Many start, but few can finish. Here’s an example.

When Sam Altman announced that his “How to Start a Startup” Stanford course would be available for free on YouTube, entrepreneurs went crazy. Everybody wanted a chance to learn from him and his guests: Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky, Aaron Levie, Reid Hoffman, and Ben Horowitz among others.

Now imagine my surprise when I looked at the numbers. The first episode was a great success gathering over 273K views (until now). The last episode on the other hand gathered only 13K views. And as you can see the growth curve is similar, showing that most of the views happen the very first days, so we can eliminate time as an influencing factor.

How to start a startup video views 2015-01-06  1How to start a startup video views 2015-01-06

If you would have told me that 260K people, who were interested in entrepreneurship, would pas the opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds in the Valley, … for FREE… I would have had some serious doubts.

PS: I know it’s napkin calculation but I think the story still stands.

#StartupMistakes: Not practicing what you preach

To be fair, I think this might apply to bigger companies as well, not only to startups. However in my mind it will always be linked to the startup scene because that’s where I’ve seen how destructive this attitude can be.

Here are a few examples of things that were preached as “The way we do things around here” and at the same time disregarded by everybody:

  • Pareto rule of 80/20 -> there was no prioritization, we “focused” on everything
  • Agile/Sprints -> in reality management would change their mind about the features every two days #featureCreep
  • Lean approach -> people waited until to launch a project until the project got canceled.

And I could probably go on…

The issues I’ve noticed so far that come out of this behaviour are:

  • Employees will lose trust in your leadership and authority
  • Employees will get frustrated when you mess with their expectations
  • The team will be confused and morale will go down

My advice: be consistent. You can always change your principles BUT make sure that your team knows about these changes.

I’m telling you all this because I believe that changing your behavior starts by acknowledging the impact of your actions. I also think that changing your behavior can be as simple as changing your perspective. Thus I challenge you to go think about your actions.  Do you practice what you preach?

What do you think you about my idea? Did you ever see this happening in your company? How did that make you feel?

Photo by Mario Mencacci, used under CC

Here is how can you replicate Ford’s assembly line idea for your business

A little know fact is that Ford’s inspiration for the assembly line came from a slaughterhouse. Yes. You’ve read that right, a slaughterhouse!

Back in the day, taking cows apart was already a streamlined process. As the cow was moving around the slaughterhouse on a conveyor belt, specialized people were cutting certain parts, over and over and over again. This process was much faster than having one person slaughtering the entire cow.

Story goes that Ford had seen this and he thought: “If this system works so well for taking animals apart then it might work great for putting cars together.” So he reversed the system and voila: the world’s first assembly line.

I love this story because it shows that inspiration comes from strange places. Another reasons to love this story is that it hints to a recipe on how to look for inspiration in strange places.

Here’s how I see the steps to replicate Ford’s assembly line idea for your business:

  1. Define what area you want to improve: customer service, communication, mass production, sales, …
  2. Explore other businesses which have that area as core business model, or that perfected the skill over time
  3. Pick the top companies in that space
  4. Identify what technologies, models, partnerships make them so successful
  5. Take the essence of what you learned and see how you can apply it to your business model

Here is an example:

Let’s say my company sells shoes online and I want to increase traffic on the website. Where should I look for inspiration?

  1. Area of improvement: increase web traffic
  2. Businesses that have web traffic as their core business model: News industry, social networking sites, …
  3. Successful businesses in this area: Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Reddit …
  4. Their tactics: social sharing, catchy titles, involve the community, UGC, …
  5. How can you use this for your own business?
    • Start a blog and have catchy titles
    • Invite people to generate content for you
    • Have social sharing buttons

That’s it. I hope this will help you. Is this applicable in your field?

Are you using any corporate slang in your external communication?

For the past 6 years I switched on a daily basis between English and Romanian. I worked for international companies where English was the lingua franca and at home I speak Romanian with my girlfriend.

Overtime, this changed my Romanian vocabulary dramatically. At the moment I speak some sort of Rongleză, as we say in Romanian, a mix of English words that are inserted randomly in my Romanian conversations.

Because I developed this vocabulary in The Netherlands, where most of my Romanian friends are in the same situation, I actually never realized how big this change was. Here nobody even flinches if they hear a word from a different language randomly inserted in a conversation. It’s normal. They do the same.

However, a few days ago, some Romanian friends of mine came to visit, and as I was telling them stories about one thing and another, I realized I have to stop from time to time because they had no idea what the hell I meant. I was using so many English words, in an unexpected context and probably with a Romanian accent, that it was impossible for them to follow me.

So where am I going with this story? Communication gaps.

I think that my story is a perfect metaphor for a phenomenon that often happens in companies, no matter the size. Behind closed doors, in small meeting rooms, after months of developing projects we end up creating our own language. This becomes natural.

The danger here is that we end up using these words in conversations with customers or even other internal teams. And much like my friends these other people will have no idea what are we talking about.

I believe that communication is one of the foundation blocks of a successful company. This is why I think it’s so important to realize this phenomenon and from time to time have a sanity check on our vocabulary.

So here’s some food for thought:

Can you think of some the words you defined within your team and which you use in your external communication, be it with customers or other departments?

Photo by Eddie Codel, under CC

How do you find users to recruit manually?

How do you find users to recruit manually? If you build something to solve your own problems, then you only have to find your peers, which is usually straightforward. Otherwise you’ll have to make a more deliberate effort to locate the most promising vein of users (see below how). The usual way to do that is to get some initial set of users by doing a comparatively untargeted launch, and then to observe which kind seem most enthusiastic, and seek out more like them. For example, Ben Silbermann noticed that a lot of the earliest Pinterest users were interested in design, so he went to a conference of design bloggers to recruit users, and that worked well.

via Paul Graham

I think that what Paul says makes a lot of sense. When you don’t know who’s your target audience you have to improvise. Forget about all targeting, send it to a big heterogeneous group, and then listen. Well, measure, don’t listen. In addition to what Paul said here is how you can locate the most promising vein of users:

  • Look in Google Analytics and see if you can spot any patterns. Think Geo, language, device type,
  • Look at the reviews. Identify who are the people that give you the 5 stars
  • Send out surveys or for physical products simply go and ask them
  • Use in app/on website notifications to ask them more about them
  • Make it easy for them to contact you. Early adopters have always want to influence the product.

If you need help with that, let me know.

PS: Not having a clear user profile is acceptable only in the prototype phase f your product. You must figure that out ASAP

Photo by michael dornbierer, used under CC

A story about buffalos, problems and solutions

At one point Hornaday realized that the buffalos that were roaming the great America plains were almost extinct, so he did what every respectable conservationist would have done: he went to Montana to kill several dozens of them.

William Temple Hornaday was one of the greatest pioneers in the early wildlife conservation movement in the United States. He was head taxidermist at the Smithsonian museum and he traveled the globe hunting exotic animals and stuffing those animals for the museum. It’s sounds weird, but for Hornaday killing all these animals was a kind of conservation. He believed that by stuffing them he was preserving endangered species for future generations that might not know them. Through taxidermy he could make the immortal…

After he hunted down and stuffed around 24 buffalos he arranged in the natural museum around a fake watering hole. As he looked at them he realized he was just a funeral director embalming the species that America was exterminating.

For me this is great example of how sometimes great people focus so much on the first solution they found that they don’t stop and question if it actually solves the problem.

This is the danger of focusing on solutions instead of focusing  on solving problems. Sometimes we fall in love with them and we keep pushing, protecting them even when they don’t make sense.

After his big awakening,  Hornaday became one of the biggest advocates for saving endangered species and he fought till the end of his life to save as many animals as possible.

My challenge for you is: STOP! Take a break from time to time and analyze your actions. See if you are embalming the buffalos or actually fighting for their survival.

You can hear the entire story on itunes or scoundcloud, starts at minute 15. I really recommend it.

Photo by Loren Kerns , used under CC

What Startup (podcast) can teach you about starting up?

Startup is a podcast that carefully documents the hidden story about starting your own company, the part you usually don’t hear about.

Alex Blumberg highlights all the moments good or bad, including fears, failures, successes, and various lessons learned.

The show itself was is a huge success, skyrocketing to one of the most listened podcasts in iTunes in just a few weeks from launch, which is extremely rare. Also, this podcast helped him get his funding in just a few months: $1.5M.

I absolutely love it and I think it’s a must listen for all of you who want to start their own company.

Below you will find summarized the key learning points that I took away from his podcast. You can read it all in just 3 pages, and considering this show spans over 4h30min, I would say it’s a bargain :D. Si here it goes… 

Storytelling is underused!

We live in a world in which nobody has time to listen anymore. We read status updates, fast forward, scan through articles, and cut to the chase. Unfortunately this is world also shapes our communications with our customers.

Because we are used to this communication style, our messages are shaped into these short, soulless status updates. Tailored to deliver the essence, but loosing the emotion and transparency.

This podcast is anything but that. The series packed with emotion and it’s addictive. I just became a big believer in story telling (as a communication strategy) and I think entrepreneurs should use it way more.

Think about all it advantages. A good story can bring people together, build a community, be viral, and make people take action. Oh and it’s free.

Transparency builds communities

Alex was not afraid to be transparent. He talked about how much equity he gave to his business partner, about having second thoughts on doing the whole thing, about the mistakes he made, how much money he was able to raise and how he hired his first employees. Sure, this made him a bit vulnerable, but at the same time he built trust among his listeners.

Transparency builds trust. And trust builds a community. And communities are important because they will support you in the long run, forgive you when you make mistakes and listen to what you have to say.

It’s about who you know

In his show Alex tells us about the time when he pitches his startup idea to one of the most influential VC’s in Silicon Valley: Chris Sacca, an early investor in Twitter, Kickstarter, Instagram and other 40+ companies. Chris was in Alex’s contacts so he was able to contact him directly.

Who is in your network and what do you do to expand it?

Build it and they will come

When Alex started contacting people to invest in his idea, many turned him down. But, as this Startup podcast gained an audience, he witnessed a miracle. In just a few months investors were now looking for him to give him money.

Why? Alex built a prototype, something that people can understand. He made it easier for investors to see the potential.

I am big believer in having a presentable concept. When starting something up, make sure you build a mockup or a prototype. Have something that you can show others and sparkle their imagination.

Mistakes happen. It’s how you deal with them.

Making mistakes is inevitable. It’s part of the learning process and shows that you went outside your comfort zone. However when you make one… man, it will feel like the sky is tumbling down and you just want to hide in a corner.

That’s what happened to Alex in podcast no.9. He was so nervous. You could hear his voice trembling a bit, trying to calm everybody down, and saying it will be ok. I could feel it through my headphones.

However, you should focus on how you can fix it, much like he did. Be open about it. It was a slip not an evil master plan.

In these situations is important to listen to the people you’ve wronged, understand their issued before replying. Also, try several times to make it right. In the thrill of the fight, people might not want to talk to you, but if you come and talk to them after a few days they will be a bit more open and rational about the issue.

There will always be naysayers

Expect a long, rocky road to your final destination and be ready to receive a lot of negative feedback. The key is to choose carefully who do you listen to and who not.

How to decide who’s right and who’s wrong? There’s no trick really. You have to rely on your instincts…

You will feel awkward. It’s OK.

The first time Alex pitched his idea to Chris… it was sooo awkward to listen to him. He is such a good storyteller but somehow he lost his focus when it came to his dream.

Been there, done that. It’s ok to feel awkward. Again this means you are stepping out your comfort zone. The key is to remember that behind every success story are moments like these. Embrace them, learn from them and better yourself.

Finding a business partner is a lot like finding a life partner. Who knew?

The part where Alex finds his business partner is cute, silly, sweet, awkward, emotional and full of insights. Like a romantic comedy.

I had no idea it’s so complicated.

The big takeaway is that you need to be completely honest with your partner. After all you will have “a baby” together. If there is no trust, things won’t move in the right direction.

Naming is so complicated

This I kind of knew. I’ve been through several naming exercises in my life. Never for an actual company, but it was still pretty difficult to come up with a name that isn’t used by anyone else, makes sense, you like and fits the company.

On the other hand, I had no idea you need to do so many legal checks on trademarks when naming a company. Crazy! But, there are specialized companies that can do this for you.

Pitching to VC? Be ready for this question.

Are you asking a VC for money? Then make sure you can tell them your exit strategy.

These people will give you money to make money. Most of the times looking for 10X the investment.

It ain’t easy

After a few episodes, Alex has this moment when realizes all the sacrifices he needs to make for achieving his dream. Since he started he spent less time with his family, he has less money and his stress level skyrocketed. You can just feel his doubt in his voice. It’s so real.

Building your own company requires a serious commitment. You won’t be able to afford the vacations you want or spend as much time you loved ones. Just so you know. Be ready for the long haul.

I believe that all of these key learning points can help you build your own startup. If you read them and have no idea how all these could apply to you, leave me a comment and I will gladly help you out.

I will try to update the post with new learning points, as new podcasts will come out. If you want to find out about the updates you can either bookmark this post or visit it from time to time or you can subscribe below to my monthly podcast.

Photo byRaoul Pop, used under CC