As I sit here working on my new startup Medlert at RocketSpace on a lovely Sunday afternoon I look out the window and see the new Department of Transportation SF project under way. They are building out San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center. The duration and amount of working going into this made me reflect back on my career in the startup space. Here are a few of those thoughts I captured today running around in my mind.
“Solid products always start with Solid Foundations”
This isnt just a lesson from the work of high tech companies. This is what I am seeing out the window (pics below). The drilling and piping going in to build out a solid foundation for the San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center. This has now been going on for few months. To the untrained eye not much progress has occurred. A big hole with pipes. This is the progress rarely acknowledge in the startup space but yet forms the back bone of what comes next. The stuff that happens behind the scenes. Once the foundation is built, well the rest will follow like lightning.
Looking back at technology I have seen founders take short cuts and slap products together without much thought given to the technology foundation driving their core platform. Instead of thinking about software as a service they couple the front end to the back-end. This typically results with major chaos once they start to grow fast and those short cuts quickly become technical dept. Band-aided due to lack of time to go back and fix them for good. For some humour on this point read my prior post on PHP and excuses would be leaders make.
“While it’s desirable to build a rock solid foundation you still must walk the fine line between solid foundation and over engineering before you get to MVP.” ~ Mark McCubbin
Take the time to understand your domain, the tools & technologies that will allow you to move fast and efficient from A to B and build out a kickass foundation before declaring victory. Having a virtual CIO to formulate strategic IT goals for your company, and then manage an IT strategy and budget that meets those goals can also help tremendously.
“The Devil is in the Detail”
Jared would constantly remind me this. Over and over as we built Couponstar from a 2 man shop in Sydney Australia into an International business with offices in London, Sydney & The Bay Area . Fruits of our labor were acknowledge later when Couponstar got acquired by Coupons.com in Mountain View, CA.
Day in day out Jared was on my case with the reminder. “The Devil is in the Detail”. Heck I heard it so often it would make me angry. From an email I sent to a prospect to design work to a new product/feature I built. “The devil is in the detail Ernest. Never forget that.” He would say. It got coded, burned in & stamped onto my cortex. I lived and breathe that now.
Back when we started working together in 2004 I had zero startup experience. Fresh out of a corporate world and few consulting gigs under my belt I realized quickly my attention to detail sucked. Bad. As time went on I realized how important that feedback from Jared was. I think without me accepting that The Devil is in the Detail I would never have upped my ante and built a successful business. I ultimately became anal about detail. Thanks Jared!
Detail is everything today. We see it so often that there is a strong push for cofounders with Design skills and startups building out sexy User Experiences in their products. The detail is in everything from communication to how we present, express & sell ourselves. Products with high attention to detail give users a comfy, warm, fuzzy feel. Because they are designed & built with the customer & perfection in mind. (think Apple) Get sloppy and contact a client with a poorly written email, newsletter, product demo and immediately you will get placed into the loser bucket. There is no excuse for lack of detail apart from laziness.
The idiom “the devil is in the detail” derives from the earlier phrase, “God is in the detail;” expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly; i.e. details are important.
“Ideas alone are worthless. It is mostly about the Execution”
If you have been working, living & breathing in the tech space in Silicon Valley/SF you would have heard this being mentioned many times over. Ideas alone are worthless. It is mostly about the Execution. It is also why people are not reluctant in the valley to share ideas because everyone knows good fast execution of a good idea with a killer team is the killer combo. This great idea you have, there are probably 50 other people in the world with the same idea. What separates you from them is who can execute the fastest.
@ernestsemerda Yup and that can be more important than the idea in some cases (not always though).
— Sean Percival (@Percival) January 9, 2013
Also remember that ideas change fast. Once you start executing the idea the subsequent pivots will evolve the seed idea until you get famous for an idea that resembles nothing like the one you started with. This is exactly what Jessica Livingstone (YCombinator partner) concluded in her famous book Founders at Work which surveys tech success stories in Silicon Valley.
It is a rat race in the tech space. Everything moves fast in Silicon Valley and you need to be moving super fast executing on your idea. Get your MVP (minimum viable product) out the door into the marketplace then go and speak with your users to see whether it is what they want. Iterate. Speak to them again. Dont sit in front of your computer. Get out there and get feedback from your users. There are no answers sitting in front of a computer. Run experiments, designs test and get more data from your users. And make sure you sell sell sell.
Eric Ries from The Lean Startup and Steve Blank (Customer Development Process) share the same approach on how to build a startup by getting out and learning from your customers. Of course you alone cannot do all of this but having a kickass founding team where responsibilities are divided and everyone is generating results works wonders!
And when you think you have something which reflects a sustainable business, build a fortress of protection around it. This usually comes in 2 forms – patents and/or distribution. I highly encourage you to watch Paul Willard‘s talk at Atlassian on Growth Hacking and how startups die due to poor distribution. All of this requires Execution. Not sitting on your ass day dreaming. Get a move on. The world isn’t waiting for you.
“No excuses! Ever.”
As an entrepreneur there are no excuses for “I don’t have the skills.”. Bad fuckin luck. If you chose to be an entrepreneur and dragged others into working with you, believing in you and your idea, you need to stand up and fit into those shoes. As an entrepreneur you do everything in the early days. Everything. I was folding coupons and putting them into envelopes on the floor with Jared in the early days at Couponstar. Later we got machinery to do it but hey someone had to do the dirty work to get traction in the early days.
There is no such thing as I am not good at it so I wont do it. Get better. Life is a life long journey of education. It never stops.
There is no such thing as I don’t know. Go and find out. Speak to people. Learn.
There is no such thing as I will wait for good luck. We make our own luck by getting out and about. The harder I work the luckier I get.
Look, you can make excuses or your can change the world. Well maybe not the world but definitely the industry you are focusing on to make a difference in. You decide.
~ ErnestThanks to Mark McCubbin for reading draft of this and providing input.