Running a startup is hard. And there’s no getting around that. There’s plenty of competition out there doing a better job than you and seemingly always one-step ahead and there’s the non-startup part of life that happens as well, like a family and sometimes a job.
There are things that you can do however to decrease the chance of failure early on, which is typically the roughest part of this whole startup thing.
The startup I co-founded in 2018 went from zero code to the TechCrunch Battlefield stage in less than 6 months. Here’s a list of the things that got us there. And really, these are things that any early stage startup founder should be doing anyhow.
Start marketing first
Most people tend to jump on the coding editor before anything else so that their ideas aren’t stolen and such. They are super secretive and require NDA’s to even mention the concept to their neighbors.
You have to ask the hard questions early on. Does anyone really need this product? You might be able to come up with a few reasons why it’s a good idea, sure. But would anyone be willing to pay you for it? A great product that nobody wants, is a terrible idea.
Start with a landing page giving a broad view of your concept. You don’t have to go into the ‘secret’ details of your company. But give me one or two sentences describing what it is that you do. And then start telling your future potential customers about it.
Before my startup’s CEO even approached me with the idea, he already had a landing page that he had been testing for months. He managed to get thousands of businesses to sign up to be notified of future updates before a single line of code was written.
He only reached out to me and my team after he had substantial traction on his own proving to himself that he had a valuable product on his hands. Once we saw the numbers, it was an easy call to make.
Which means that on launch day, there was a user base willing and able to try out our platform. This not only kept us accountable to our future clients, but it also helped us to gauge the overall interest in the product.
Plan for a 4 month MVP
Ideally your product will change whether you want to admit it or not. It will change based on how your users interact with the product. And you won’t know any of these changes until after your launch. So you need to launch and launch relatively quickly.
I think 4 months is the sweet spot for most general ideas that aren’t hardware related. If you are building a phone for example, you might need substantially more time as that requires materials and some form of a supply chain. Pending global politics, this could take you a while.
For most software-based SASS products however, 4 months is a realistic timeline. Also the reason I say 4, is because really it will take you around 6. Aim for 4, but expect 6.
Which is exactly what happened with our startup. We promised a solid deadline of 4 months, but at month 4 we were maybe 40% there.
40% is enough to not give up on the project completely though. It’s “almost” there. It just needs a lot of bug fixing. There’s a good chance that things will not go as planned during the development phase. API’s won’t behave as expected and databases will need to be redone. And that tends to throw a wrench into the whole thing.
Our first month was spent on an architecture that had to be completely thrown away as it didn’t allow for many new additions that were made post start-date. It happens.
You are not aiming for perfect with an MVP. It is literally the “minimal” amount of effort needed to launch. But expect that development will be ongoing for the life of the project.
This doesn’t mean skimp out on the looks though. Some people believe that MVP means a plain and un-styled application. The functionality should be minimal, but the looks should be top of the line quality.
Apply to incubator programs
If you are asking “What is an incubator?” then you really are a first-time startup founder. Incubator’s are organizations that aid startups, typically early stage, in order to help them scale quickly through the help of VC firms and other types of resources. Most will typically require a percentage of your companies shares in exchange. This amount varies, though typically it lies in the 10% to 15% range.
And if you aren’t willing to give up parts of your company just yet, that’s fine too. But apply anyway. Just going through the process of joining an incubator is a highly informative and beneficial thing.
If you never hear back from any, that’s fine too. Though that might be telling of the kind of attention your idea will inevitably get from investors.
And if you do get an email back, then prepare for rounds of interviews in which you must defend your product and give a convincing argument as to why it is valuable. And that right there is the key.
I’ve met way too many startup founders that simply “like” their idea, but that don’t see it beyond being a fun tool. Incubator interviews get rid of that mindset in a very humbling way.
I personally went through dozen of these interviews during the early stages of my startup. And they are challenging to say the least. It turns out, that yours isn’t the only idea in town. There are literally thousands of new companies buying for attention in your city at any one time. And some of them are pretty fantastic.
Being a part of that environment cracks something open and gives you an extra push in developing a better product. I don’t want to call it competition. But the spirit of competition is definitely present.
And there’s also the meetings that go terribly wrong in which you don’t have answers to the questions given or when someone calls you on your bullshit. It’s anger inducing, but also humbling as well and mentally begins to prepare you for actually running a successful business.
So apply and apply often.
Always be testing
If you have a brand new idea with brand new code, mistakes and errors will happen. And the last thing you want to do, is to email your list of 10,000 interested clients informing them that you are ready to launch only to find out a week later that your registration page is broken.
This happens more often than you think. And the only real solution is to get someone to test your product daily or weekly or whatever cadence best suits your wallet. But to test.
Get those NDA’s signed of course and have an outside person take your product for a spin. This is something that you can’t really do yourself. Odds are you will click on all of the ‘right’ buttons when self-testing. You need someone that will click on all of the wrong buttons at the wrong time to see what happens.
I hated this part of developing our startup, as each time we did it, we were faced with a surprisingly long list of tiny minute details that would sometimes require sitewide changes.
But again, minimal buyable product does not mean broken and poorly functioning product. It means beautiful, fast and easy to use application that does one thing but does it well.
So test and test often.
Believe in your idea or nobody else will
As corny as it sounds, typically the best advice is, belief is half the battle. If you truly believe that you have a good idea, then you will be able to convince others of the fact. So this isn’t some esoteric spiritual principle.
If you don’t fully believe in your idea yet, then it’s time to practice. Come up with 10 reasons why your idea is valueable. And once you have 10, then find 10 more. Do that long enough, and you will believe in your product fully.
And now when anyone asks you why you think you have a valid project on your hands, you will have real genuine answers that you yourself came up with.
The only reason that I dedicated 3 years of my human life into a startup was because of the belief that we were onto something big that could impact many people. And the fact that it was able to grow and sustain itself for 3 years in my eyes was proof of that.
And that’s it. Tell people about your amazing idea, plan out its development and schedule in ‘buffer’ time, apply to incubators and practice your pitch, always test to ensure quality, make it look good and then have a bulletproof value proposition.