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My Universal Startup Advice

May 17, 2011

Dear founder,

So, you’ve decided that you want to do a startup. Welcome to the game. You are the boss. It’s all on your shoulders now. The game is extremely lucrative and extremely risky. You will probably fail. (But that’s not a bad thing – see my previous post.) So what should you do now?

  1. Always test your assumptions.
  2. Always be moving.
  3. Always be pitching.

Assumptions: Maybe you’re an engineer, maybe you’re not. In either case, start thinking like one. You hopefully have a vision for a product or service, what it looks like, which features are important, who your customers are, how much they are willing to pay, etc. (If you don’t, we’ve got some bigger problems on our hands.) The first piece is to recognize that your vision is built on assumptions that you hold about the world. Since we’re thinking like engineers, let’s start testing our assumptions.

People will tell you to think outside the box. Well, it turns out that’s really hard. What we want to start doing here is exploring the box. By understanding its boundaries, how it’s built, what it’s made of, we can gain understanding about the environment in which you hope to operate. Remember what Mark Twain said:”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” By always questioning our assumptions, we hope we can avoid the trap of lying to ourselves.

Movement: The second key to a successful startup is to always be moving. No matter where you are in process, you must have milestones that you want to reach. Always remember, there is no market for startup ideas. You should constantly be fleshing out your idea, improving your proposal, and moving forward. Don’t ever get stuck on one step – getting stuck is the opposite of movement.

A lot of my colleagues at Stanford want to start internet companies but aren’t coders themselves. Sure, they could devote six months to finding a tech co-founder and building a complete website from scratch, but that is six months that wouldn’t be spent testing assumptions. Focus on hitting external milestones. Launch your site as quickly as possible, in whatever quick and dirty configuration you can. (As an aside, I know you want to control the platform, but build your prototype on top of Facebook, Twitter or WordPress. This is probably a whole post in and of itself.) Get out there, and start testing your assumptions in the real world. Do it fast and iterate quickly (see Lean startup and Steve Blank’s ferocious customer-centric rapid iteration for more information). The key takeaway is to remember that if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind.

Pitching: Finally, always be pitching. Pitch to anyone who will listen, and maybe even to someone who won’t once in a while. Solicit feedback from everyone you meet. Negative feedback is especially important. Feedback can help you question your assumptions and give you ideas about how to achieve movement.

Everyone knows someone who is working on something stealthy. Resist the urge to do the same. If you’re worried about someone else catching on to what you’re doing, it means that you aren’t moving fast enough. If you haven’t progressed beyond the idea stage, then all you have to protect is your idea and you should be in stealth mode. Just don’t stay there too long. One of the cornerstones of the lean startup is that you should be moving so fast that you don’t have the time or the need to worry about competitors.

Welcome to the game. Good luck!

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