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Here’s a list of things I think helped us when we started – tips on starting-up from our own experience. Shortly, I’ll also publish a list of things we could have done better.
This is perhaps the single best thing we did. My belief is once you have realized you are going to try out an idea, give it your best shot. And if something is as life-altering as a startup, it involves your full-time attention. Anything else just doesn’t work.
Release early, Release often
Ever since the day we registered our domain, the site has been live every single day. Whatever development we did was visible on the website. We used to upload almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Whatever little feature we worked upon, we used to upload without a care in the world if it was perfect or not.
The biggest positive we got was the joy of seeing things live on the web. At that time, we were so small and uncertain that it took some time for the feeling to sink in that we are doing something big. Seeing it live on web and users coming in helped a lot in convincing ourselves.
Another positive side-effect was Google crawler. When your site is small, you keep tweaking the whole back-end architecture and end up making lots of changes. Testing every little change takes hell lot of time. As crazy as it may sound, we relied upon Google to discover errors on our site. This helped us crank up code at lightning speed and not bother about bugs.
Note that this strategy works only when you are small. When you become big and rank somewhere at top in Google for few keywords, every “404 Page Not Found” error costs in Google. We learned it the hard way when our server was dropping requests lately because of increased load.
We realised pretty early that Google is going to be main source of users. We started on Search Engine Optimization pretty early. Ever since that day, we had a full person working on it almost regularly. It paid us handsomly as we rose in Google soon for some of the long-ish keywords.
My suggestion is that if you are going to be a content site, focus on SEO as soon as possible. It takes time to rank in Google and the sooner you start, the better. Also, it is perhaps the most straight-forward of things to do for entrepreneurs. There are plenty of resources that’ll help you in this.
When you are small, there’s always an urge to get featured in media. Don’t bother too much. If you get featured, well and good. If not, move on. Your time is more important. If you are worth it, you’ll get featured sooner or later.
When you start growing, lots of people contact you for deals and offers. Don’t get distracted. Focus on your core thing. Whenever you get such offer, think if you’d have actively sought it had it not come to you. We got offers early on from biggest of booking sites to become affiliates. We applied the same metric – if they would not have approached us, would we want to become affiliates at this stage? The answer was no. (We started deals with other sites six months after we got the first offer, when we felt we were ready.)
No external funding
It was a pretty big, and bold decision. In retrospect, this is the second best thing we did (first was going full-time). Fund raising involves lots of time and effort. From fellow entrepreneurs, we were aware that it easily takes a full time person 6 months to follow up with VCs and close a deal. Moreover, we didn’t really had any good contacts in VC circle and all were first time entrepreneurs. So we expected it to take even longer.
With our team of 3, it meant one-third resources gone, something a new startup can hardly afford. Instead, we focused on raising funds from family and friends which worked out reasonably well; especially since the amount required for a Web 2.0 startup like ours is pretty small for a real VC to be interested in.
Focus on Users, not Revenue
As a CEO, it’s a daily battle for you to decide what to focus on – users or revenue. Sometime the goals for achieving both are aligned, many a times not. So you have to choose.
My experience says choose users in the beginning. Revenue will follow if you have the users. Don’t put ads on day 1. Don’t focus on bookings / conversions / leads in beginning. Focus on usability.
Keep Morale High
Working in a startup is tough. Working on your own startup is hell lot tougher. Many people underestimate this. We did too.
Our personal lives hit new lows in this period. We had financial difficulties. We’ve had fights in our team over vision and direction. Sometimes, we were simply disappointed because results didn’t match our expectations. But we lived to tell the tale. I think it was the conviction that what we are doing is something special that made us sail through.
Conditions are going to be averse, but believe in your idea. More importantly, do not give up.
Always remember you are a small team
This helps you keep focused. Double-check the task if it demands too much of your time. See if it can be approached differently. Can it be done incrementally?
Value every second of your time. Spend as much time as you can working, maintaining your sanity. Even if you are busy on something else, try to finish some work related task, no matter how small. Forward progress every single day is important.
Look for efficiency. If you are doing something for the second time, you are probably wasting your time. Automate as much as you can. Some of the key things we did:
- One click deployment on server. Since you are going to do it hundreds of time a month, have it fully automated.
- Have all your reports e-mailed to you instead of you logging into multiple places and checking them out. Some of the examples are errors on production server, user activity on your site, server health stats, revenue reports.
- Don’t hesitate to spend little money on something if it saves your time (e.g. SVN repository, powerful laptops).
- If you need a tool, search hard on google rather than develop in-house. Chances are, somebody else faced the same problem and developed a solution (and posted somewhere on internet!).
- Skip unimportant events and meetings. If required, have very few members of your team attend it (unless it’s super critical like presentation to a VC, or some training which will help entire team).
Even though we were all working in Java all our life, we chose Ruby on Rails for this. Looking back, I think it was a very good decision. Development is very fast in RoR. Had we been doing it in Java, it would have easily taken us much more time.
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