11 advice from a startup crusher

A courageous adventurer in Navadra

In July 2018 and after 3 years of an exciting and exhausting experience we decided to shut down our Education startup called Navadra. Exciting because it was really enegerzing to feel that we were trying to solve a real problem that touched us in the guts and because we knew that it was a “do or die” mission. Exhausting because we worked really hard, had few time to spend with family and friends and did not sleep a lot.

I decided to write an article about this startup adventure, with 2 objectives in mind:

  1. Do a proper post-mortem on my experience to better learn from it.

While writing this article, I realized it would simply be too long so I splitted it into 2 articles:

  1. The first article relates how we crashed Navadra

If you want to have a bit of context to better understand the following points then feel free to read the first article before moving on to this one.

If you prefer to jump right in to the advice in this article, then you just need to know that Navadra was an educational video game which had for mission to “help middle school students regain confidence in their maths skills”.

Navadra user testing at a fair

1. Set your priorities and rules right from the start

Starting a business takes lot of time and energy. It will also probably reduce your mental availability: during evenings, nights and weekends, you continue thinking about your startup and the tons of things you should do. Before this experience, I never had any problem leaving work issues at the office and totally disconnecting when coming back home. It was no more the case: I spent countless nights trying to find sleep, unable to stop scanning mentally my never ending to-do list.

Your startup project will likely become your number 1 focus leaving little room for other areas of your life. This can cause great frustrations or unwanted outcomes.

My wife and I were especially worried about us drifting away during this experience and eventually breaking up. We made a pact: she accepted that this project would reduce the amount of time we would spend together but if she felt like our couple was in danger, I should immediately do something about it. We also decided that I should not work on weekends when she was here and have at least one evening per week that we would spend only the 2 of us. These 3 years were straining for our couple, especially the last one when I could work on Navadra only during evenings, nights and weekends but this pact really helped our couple prevail.

Regarding other aspects of my life, I decided that I would keep them at a minimum: doing sport only once a week to keep sane, hang out less with friends and stop all kind of entertainment (video games, tv, novels).

Sticking to these decisions wasn’t always easy but clarifying them right from the start really helped me stick to these commitments without feeling too frustrated.

2. Find a cause you are passionate about

I talked with lot of entrepreneurs or wannabe entrepreneurs along the way. It’s funny to see that there could be many reasons why one would start a company. Some do it because they were feeling bored in their corporate job, some because it is trendy, some because they want to be their own boss and some because they want to get rich.

From my experience, none of these reasons will keep you motivated in dire situations. Creating a startup is an emotional rollercoaster: someday you think your company is unstoppable, someday you think you will close the next day.

What helped me overcome all the obstacles was the mission we were trying to achieve. In our case “help middle school students regain confidence in their maths skills”. During these 3 years, we received lot of touching testimonials from teenagers for who Navadra had changed their perception of mathematics and that’s the main motivation fuel we used.

I firmly believe that a sincere passion for your users’ problem is the most powerful driver you can have and that you shouldn’t create your startup before you found a cause that you are passionate about.

3. Be aware of the confirmation bias trap

This is the downside of the previous point and, retrospectively, I think it was my biggest mistake. Confirmation bias is one of the most documented cognitive bias. This is the tendency to search for information that will only confirm your current beliefs or hypotheses.

When I pitched my startup concept, I kept receiving the same feedback: “Nice idea but it will be hard to find a profitable business model”. Of course, listening to people who are not your target user shouldn’t prevent you from creating your startup… but it should help you identify the hypotheses that you should validate as soon as possible.

When I read the classic The Lean Startup from Eric Ries, I discovered a ritual that would have been very useful for us: Pivot-or-Persevere meetings. It consists in meeting every month to analyze indicators and determine whether we should pivot or persevere. It forces you to consider this option regularly and avoid reaching a point where pivot is obvious but also too late. In his book, he explains that every startup make 2 big assumptions at their beginning:

  1. Value proposition. Will users pay for your product? Will they keep using your product on the long run?

Until you have not answered positively to these 2 questions, this should remain your number 1 priority. If you answer negatively, you should consider pivoting.

I wish I had read this book before starting Navadra and not once it was over. I was deeply passionate for the cause and never really considered pivoting. Confirmation bias pushed me to pay attention only to positive signals and not to negative ones.

I believe there is a sweet spot to be found between passion for the cause and clarity on your business situation and I intend to find it for my next startup.

4. Spend your first month focused only on the problem

Now, every startup is more or less familiar with the concept of user‘s problem yet few takes the time to properly understand…and they all regret it afterwards.

I like this quote from Einstein:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

This illustrates well the importance to understand perfectly your target users’ problems before trying to solve it. The issue is that we’ve been raised to look for solutions instead of understanding the problem deeply. Combine this with the fact that every startuper believes he has the idea of the millenium and is too eager to start building it and you understand why nobody is spending enough time on problem definition.

Naturally, I fell in the same trap myself…

I had the intuition that it was worth validating the concept with teenagers before building it but I made the mistake most entrepreneurs do: I focused my questions on my solution and not on their problem. I asked about which game universe and mechanics they prefered or whether the concept of playing to get better at math was appealing for them. The problem is that most users aren’t good at designing good solutions. This quote from Henry Ford illustrates the point:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

By focusing on the problem, you understand that all that matters to people is getting faster from point A to point B and it is up to you to determine how to solve this.

If we had done that at the beginning, we would have realized that teenagers simply wanted to have a better grade to their next test. This also explains why Photomath (an app that solves an equation by scanning it with your mobile) is the top Math app on both App store and Play store… Knowing this right from the start would have allowed us to focus all features on this value proposition while making sure we stayed aligned with our mission.

If you don’t know how to carry problem-centered user interviews, reading The Mom Test is an excellent way to start.

Note that the one-month-rule is not absolute but I firmly believe that every startup should spend at least this amount of time if they want to deeply understand their users’ problems.

5. Identify where 80% of the added value of your product comes from and iterate only on that

Jason Fried’s metaphor in his excellent book Rework illustrates well this principle. Let’s say you want to open a hot dog stand, on what should you focus first?

You would be much better off starting with the hot dog recipe and try to make it as awesome as possible. Once you get this right then you can start preoccupy about the stand, its name, its colours, the way you will attract customers etc.

There are 2 benefits of this approach:

  • Focusing on one things at a time is more effective than trying to do everything in parallel

Let’s take one of my mistake as an example. When I started the first prototype of Navadra, I spent 5 month building what I thought a MVP was. Only once I developed a minimal version of all features did I try to test it with teenagers. The right way would have been to start only with the core game interactions and carry out user testing on that part (and forget about login, settings, progress, profile, messaging etc.).

By doing so, I would have identified quicker that some game mechanics/interactions were not fun and it would have had no impact on other parts of the game. Instead, when I realized some interactions were not as engaging as I expected, I had to modify other parts of the game as well (profile, progress), making every iteration slower.

Moreover, when the modifications implied deleting and rewriting a significant part of my code, I sometimes fell into the sunk cost fallacy (the tendency to keep what we have although it’s not optimal because we feel we already invested a significant amount of time and money into it) and chose to leave it as it was.

For the mobile version of Navadra, we learnt from our mistakes and iterated only on the most important interactions before building a full game around it and it made our iterations much more efficient. Although harder for a video game, the best remains to iterate only on mock-ups before coding anything. There’s a bunch of good tools available for that: Proto.io, InVision, Sketch, Framer, etc.

Creating a startup is a race against time where we all try to reach Product-Market fit before running out of cash. Being able to iterate quickly is an essential asset in this race.

6. Move fast and break things

When I started Navadra, I was convinced that if we wanted to be one day a big company, we should be really careful about our brand image and avoid at all cost disappointing our users. I remember when we finished the Alpha version of Navadra and were ready to launch our Beta. There were too many differences between the 2 versions so we needed to erase every player’s account so that it would not create errors. The thing is that some of our players were already very advanced in the game and we thought we would lose all of them forever if we put them back to level 1.

We spent quite some time figuring out how to proceed, we even envisioned building a complex script to make some kind of progress equivalence between Alpha and Beta versions so that existing players wouldn’t have to start again from scratch. Finally we ended up choosing a simpler solution: a quick video of ourselves explaining to our users why we needed to reset their accounts and an in-game arbitrary bonus for every player who had reached level 20 or above.

I’m glad we did not spend more time on this issue: most players did not mind starting again from scratch since the game had considerably changed. There were some complaints though but I wouldn’t do things differently: building a product implies changing lots of stuff over time and it would be simply too time consuming to make sure every transition is perfectly executed.

Obviously, things would be different if you were a big company with a large user base and a reputation but that’s not the case for a startup so take advantage of it.

At the beginning of Navadra, I was also thinking that the whole world (math teachers, schools, journalists, etc.) was watching this company raise whereas the truth was: nobody gave a damn! I was putting so much time and energy into the project that it totally distorted my perception. People today are living fast-paced lives and it’s not yet another startup that will make any difference… and this is actually a good news!

It means you can try new things, fail, look stupid, most people won’t remember your startup name after few months anyway. Unless you are in a highly regulated industry, you can therefore save a considerable amount of time by testing things early even though your product is far from perfect.

When you start, you’re no one: an unknown brand with a very limited user base and no media exposition. You can and should allow yourself to change fast and break things, this is one of your only advantages against big corporations so use it!

7. Use your fragility to better connect with your users

Speaking about advantages against big corporations, there is another one that too many startup forget: the ability to better connect with their users by sharing their story and explaining who’s the team behind the product.

Warning: this advice might not be relevant if you operate in B2B, if your product is very expensive or if a flaw in your product can have dire consequences (ex: health device).

At the very beginning of Navadra, I was trying to look as serious as possible by hiding the fact that there was a single guy behind the product. It probably made Navadra look more “professional” from the outside but it was just the opposite that was needed.

One of the things that was really tough during this experience was finding the first teacher who was ready to test Navadra with a full classroom of students. It meant taking one hour of their precious time, book the school computer classroom and take the risk that teenagers would not engage with it or that something would not work. My first approach was to contact schools and math teachers and pretend we were an established company trying to do test and learn on a new product. It did not work out.

When seeing the poor results that this method was producing, I changed of tactic and started presenting us as a small startup deeply passionate about helping teenagers having fun while doing maths. One math teacher happened to be sensible to our story and accepted to give us a try. The success of the session led all her colleagues to ask for a session with all of their classrooms. One month after, we had so many requests from teachers that we had to decline some of them.

This helped us realize the power of connecting with users via our story and our mission and, later on, we made a special rubric on our website to explain these aspects in details to anyone interested.

8. Find an advisor/mentor

This one seems pretty obvious but I’ve met a lot of startups who did not have one. We all agree on the fact that having an advisor is a good thing but you need to make it a focus at some point, otherwise it will never happen.

This shouldn’t be your priority number one though. I believe it’s more efficient to start with understanding your users’ problems and make few iterations around the core value proposition. Once you feel you’re on to something, this is the perfect timing to find an advisor or a mentor. Indeed, you will probably need a bit more than an idea if you want to convince a good advisor / mentor to help you.

We did that with Navadra by joining the new accelerator DojoBoost after few iterations. DojoBoost helped me pay attention to the good indicators to find cofounders, helped us discuss capital breakdown and offered a bunch of other valuable advice along the way.

A year later we applied and were accepted at The Family, a long term strategic partner with a much larger network of startups and experienced mentors. We received many valuable advice from them as well and we would probably have been much better off if we had applied there one year earlier. The Family startup community being quite wide, it also gave us the occasion to exchange with other Education startups that were facing similar challenges and it was also very helpful.

Some founders absolutely don’t want to give away a percentage of their capital to accelerators. I won’t enter into this debate but if you’re a first time entrepreneur, then you definitely need to find some kind of mentoring. When we were trying to raise funds, I met one experienced business angel who offered his services for free as a mentor under the condition that we would keep him updated regularly and really consider his suggestions. We declined because we had already enough advisors but this kind of arrangement can be a good alternative if you’re not willing to give away a single percent of your capital.

9. Keep time for learning

You probably already know that one of the common point of many successful people is that they dedicate a lot of their time to learning new things. However, if you’re like me, you might think that there’s already so many things you want to do for your startup during the day, that you must stop doing everything that is not “absolutely necessary”.

The thing is that learning new things falls into the “absolutely necessary” category. I believe the only exception is when it’s not your first startup and that you’re already very experienced in your industry. In this case, it might not be “absolutely necessary” but should still help you make a big difference in the long run.

After we decided to stop Navadra, in 6 months I’ve spent more than 200 hours learning new things about startups and product management. The full list of articles, books and video I recommend is available here. One of my biggest regret is that I have been waiting until it was too late to start learning all these things. For instance, I really wished I had read The Lean Startup, Hooked, Inspired or Rework right from the start.

But unfortunately, at that time, I was too busy working 16 hours a day on things that would have felt totally useless if I had read these books…

To be honest, I already started learning before the end of Navadra. Starting in 2016, I attended an eye-opening Meetup talking about cognitive sciences and read a considerable amount of resources on this subject afterwards. I also discovered the famous Ted Talk from Sir Ken Robinson that led me to learn much more about Education in general. Although these subjects were fascinating, there were unfortunately not really helpful business-wise.

Today, I’m spending between 1h and 3h a day learning new things and I have every intention to continue doing it.

You might think you really don’t have time for this and in this case, I highly recommend that you start learning 30 minutes a day on subjects you feel are the highest priority for your startup and keep doing it during one month.

I bet that at the end of this month, not only you won’t stop doing it but you might as well increase your learning time.

10. Only raise funds when it’s obvious you need to accelerate

The classic mistake of first time entrepreneurs is trying to raise funds before reaching Product-Market fit. You might think that raising funds will help you reach Product-Market fit sooner but:

  1. It will be much harder to convince investors before Product-Market fit

Trying to do so anyway will probably end up as a pure waste of your precious time.

Today we keep reading articles about startups that have closed yet another impressive round of funding and we might think it’s almost easy. The truth is that is it a time consuming and stressful process. Raising funds means losing your focus on your customers for 4 to 9 months without having any guarantee that you will actually succeed. That’s why for many startups, you generally have only one chance to raise funds before running out of cash so don’t waste it too soon.

When do you know you have reached Product-Market fit?

You must have proven two things:

  • Value proposition: users are willing to pay for your product or spend a significant amount of their time using your product.

I made the mistake of believing that since we had a nice initial traction with Navadra, it will be sufficient to raise funds. Except our value proposition was not really proven since we hadn’t start to make teenagers pay for our product. Moreover, our successful engine of growth (word of mouth between teachers) would probably be significantly impacted when switching from an entirely free to a freemium business model designed for parents.

We were making some progress but were still far from being able to raise funds confidently.

In short, until you haven’t validated your value proposition and your sustainable engine of growth, keep hustling or you will probably end up wasting your time.

11. Embrace the risk to fail

I remember one conversation with a friend when I was telling him for the first time that I was planning to create my own startup. I told him about my real passion for the cause and the excitement I felt by walking this new path. I also shared my concerns and the biggest one I had was:

What if I failed?

I did not have a mortgage nor a bank loan so it wasn’t really about the financial risks. No, my main fear was about the way I would be perceived if I failed.

Back then, I did not have any real prior experience of failing either in my personal or professional life and I was on the point to start an adventure with high chances of failure.

I realized now that it was mainly because of this that I was so scared.

Fortunately, my passion and interest for this project exceeded my fears and that did not stop me from starting.

Among many other things, this startup experience has taught me one thing: how to fail and accept it. Before that, I read about the importance of learning how to fail but it is a whole other story to actually live it on a project you are deeply passionate about.

Today, thanks to this experience, I’m no more afraid of taking the risk to fail.

Instead, I will continue taking risks and doing my best to learn from my mistakes.

If the fear of failing is also what is holding you back to create your own startup then I warmly encourage you to take the leap. You might as well greatly benefit from it.

As an old adage puts it:

When you keep learning, try to be better day after day, you might actually end up succeeding.

Conclusion

By writing these 2 articles, I already completed my first objective which was to reflect on my experience to better learn from it.

My second objective is as important for me: “help future entrepreneurs avoid doing the same mistakes that I did”.

I already received lots of message of entrepreneurs finding this post helpful, some of them even contacted me to exchange further in direct and I am very glad about it.

However, if I really want to reach my second objective, I would need to know if some of these advice actually made you change the way you operate in your startup.

So if you found any of these advice helpful and decided to take specific actions based on that, please comment on this article: which advice did you act on? How?

If you liked it, please don’t hesitate to hit 👏 to help others discover it as well. Thanks!

This post has been published on www.productschool.com communities.

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Lifelong learner who fell in love with learning technics, product management and technology.

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Michel Ferry

Lifelong learner who fell in love with learning technics, product management and technology.