The 10 Commandments of Startups

Building a company means you’re always grinding, and it’s easy to get lost in the bustle. Here are the 10 most important things I’ve learned as a founder of Level Education and startup employee.

  1. Be inevitable.
    Customers, investors, suppliers, and employees all want to be on the winning team. If your vision is grand enough and execution good enough, they won’t be able to go back to imagining a world without the company you’re becoming.
  2. Cash matters most, then team, then unit economics. 
    Each allows you enough time to figure out the next. Cash is what lets you keep the lights on. If the lights are on, good entrepreneurs find a way to build a team (note: building a team is not always the same as hiring staff). And if you have a good team you can figure just about everything else out. The most important thing to figure out, though, is whether you can produce and distribute a product that meets the market needs in a way such that it leads to a sustainable business. As the saying goes, if you’re losing money, you can’t make it up on volume.
  3. Make criticisms in the first person and take plaudits in the second.
    Your team and culture matter, and this differentiates good leaders from those with a title (and colleagues you’d go to bat for from political adversaries). The upside of sharing plaudits broadly should be self-explanatory, if hard to implement. The upside of good criticism is even harder, but the McKinsey model amazing and highly practicable (
  4. Don’t take it personally (except when it is).
    Imposter syndrome is real. It’s 100x easier to think of why a company shouldn’t work, why you’re not the right founder, why the market just isn’t ready yet, than to commit to building a company. Some rejections are signal, but a lot are just part of the process.
  5. Forget the competition. 
    You either are sufficiently differentiated or you’re dead. There’s no in between
  6. Know your customer.
    Stop lying to yourself; ask someone to let you buy them a coffee and chat. And ship so that you see if your customer actually buys.
  7. Tighten your feedback loop by getting your hands dirty.
    Related to #6, it takes hard work to ensure you’re getting the highest-quality information as soon as possible. That means that even when you can operationalize a function, every so often, you still need to take a sales call, clean data, onboard a customer, etc. Get your hands dirty so you know if it’s the right kind of dirt.
  8. Remember to have a Sabbath and keep it holy. And work like hell the rest of the time.
    The universe is hard to dent, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That being said, the universe is never dented by those who have burned out.
  9. Always always always know what hypothesis you are testing. 
    This means saying “no” more than “yes”, but never because it’s easier. Writing down hypotheses helps everyone on the team know what to test (and, importantly, what not to test).
  10. Pay it forward.
    Being an entrepreneur is hard and lonely and frustrating. Even if you haven’t made $1 yet, your experience and perspective may help someone else keep going.

Thanks to Nick Ducoff and Parul Singh for feedback on early drafts.