43 Lessons Learned From My First Failed Startup

My junior year at the University of Washington.

The year I set out on a journey to create the next big outdoor sports game (as shown in the picture above) and the next viral Kickstarter campaign.

During this year long journey, I learned things that I simply couldn’t have learned without having experienced it myself and I know the experience will prove to be invaluable going forward.

I met with PE teachers and had kids in the area loving a game that I created.

I met with patent attorneys, submitted provisionals, learned about copyright law, etc.

I was a quarterfinalist in the IBMC and competed in Silicon Valley at the Computer History Museum and made a lot of new connections.

I met and talked to over 100 experienced local business professionals in the Seattle area at a startup competition at my school.

I had a great logo, great brand name, great website up, professional footage and pictures..

But…

Notice how all of the above are not meaningful metrics tied to results and actual traction.

The journey was a tough one and was ultimately the biggest failure in my young career to date.

And I wanted to share just a few of the lessons I learned and some of the key insights that I picked up on that I wrote down a while back after reflecting on the journey.

43 Lessons Learned

1. Don’t hire fast based primarily on someone’s excitement for your venture. Hire slow, despite tendency to do the opposite when speed and urgency will make you think you need to make hiring decisions quick.

2. Take that extra step to ensure you have done enough due diligence on prospective hires.

3. Injection molds are crazy expensive.

4. Always air on the side of quick, simple prototypes.

5. Don’t just build cool prototypes & ask people what they think.

6. Identify the key assumptions you are making that could make or break your business right away and test them immediately.

7. Be very very honest with yourself & don’t be romantic about your idea. Play much more of a devil’s advocate early and often.

8. Reverse engineer from the beginning. Decide on your ‘minimum success criteria’ as Ash Maurya describes in his book, Scaling Lean. What’s your vision for 3 years from now? Then work backwards to determine what you need to do to accomplish this vision and get a feel for the actual numbers and metrics you will need to hit to achieve your goal.

9. Test more, even when you think you know what the results of the additional testing will be. Sample size is critically important.

10. Actually use a BMC/Lean Canvas throughout the journey.

11. Keep more detailed records of all testing and its results.

12. Start with the problem, and then work on the solution. Not the other way around.

13. Don’t continue to truck forward no matter what & assume “things will work out” when there are red flags/warning signs.

14. Brute forcing your way through problems is often not the smart thing to do.

15. The narrative that the key to startup success is persistence and fighting through adversity and never quitting is not great advice. Knowing when to quit, pivot, or persevere is what makes a great entrepreneur; not just pushing forward regardless of problems.

16. Don’t focus/ make key decisions early on based on scale. Focus on getting the product right first. Customers 1–15 or so should be the focus; not building a product for 300+ people.

17. Rely more on early adopters. Get them involved more. Make them feel important & make them feel like an insider who has a big influence on the venture, because well..they are important and influential on the venture.

18. Have people pay early on pre-product. Ask everyone if they would buy when testing, not just the ol’ “what are your thoughts? Do you like it” approach to customer research.

19. Hypothesis testing is critical. The nitty gritty details of how you test, who you test, how you interpret the test results…these are all critical and require skill. Don’t underestimate the importance of this process.

20. Being super proud of a prototype you are using to test assumptions is a sign you wasted a lot of time. Should be nervous/embarrassed because you know you could improve the prototype, but the key is to build the absolute minimum and spend the minimum amount of time it takes to test what you need to test.

21. Having a great website or logo or prototype is not traction.

22. Don’t just focus on customer validation. Product development validation/feasibility needs to keep up as well.

23. In the early stages especially, pay work-for-hires by performance/ in stages, not all up front no matter how confident you are in the person.

24. Don’t worry about people copying your idea. The value comes in sharing your idea early and often to validate. Benefits of secrecy heavily outweighed by benefits of feedback and openness.

25. Grant Cardone’s advice that price is a myth and is never the reason why someone doesn’t buy…is crappy advice when it comes to consumer products imo. Love Uncle G and agree with his reasoning when you dive deeper into his stance, but price is a part of the product and when it comes to physical products, blowing by manufacturing cost issues under the belief that you can always just raise the MSRP by positioning the product as a premium product doesn’t always work out.

26. Busyness does not equal productivity. Hours worked is a vanity metric. Slow down at times to ensure you are working on the right thing.

27. Just do a cheap landing page at first that looks nice and gets the job done. Never build out your long term vision for the site at the beginning. Keep it basic.

28. Air on the side of lower cost approaches. You will have a long term vision in mind…keep the vision in mind, but don’t need to go after it all right away and in fact you shouldn’t.

29. The Kickstarter model does not necessarily mean you are adhering to Lean Startup principles — in fact I think the model has a lot of flaws to it the way most Kickstarter “experts” approach it anyways. Getting $ before you build the product is great, but a lot of $ and effort is needed to be ready to launch a campaign. So the Kickstarter campaign should not be the way you validate your product, should be doing this way way earlier.

30. Being a sole founder and having 100% control over every decision can be tough. Loneliness factor that people warned me about is real and the value of having a committed cofounder to bounce ideas off of and make decisions with can be huge.

31. Skin in the game is important. Don’t rely too heavily on unproven people who do not have skin in the game, no matter how much they say they care about your venture.

32. Trust your gut more. Trust unproven people’s advice less when your gut disagrees with their input.

33. Don’t let people convince you that a concern you have is not that big of a deal. Trust the gut. Be a devil’s advocate to your venture in the face of people telling you your concern is not that big of a deal especially if they do not have to deal with the consequences if they are wrong.

34. The lean startup methodology is not just about cost…it’s really about speed. Just because you can build a prototype for $10 doesn’t mean it’s a lean prototype if you are spending way too much time building it.

35. The way to get startup ideas is not to try and come up with startup ideas. Paul Graham of YC has a great talk on this and now understand his reasoning first hand.

36. Pricing is a part of your product since the price determines who your customers will be. Therefor if you are building a product for a certain demo that is very price-sensitive and your product manufacturing cost ends up being higher than planned, you may end up having a cool product at an inappropriate and problematic price point.

37. Therefor, research and validate from many sources to ensure actual costs end up being in line with your projected costs that you are designing the product around.

38. Know the purpose for every prototype/demo before making it. It is to test certain assumptions. Tendency is to focus on building something cool to show off and get people’s feedback, while losing focus of the objective and its purpose. I think people often build flashy prototypes early on to avoid facing the potential reality that the idea is not a winner — cool prototypes seem to reduce the chances of your idea being shut down by testers and since we have fallen in love with our idea prematurely we do everything we can to reduce this possibility — when in reality it is best to face rejection and negative feedback sooner rather than later.

39. While rushing into building a product will feel more productive than spending time writing out your vision and plan, it is critical to manage your excitement for your idea and do extensive testing and due diligence before ever building anything.

40. Shift your mindset from “can we build it” to “should we build it?” as Eric Ries puts it. Big big difference.

41. Realize that acting on ideas is very expensive as Ash Maurya puts it. Make it less expensive and less risky by testing early and often and avoid falling in love with the idea/solution early on.

42. Recognize your natural tendency to rationalize certain issues/feedback the way you want to.

43. Be aware of vanity metrics and how entrepreneurs tend to put too much weight on them. Focus on the right metrics.