It has been a year I have been a full-time entrepreneur. Like any other entrepreneur I have had my share of peaks and troughs, the latter more than the former. We, as a startup, also made lot of good decisions and several mistakes. In the hindsight, it is always easy to rationalize our acts but it is equally important to analyze and learn from success as well as mistakes. Here are some lessons I can think of –
Product-market fit is more important than creating processes for scaling up: So you are driving fast to reach your destination, but what if the way you chose is itself wrong? Startups like ours face a lot of uncertainty. There are hundreds of things that can go wrong. Sometimes, we spent a lot of time in thinking about [and doing] things like creating the cheapest delivery service or increasing the size of the team. These things are definitely needed but concentrating on these things unless you are sure that your product will work is just like driving fast at the risk of choosing the wrong way. Scaling up, setting up most optimized delivery processes etc can be de-prioritized over quick validation whether the product will really work.
You cannot find answers in meetings: We also spent a lot of time in discussing about the right markets, product features, business models, ideas etc. We also felt disappointed lot of times when we were not able to find the right answers to our questions. One thing that I learnt is that no matter how much you research or read, there is no alternative to test your hypothesis. So instead of finding answers in the meetings, we should discuss more about tests that can be done as quickly as possible to get the answers.
There are two type of tasks in a startup: Any task in a startup can be classified into two parts – customer-centric tasks and non-customer centric tasks. Although all tasks in a business are customer-centric since the primary objective of business is to create a customer. I define customer-centric tasks as only those tasks that are directly related to customer – be it sales, support, customer feedback, product delivery etc. While non-customer centric tasks are indirectly related to customers – setting processes, server benchmarking, designing visiting cards, stationary, making perfect facebook page etc. Now when I look back, we spent a lot of time on non-customer centric tasks. While these wer also important but some of these could have been conveniently postponed for later time after customer-centric tasks were taken care of.
You cannot do too many things at the same time: There was a time when we were considering 3 to 4 business models and working on all of them simultaneously. This testing was required to understand the market better but being a small team, it took a big toll on our mind share. Then there are growth models – we worked on multiple of them at the same time. I think it would have been lot better had we experimented with one model at a time and ingested the learning going forward.
You should measure the right metrics: Numbers that look very encouraging can start looking very depressing if looked from different perspective. It can also be vice versa. And if you are making decisions based on these numbers seen from a wrong perspective, it can have serious repercussions. We were lucky enough not to fall for any vanity metrics [ for eg. 10K FB fans or 800 registrations etc]. We are also trying to come up with right metrics to measure our business.
Not hiring is better than hiring mediocre people: At least not when you are starting up. We were lucky to get really awesome people and it was great to see how much they were able to contribute considering the zilch experience they had. On the other hand we also made couple of mistakes – hiring unfit people. The worst part here is not the monetary cost to company but the amount of mindshare and overheads involved in keeping them in sync with the company’s culture and business objectives.
Things that you think are important may mean nothing to customer: So we designed a cool feature in our product, we discussed about it for hours and we were happy about it. Then customer says “oh ok” or doesn’t even notice it. I think by middle of the year, we started to realize, to some extent, what matters to our target customer and what does not. We might be still biased about it but now we are aware about this bias. Our customers are not “us” and hence what we think is cool does not matter to business. And to add to this, what customer says is not necessarily what customer wants and it’s the latter that matters more. Fortunately, we did not make many mistakes in investing heavily on unwanted product features.
And the biggest of them all – There are some things you will learn only by doing, sometimes learning the hard way. You can read hundreds of books or get advice from many wise people, you cannot learn swimming unless you jump in water. Before starting, if I were given objective type questions to answer based on the above points, I would have answered most of these according to what I have learnt now. But it would have been like knowing the theory of freestyle or backstroke swimming – which is almost worthless.
[These views are biased on what I think and it may be or may not be different from what my company, team or cofounder thinks. Also there is high probability that I will have to unlearn some of these in next few years because these will be not applicable in different settings]