Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
~ David Beckham
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
~ Margaret Mead
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
“You have to recognize that every ‘out front’ maneuver you make is going to be lonely, but if you feel entirely comfortable, then you’re not far enough ahead to do any good. That warm sense of everything going well is usually the body temperature at the center of the herd.” — John Masters
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
THE MAN IN THE ARENA
- Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic”
- delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910
- Theodore Roosevelt
And a bonus third:
“You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard Feynman
A friend once advised me to be careful of startup purgatory. The story below was my response to him.
Imagine two people setting out to cross a large lake, each in a small rowboat. The first sets out on a clear day with the lake surface as still and flat as a mirror; a gentle breeze and a steady current pushing the boat from behind. Each time the oars are dipped into the water the boat shoots across the lake. Rowing is easy and delightful. Quickly the rower reaches the far side of the lake. She may congratulate herself for being quite skilled.
The second rower heads out across the same lake during a great storm. Powerful winds, currents, and waves move in the direction opposite the boat. With each pull of the oars, the boat barely moves forward, only to lose most of the distance gained when the oars are raised out of the water for the next pull. After much effort she makes it to the far side of the lake. This rower may feel discouraged at her lack of skill.
Probably most people would prefer to be the first rower. However, the second rower is the one who has become stronger from the exertion and is thereby better prepared for future challenges.
From The Issue At Hand by Gil Fronsdale.
I’ve always been fairly OCD about how software is built. Traditionally I’ve believed in process, organization, and tight communication. I once loved burn down charts, issue tracker reports, daily standups, deadlines, and frequent planning meetings. Not anymore.
Working on MemCachier with David and Amit has taught me otherwise. David and Amit are both incredibly talented engineers. They would be slowed down by process, organization, and superfluous communication designed to help me, the OCD team member, sleep better at night. And they’d probably be annoyed and upset, too.
We’ve adopted more of a chaotic engineering process, where we don’t have meetings, tracking tickets, release processes, and deadlines. And we work where and when we want. This way of building software is drastically different than what I’m familiar with, but it’s proven to be a better model for us while we build MemCachier. It’s also been better for me as an individual contributor. I’ve been far more productive lately than I was when I stayed organized. And I’ve been writing better code, too. Although maybe David and Amit will disagree ;).
The transition has been hard for me. In the early days I’d argue with David and Amit about adopting more process. Over time I’ve become more patient and open minded, and slowly but surely I’ve adopted David and Amit’s ways.
The best way I can describe our culture at MemCachier is as a hacker culture. And I’ve written in more depth about it here in case you’re curious. Also, if our culture sounds appealing, send me an email — MemCachier is hiring.
Last week a friend told me he’s considering quitting his job to pursue his own startup. He’s spent the last few months researching and refining his business plan. But he hasn’t made enough progress to give him the confidence to quit his job and live without an income.
He wants to create a very specific type of food product. He’s asked me to not share the details, so let’s pretend that he’s making a new energy bar to compete with PowerBar and CLIF Bar. He’s made the bar in his kitchen and tested it on himself with great success. But his research has indicated that he’ll need capital for manufacturing, packaging, and labeling. So now he’s started researching fundraising, investors, and pitching.
I told him to stop researching and instead to start building a small business. He should make small quantities of the bar in his kitchen and sell them. Let’s pretend his target customer is an endurance cyclist. He should setup a booth on a popular bike route, perhaps at the top of a hill where cyclists normally rest, and see if people buy the bar. If they buy, his idea will be validated and he’ll be in a great position to fundraise. And if they don’t buy, he’ll get great customer feedback, which will help him iterate on a better product, eventually leading to sales.
The first thing you should do when considering starting a business is build a prototype and validate that it’s something people will pay for. Most ideas have a simple version that can be built without a lot of capital (popularly known as a minimum viable product). Spend your time finding that simple version, building it, and selling it. Then research how your simple prototype can grow and mature.
Pitching your research to an investor won’t go well for you. The investment would be too risky — investors don’t know if the product can be built, if customers will buy it, and if you can successfully market your product. Instead, show the investor that you already have a business with a prototype and paying customers. And raise money to fuel growth into a large market.
Investors are more likely to invest in lower risk opportunities, so take out as much risk as you can by building as much of the business before you pitch. Secondly, asking for money to fuel growth is a far stronger position to be in than asking for money to validate your research. So stop planning and start doing.
Today Fred Wilson, one of the most prominent consumer internet investors, wrote about how the consumer internet space is becoming harder and harder to break into:
The wind that has been at our back for 7-8 years in consumer internet is no longer there. It’s tougher sledding and will likely continue so for some time to come.
I’m not surprised by Fred’s observation — I predicted this back in June. I’ve spent the last 18 months on a journey to find and start my own business. In those 18 months I’ve built both B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) products. I’ve witnessed firsthand how much more difficult a B2C product is to build than a B2B product.
The formula for a successful B2B product is straightforward: businesses buy software that is valuable to them — software that cuts costs or grows revenue. With little exception, businesses will buy products that create value.
In contrast, consumers are fickle. Their buying decisions are random — sometimes based on logic, and other times based on emotion or mood. Ad-supported consumer internet companies don’t even impose a buying decision on the consumer. Instead the company tries its best to distract and entertain the consumer — more pageviews yields more revenue. Keeping consumers entertained is hard.
MemCachier, the product I’ve been building for 8 months, has had more immediate success than any other product I’ve built. MemCachier sells a software-as-a-service to websites. Every decision we make is based on creating more value for web developers. And because I’m a developer, I understand what will create value for our customers, and hence sell more product.
Plus, I enjoy building software that developers use. And building a software-as-a-service brings much of a the same excitement as a B2C product. Every day, new customers signup through our marketing channels, without talking to us. They use our product every day. And sometimes they tell us how much they love our product, and how much easier it’s made their lives.
I’ll save B2C products for side projects and build businesses out of B2B products — they’re easier and equally as fun.
Most companies get founded when one entrepreneur has an idea that she recruits her friends to build with her. The common assumption is each founder will work well together because they get along and their skills compliment one and other. So the founding team gets formed right away, ownership and voting rights are set during the incorporation, and everyone starts working.
The scenario I’ve just explained often leads to one or many founders leaving the company. They recognize after weeks or months of work that the company isn’t the right fit — maybe the role isn’t interesting, or maybe one of the other founders is too difficult to work with. A company that loses one or many founders isn’t necessarily doomed for failure, but the process you’ll go through is messy, expensive, and emotionally draining for everyone.
The founding team should be formed carefully and patiently. By being careful, you’ll save yourself much frustration in the future when one or many founders need to leave.
Here are the steps you should take when choosing a founding team:
- Get to know one and other — break bread and drink beer.
- Work on a side project — something that won’t share intellectual property with your future startup, yet something you’re passionate about.
- Brainstorm — bounce ideas off one and other; make sure you can rev on ideas.
- Push a few buttons — see what people do when they’re upset, sad, or vulnerable.
- Discuss the startup — the product, go-to-market strategy, branding, competitors.
- Discuss roles and responsibilities — who will run product, engineering, sales, recruiting, etc.
- Discuss the board and ownership — equity split, vesting schedule, and board seats.
- Incorporate and start working full-time, guns blazing.
Here are qualities you should look for in a founder:
- They have a passion for the product.
- They’re product minded.
- They’re onboard for the long haul.
- They have a skill that will give your startup a competitive advantage.
- They’re fun to work with.
- They’re good at communicating.
- They’re positive, inspiring, and excited.
- Ideally you’ve worked with them before.
- They make you better at your job.
Here are founder qualities that should raise a red flag:
- They’ve never worked at a startup before.
- They have lots of side projects that they enjoy maintaining.
- They’re considering going (back) to school or a job.
- They want a quick exit (acquisition).
- They’re hesitant to quit their preexisting commitments.
- They don’t have a passion for the product.
- They’re negative.
Lastly, here are general tips for incorporating. These are very subjective:
- Put everyone on the same vesting schedule — don’t forward-vest anyone. 
- Give all founders a one-year vesting cliff. 
- The founding CEO should be the founder most dedicated to the company’s success.
- The founding CEO should have control, which usually means they have more stock. (I used to think otherwise. And there are lots of varying opinions on this subject.)
Don’t expect founding a company to happen quickly. You should date potential founders for months before you decide to work together. The founding team is more important than the idea — the founding team is everything. Be careful and patient when choosing or joining a founding team. And do not rush into a founding team.
 Each founder will work on the company for years, so vesting schedules don’t matter.
Update: Steve Blank agrees.
Surviving a bad day is like enduring a mountain climb on a bicycle. You’ll inevitably suffer, hating the world more with each stroke of your pedals or negative thought. You’ll want to scream at anyone who talks to you. Or send a nasty email to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Eventually you’ll get through the bad day, and you’ll have the long descent on the other side to bring you back to your normal state of mind. You aren’t angry. You aren’t mean. You’re struggling through something and soon you’ll be over it.
Hold your tongue and keep the suffering and struggle to yourself. You’ll regret any brash decisions you make during your time of despair. Don’t let the bad day turn into a bad week, a bad decision, or a spoiled relationship.
Suffer through the bad day alone, as you would if you were riding your bike. Keep your thoughts and angers to yourself. They won’t do anyone else any good. And they won’t do you good, either.