The 30 most important things I’ve learned after 90 days of building a startup

Eric Sloan

Starting a business isn’t easy, but it sure as hell is rewarding.

Though I’ve started businesses before, I’ve never started a new software company.

It’s been quite a slog for the last 90 days, but it’s been an amazing learning experience.

Here’s a bit of background on the project timeline

In November of 2015 I left my job with the goal of starting a new software business. I won’t go into too much detail, but you can read about it here.

Unfortunately I was moving at the time to a new place, so I didn’t start right away, but after 2.5 weeks of work, on November 27th I released the first version of my new product, MARE.

I was excited, I was terrified, and I was tired. But it worked (for the most part), and people were signing up - in fact, I hit 100 users by December 12th.

It’s now been 60 days since the initial launch, and 90 days since my last day of my job. I’ve released 7 new updates, and I’ve moved into an incubator space in Vancouver called Launch Academy. I’ve gotten some great feedback, and some mediocre feedback, but I’m proud of what I’ve built.

Most of all I’m very excited to see where this goes.

Here are 30 most important things that I’ve learned in the last 90 days.

  1. You will feel like a fraud
    I mean, what makes you qualified to start a software company? And you know what? Someone, somewhere will agree with you. But that’s ok, because you are also doing work that will impact someone else life or business. That is worth it. Now get back to it.
  2. Onboarding users is hard
    In fact, way harder than I had originally thought. Users will do the complete opposite of what you think they will do, and it’s much more difficult to meet the high standards of today’s web users than I had originally thought. I continue to test like hell and get as much feedback as possible. MARE’s user onboarding process is not perfect, but it’s getting better.
  3. Building a startup is a lot more work than you think it is
    I can see how starting a software business would be a hell of a lot easier with a co-founder. There’s development, user testing, user feedback, marketing, outreach, design, UI/UX design and much more. I overestimated my ability to do all of these things quickly.
  4. But it’s easier than you think — so build fast
    Everything that goes into a new business is a lot of work, but building the product and getting at least some users is pretty easy. Go to any major city in the world and you can find at least half a dozen co-working spaces full of developers building cool things. This means that your idea is already getting stale by the minute, and execution is the only thing that matters. Move quickly, and ship things to production often. This is the only way to really make an impact before someone else enters your space and takes all of your users.
  5. Users interact a lot different than you do
    Just as in the onboarding process, users will continue to confound you with their behavior. Things will break because of a use case that you had never considered possible.
  6. You will screw up — a lot…
  7. …luckily, screwing up isn’t so bad
    Everything is a learning opportunity, and any time you’re building something new, you will screw something up. Your users won’t be as pissed off as you might think. Keep at it and the screw ups will get fewer and fewer.
  8. Some users just won’t get it
    You won’t win over every user… let it go and focus on the ones that want what you’ve built.
  9. If you glaze over a small bug to just “get it out” users will find it
    Don’t sacrifice quality to just get something out. This is a big misconception I think with the idea of a lean startup. Lean means that you focus on building features that matter. It doesn’t mean that you do a half-assed job of building them. Your users will find your shortcut, and you could ruin a great experience because of your haste.
  10. Users will break everything
    That being said, nothing you push out will be perfect. Some user, somewhere, will find a way to break it. Track your users well so you can fix these things quickly because…
  11. Only a small portion of your users will speak up
    No matter how many surveys and transnational emails you send out asking for feedback, most of the users who experience issues won’t speak up. Get around this by keeping good usage metrics. This will show you where there are bottle necks and frustration points.
  12. Building features is like pulling a thread
    The more you want to build, the more you will have to build, because the larger your application gets, the more items each change will effect. I think this is why the agile methodology works so well. Focus on what you can push to production in a reasonable amount of time. This will allow you to iterate quickly, get feedback, and save a lot of headaches.
  13. Your motivation comes and goes
    You will have good days and bad days. That’s life. Show up for them both.
  14. Some users will be amazing from the get go
    Some of your users will be stoked from the moment you press publish. Find these users, and service the hell out of them. These are your best allies in getting feedback and finding issues in your app.
  15. User expectations are high — even for a free product
    Users are much more demanding than they used to be. Focus on creating high quality experiences and you will notice an immediate uptick in usage.
  16. You’re using someone’s time, and that is valuable. Respect it.
  17. Usability takes a lot of thought
    When I started MARE, I built the user experiences very quickly, and built for functionality instead of usability. This is completely ass-backwards. Focus on building a quality experience first, then fit the features your users want into those experiences.
  18. Fix things quickly
    It’s easy some times to put off a support request, but responding right away builds a lot of good will with your users.
  19. Find time for planning
    It’s easy to just keep your head down and focus. But planning is just as important.
  20. More features aren’t necessarily better
    Be disciplined. Build what your users want or need based on real statistics and feedback.
  21. What you think is cool might never get used
    Some of the features I built because I thought they would be cool never get used - huge waste of time.
  22. Contextual feedback is important
    Find ways to get user feedback in the middle of an action (like during the sign up process) instead of just sending surveys via email. This way you get contextual feedback - which is far more valuable.
  23. Your friends won’t understand
    You will get a lot of “how’s that thingy that you’re working on?” or “What do you do again?” from your friends. Take this as a challenge - if you can’t succinctly explain to your friends what you do, then you need to spend more time working on your value proposition.
  24. There is a lot of piddly shit to take care of
    Get the little tasks that are boring (but necessary) done quickly before you lose your focus - or your motivation.
  25. Coding for 14 hours straight is hard on your body — be kind to it
    Exercise, walk around, go outside, take a break… then get back to it.
  26. Everything will be overwhelming
    Some days everything is going to seem like it’s just too much. In those situations it’s especially important to plan your day. Get things done, one step at a time.
  27. Everything will be underwhelming
    The reverse is also true. Some days everything will just seem boring. Maybe you need to take a walk, clear your head, find your motivation. But don’t stay in this state too long. Get back to work!
  28. Consistent work is better than 18 hour crunch sessions
    It’s easy to just work and work and work, but sometimes it’s better just to have gotten something done every day, and still have enough sleep to be fresh the next day. Clarity is more valuable than you think.
  29. If you lose attention, it’s insanely hard to get it back
    If you screw up your onboarding process and lose the attention of a new user, it’s insanely hard to get their attention back. In their mind, they’ve written you off. Be careful about first impressions.
  30. Hang in there. It’s worth it.
    Some days I want to just sleep all day, but in the end this is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

90 days of lessons learned.

I’m just getting started.


Have an experience with starting a business? Founder of a startup? Share your experiences in the comments below!

You can also check out what I’m working on here: www.mare.io

Eric Sloan

Written by

Founder of @maresurveys (www.mare.io) - Food, product, marketing and team building enthusiast. 30 under 30 2015

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