without this counterpoint to improve you won’t get to the best product waiting two, three, or twenty iterations down the road. So listen to Godin when he points out that getting a product out the door is what matters. Note that Godin doesn’t say “ship any product.” He sells you on shipping the best combination of product and utility available using the time and money that you have.

How can you make that choice today? Do a little bit every day. Make a commitment to deliver something with an impossible (or at least uncomfortable) timeline and then go deliver something good enough to meet that requirement. Because good enough is the first step on the highway to great. You won’t get there overnight, and you can’t get there if you don’t start walking.

Customer Experience, Customer Service, Startup

You are competing for attention

attention
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/35429044@N04/

The average person can hold between five to seven items in working memory. You are probably using a couple of those items already. The takeaway – especially when you’re asking customers to do something for you – is for you to ask them to do as few steps as possible.

The first step to getting consumer attention is to state very clearly why they need your product or service. The “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” method is one way to start – refining along the way – and another is to pick the narrowest focus possible. For great examples, think of Uber (press a magic button, and a car arrives within minutes to take you where you want to go), Amazon (buy anything you want on your schedule), and Dropbox (store files that you can read from anywhere).

The second step for getting consumer attention is to realize that you are not at the stage (yet) of offering all things to all market segments. So for the target market, what problem are you solving right now? (If the answer is “not sure” perhaps you should ask your current customers and find out what they feel you’re doing to solve their problems). An example of a problem to solve right now is one that you know the customer has (because a real customer told you or asked for that service).

Getting attention is great – and guarantees that you will get one shot to make a first impression. These opportunities are also a good time to find out (sometimes abruptly) what’s not working. In the best case scenario, you gain the customer’s attention, solve their problem, and deliver a meaningful and repeatable excellent experience. And it doesn’t always work that way (no surprise).

Your best response is service to the customer. You’ve got their attention, have identified some portion of their problem, and have delivered a service or product that solved their need. Now, make sure they know you care. This sounds eminently corny and sentimental, and is the way you will find out whether you still have the customer’s attention. If they care, you have a shot at making a bad experience tolerable or a good experience great. Think of service as the peanut butter that sticks the process together. It may feel temporary but means the world to the customer when you deliver a personal solution.

Lean, Product Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Duct tape and baling twine are essential tools for your startup

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhian/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhian/

Think Like MacGyver

Using duct tape and baling twine, you can build almost anything you need. It won’t be pretty, and it’s a good metaphor for finding a way to create a solution for an unknown problem. The first step is to do whatever it takes to find a workable solution. The next step is to see how well your improvised solution works. And finally, if the problem still exists and your solution is directionally right, you’ll need to find a more scalable way to solve the problem.

Finding a workable solution may mean using a kind of hack. Start by imagining how the process should work if there were no impediments. Recently, I wanted items from a calendar to show up on an Agile board – the goal was to understand how many of each item showed up in each list. A perfect solution would be an automatic import from the calendar. An imperfect solution would be to copy each item manually from the calendar to the Agile board. The end goal is the same – understand which calendar items belong in each buckets.

Go for the “It’s Done” Solution

My duct tape and baling twine method in this case? A product called Zapier – a kind of “data glue” that allows you to connect events in one service to events and data in another. I started by connecting Zapier to the Google Calendar and I also authenticated against Trello, a simple solution to create Agile boards. Zapier connects products using recipes for events triggered by data in a service. My recipe matched data in the calendar events to particular buckets in the Trello board. Using the date/time of the event and translating it into the day of the week didn’t work, so I had to use a different method: adding characters to the description of the calendar to indicate a particular day (a manual solution FTW).

Did the temporary solution work? Absolutely. Events added to the calendar now show up on the Trello board, which is a big improvemen over the previous method. To get the results into Excel, I also added another bit of duct tape – a Chrome extension to export the Trello board items. As an end-to-end solution, it works. As an automated process, it leaves a bit to be desired.

Next Steps: Building a Feature

So where will this solution go next? It needs to scale to be usable. Events need to get added to the calendar automatically and coded in such a way so that they show up in the Agile board. They also need to show up in the right place. The feature version of this idea could be feasible if there are additional user stories, a documented process showing how these events “live” from start to completion, and some idea of when the manual process will break. Start with duct tape and baling twine and build a “fake it until you make it” version. Then, test that version and see where it breaks. Finally, compile the “must have” and “nice to have” items and pick the best ones.

Customer Experience, Learning, On Writing, Startup

Stop what you are doing and remove half of your product

I love words. Probably too much. I love words so much that often use too many words when only a few are needed. It’s not because I want you to know about all the words. It’s that I want you to understand better.

Sounds a little silly, right? Yet often we make the same argument to customers when we present them with all of the choices they could make in our app. Don’t make just one choice – we persuade – make any choice you need to make!

By presenting too many choices, we run the risk of overloading the customer. You can hold 5-7 items in your active memory (you are probably using at least 1-3 of them right now). The chances of a customer remembering to do more than the next single thing you want them to do are pretty low.

Please, make it easier for the customer by picking the next thing you want them to do, telling them how to do it, and letting them know when they’re done. This might not mean telling them exactly what to do at the beginning of the process (though you should give them a suggestion).

If you provide a safety valve for the customer to let you know when things go wrong (a big “call us” or an “email us” button), you’ll win friends too. Make it easier for people to tell you what’s wrong. If they need you to add something, they’ll let you know – and they have a harder time telling you what to take away.

Try it – remove half of the choices on the front page of your app and see what happens. If no one complains, you probably removed things that didn’t need to be there. A good editor works wonders, whether editing a speech, and article, or an app.