The difficult part about startup advice is that it’s too easy to read and too hard to take to heart. I admit that we had heard all of this advice at the beginning of our startup journey. However, it wasn’t until months afterward that our experiences gave us the necessary push to consider advice we had heard in the past with significance. With that said, I hope that someone else will benefit with the habits we have learned over the past year of trial and error:
0. Realize that Talk is Cheap
Talk is cheap. Everyone talks. It’s easy to wantonly spend time talking, brainstorming, whiteboarding, making a flow chart, doing some more whiteboarding. But talk is complete speculation and it rarely produces any new information. Don’t spend all day talking. You’re in a startup, so build something and test it. Let your prospective users or customers do the talking. And in the same way, if someone puts you down with talk, don’t let it hit you hard. How much experience do they have in your space anyway?
1. Set Realistic Goals
Before spending weeks steering the product in a new direction, or even spending a couple of days on a new feature, take a step back and ask yourself: What is the game plan? Just like how a wise investor only invests in a stock after she figures out at what price she’ll buy or sell, a wise entrepreneur will only invest time after they figure out their goals. Usually, features will have measurable effects on the end product, but even if they don’t, the holistic goals should be considered. For example, say that I am planning to spend 3 days integrating Facebook Open Graph. How many open graph actions do I expect to be fired per day? How many more conversions do I expect to get? Can I realistically see people clicking on my open graph actions? And based on these educated guesses, is it worth 3 days to achieve these results? If not, re-evaluate. Which takes me to the next habit…
2. Question and Re-evaluate
Or in other words, “Fail fast”. Each team member must be responsible for re-evaluating their work constantly. No one on the team should be afraid to question their work. Even though it is painful to realize that something is not working, ignoring the problem leads to more waste and less learning. Be aware that transitioning to a culture where questioning is encouraged takes time and effort. People are trained to blindly take orders and deliver results. Fight back those natural instincts.
3. Justify Your Actions Using Data
So, now you finally have the courage to admit that something isn’t working. Growth is stagnant, bounce rates are high, and nobody is upgrading to the ultra-premium plan. Now what? Data, that’s what. No data? Start tracking every important event your users fire using Google Analytics. Use the data and attempt to conjure up a logical reason behind your next steps. Data always trumps anecdata, or “feelings”. Don’t spend too much time discussing amongst yourselves when your users are telling you all the answers!
4. Face Ambiguity with Action
But you say, “Sometimes you can’t justify your actions with data.” The red button and the green button had the same conversion rates! It’s completely ambiguous! No statistical significance. Or maybe the data is just too noisy. Unlike school, completely ambiguous data is commonplace in the real world. However, don’t let the noise in the data paralyze you. Evaluate: Either the ambiguity means that you aren’t probing deep enough OR it means that whatever you are testing actually isn’t affecting anything. Make a decision to either ask more questions and gather more data, or call it noise and move on. Whatever you do, don’t throw up your hands and forget about all of your work. Even if you call it noise, remember that you called it noise so next time someone suggests changing the green button to red, you can justify your response with data.
5. Stay Healthy
Effective people know their physical limits and maximize their productivity by utilizing this knowledge. Many studies have shown that injecting more work hours into your work week is ineffective at increasing productivity, so stop grinding at the office. Take a break every so often, walk around, and when you’re away from work, eat a balanced diet, exercise, and socialize. Most importantly, keep your mind in check. Mental health is just as important as physical health, so be on the lookout for signs of over-work or over-stress. Realize that you are not your work, you are not your code, and that your individual value is far greater than your product. Do not stay at the office until you feel homicidal, suicidal, or mentally idle.
6. It’s All About the Journey (Find Happiness)
Much like the rest of your life, your startup experience is defined by all the ordinary moments in your day interacting with your teammates, building out small features, replying to emails, sketching wireframes, and committing code. Laugh at jokes, smile, and be proactive in finding ways to enjoy the mundane everyday things. Enjoy every day of it, because life is too short not to be highly effective.