The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn

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AdviceStartupsArticleReading
Author
Paul Graham
Last Updated
August 29, 2022

(This essay is derived from a talk at the 2006 Startup School.)We've now in enough companies that I've learned a trick for determining which points are the counterintuitive ones: they're the ones I have to keep repeating.number four!1. Release Early.By "release early" I don't mean you should release something full of bugs, but that you should release something minimal. Users hate bugs, but they don't seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there's more coming soon.1One of the things that will surprise you if you build something popular is that you won't know your users. now has almost half a million unique visitors a month. Who are all those people? They have no idea. No web startup does. And since you don't know your users, it's dangerous to guess what they'll like. Better to release something and let them tell you. took this to heart and released their form-builder before the underlying database. You can't even drive the thing yet, but 83,000 people came to sit in the driver's seat and hold the steering wheel. And Wufoo got valuable feedback from it: Linux users complained they used too much Flash, so they rewrote their software not to. If they'd waited to release everything at once, they wouldn't have discovered this problem till it was more deeply wired in.Perhaps the most important reason to release early, though, is that it makes you work harder. When you're working on something that isn't released, problems are intriguing. In something that's out there, problems are alarming. There is a lot more urgency once you release. And I think that's precisely why people put it off. They know they'll have to work a lot harder once they do. []2. Keep Pumping Out Features.What I find myself repeating is "pump out features." And this rule isn't just for the initial stages. This is something all startups should do for as long as they want to be considered startups.As with exercise, improvements beget improvements. If you run every day, you'll probably feel like running tomorrow. But if you skip running for a couple weeks, it will be an effort to drag yourself out. So it is with hacking: the more ideas you implement, the more ideas you'll have. You should make your system better at least in some small way every day or two.3They'll like you even better when you improve in response to their comments, because customers are used to companies ignoring them. If you're the rare exception-- a company that actually listens-- you'll generate fanatical loyalty. You won't need to advertise, because your users will do it for you.I think the solution is to assume that anything you've made is far short of what it could be. Force yourself, as a sort of intellectual exercise, to keep thinking of improvements. Ok, sure, what you have is perfect. But if you had to change something, what would it be? Improving constantly is an instance of a more general rule: make users happy. One thing all startups have in common is that they can't force anyone to do anything. They can't force anyone to use their software, and they can't force anyone to do deals with them. A startup has to sing for its supper. That's why the successful ones make great things. They have to, or die.As a little piece of debris, the rational thing for you to do is not to lie flat, but to curl yourself into a shape the wind will catch.The median visitor will arrive with their finger poised on the Back button. Think about your own experience: most links you follow lead to something lame. Anyone who has used the web for more than a couple weeks has been to click on Back after following a link. So your site has to say "Wait! Don't click on Back. This site isn't lame. Look at this, for example." enterprise content management solutions for business that enable organizations to unify people, content and processes to minimize business risk, accelerate time-to-value and sustain lower total cost of ownership. 4The other thing I repeat is to give people everything you've got, right away. If you have something impressive, try to put it on the front page, because that's the only one most visitors will see. Though indeed there's a paradox here: the more you push the good stuff toward the front, the more likely visitors are to explore further. []showingThe industry term here is "conversion." The job of your site is to convert casual visitors into users-- whatever your definition of a user is. You can measure this in your growth rate. Either your site is catching on, or it isn't, and you must know which. If you have decent growth, you'll win in the end, no matter how obscure you are now. And if you don't, you need to fix something.4. Fear the Right Things.Most visible disasters are not so alarming as they seem. Disasters are normal in a startup: a founder quits, you discover a patent that covers what you're doing, your servers keep crashing, you run into an insoluble technical problem, you have to change your name, a deal falls through-- these are all par for the course. They won't kill you unless you let them.What you should fear, as a startup, is not the established players, but other startups you don't know exist yet. They're way more dangerous than Google because, like you, they're cornered animals.couldThat's the downside of it being easier to start a startup: more people are doing it. But I disagree with Caterina Fake when she says that makes this a bad time to start a startup. More people are starting startups, but not as many more as could. Most college graduates still think they have to get a job. The average person can't ignore something that's been beaten into their head since they were three just because serving web pages recently got a lot cheaper.Almost everyone's initial plan is broken. If companies stuck to their initial plans, Microsoft would be selling programming languages, and Apple would be selling printed circuit boards. In both cases their customers told them what their business should be-- and they were smart enough to listen. I now have enough experience with startups to be able to say what the most important quality is in a startup founder, and it's not what you might think. The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence-- determination.Time after time VCs invest in startups founded by eminent professors. This may work in biotech, where a lot of startups simply commercialize existing research, but in software you want to invest in students, not professors. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google were all founded by people who dropped out of school to do it. What students lack in experience they more than make up in dedication.You can lose quite a lot in the brains department and it won't kill you. But lose even a little bit in the commitment department, and that will kill you very rapidly.And to do all this not in the calm, womb-like atmosphere of a big company, but against a backdrop of constant disasters. That's the part that really demands determination. In a startup, there's always some disaster happening. So if you're the least bit inclined to find an excuse to quit, there's always one right there.Whereas if you're determined to stick around, people will pay attention to you, because odds are they'll have to deal with you later. You're a local, not just a tourist, so everyone has to come to terms with you.If an acquirer thinks you're going to stick around no matter what, they'll be more likely to buy you, because if they don't and you stick around, you'll probably grow, your price will go up, and they'll be left wishing they'd bought you earlier. Ditto for investors. What really motivates investors, even big VCs, is not the hope of good returns, but the fear of missing out. [] So if you make it clear you're going to succeed no matter what, and the only reason you need them is to make it happen a little faster, you're much more likely to get money.You have to be the right kind of determined, though. I carefully chose the word determined rather than stubborn, because stubbornness is a disastrous quality in a startup. You have to be determined, but flexible, like a running back. A successful running back doesn't just put his head down and try to run through people. He improvises: if someone appears in front of him, he runs around them; if someone tries to grab him, he spins out of their grip; he'll even run in the wrong direction briefly if that will help. The one thing he'll never do is stand still. []6. There Is Always Room.There is always room for new stuff. At every point in history, even the darkest bits of the dark ages, people were discovering things that made everyone say "why didn't anyone think of that before?" We know this continued to be true up till 2004, when the Facebook was founded-- though strictly speaking someone else did think of that.In particular, I don't think there's any limit to the number of startups. Sometimes you hear people saying "All these guys starting startups now are going to be disappointed. How many little startups are Google and Yahoo going to buy, after all?" That sounds cleverly skeptical, but I can prove it's mistaken. No one proposes that there's some limit to the number of people who can be employed in an economy consisting of big, slow-moving companies with a couple thousand people each. Why should there be any limit to the number who could be employed by small, fast-moving companies with ten each? It seems to me the only limit would be the number of people who want to work that hard.So for all practical purposes, there is no limit to the number of startups. Startups make wealth, which means they make things people want, and if there's a limit on the number of things people want, we are nowhere near it. I still don't even have a flying car.7. Don't Get Your Hopes Up.Startup founders are naturally optimistic. They wouldn't do it otherwise. But you should treat your optimism the way you'd treat the core of a nuclear reactor: as a source of power that's also very dangerous. You have to build a shield around it, or it will fry you.This is particularly necessary in a startup, because you tend to be pushing the limits of whatever you're doing. So things don't happen in the smooth, predictable way they do in the rest of the world. Things change suddenly, and usually for the worse.The reason I warn startups not to get their hopes up is not to save them from being when things fall through. It's for a more practical reason: to prevent them from leaning their company against something that's going to fall over, taking them with it.wantEven if you ultimately do the first deal, it will be to your advantage to have kept looking, because you'll get better terms. Deals are dynamic; unless you're negotiating with someone unusually honest, there's not a single point where you shake hands and the deal's done. There are usually a lot of subsidiary questions to be cleared up after the handshake, and if the other side senses weakness-- if they sense you need this deal-- they will be very tempted to screw you in the details.8So I want to plant a hypnotic suggestion in your heads: when you hear someone say the words "we want to invest in you" or "we want to acquire you," I want the following phrase to appear automatically in your head: Just continue running your company as if this deal didn't exist. Nothing is more likely to make it close. The way I've described it, starting a startup sounds pretty stressful. It is. When I talk to the founders of the companies we've funded, they all say the same thing: I knew it would be hard, but I didn't realize it would be this hard.No, not really. It seems ridiculous to me when people take business too seriously. I regard making money as a boring errand to be got out of the way as soon as possible. There is nothing grand or heroic about starting a startup per se.9We take it for granted most of the time, but human life is fairly miraculous. It is also palpably short. You're given this marvellous thing, and then poof, it's taken away. You can see why people invent gods to explain it. But even to people who don't believe in gods, life commands respect. There are times in most of our lives when the days go by in a blur, and almost everyone has a sense, when this happens, of wasting something precious. As Ben Franklin said, if you love life, don't waste time, because time is what life is made of.Notes1[] I know this is why I haven't released Arc. The moment I do, I'll have people nagging me for features.3[] It should not always tell this to users, however. For example, MySpace is basically a replacement mall for mallrats. But it was wiser for them, initially, to pretend that the site was about bands.5[] VCs have rational reasons for behaving this way. They don't make their money (if they make money) off their median investments. In a typical fund, half the companies fail, most of the rest generate mediocre returns, and one or two "make the fund" by succeeding spectacularly. So if they miss just a few of the most promising opportunities, it could hose the whole fund.7[] The reason Y Combinator never negotiates valuations is that we're not professional negotiators, and don't want to turn into them.9work you loveThanks