Hot is the new hotness! Every month or so there’s a new hot topic in startup land. There was social, mobile, local, game mechanics blah blah. And with every wave of new hotness, comes a fresh wave of startups trying to get in on the deal. If it’s hot right now, and you’re thinking of getting in, don’t, it’s too late. Don’t even think of entering a space where others have a six month or more lead on you. Yeah, they’re grabbing all the attention right now, but in six months when they’re no longer flavour of the month, you’ll be the one left holding the bag.
They always says don’t trade stocks off the recommendations in the newspapers, because by then you’ve already missed out. This is exactly the same. If you want to swing for the fences, create something visionary that no-one else has thought of yet, or better yet, something so boring in an arena where competition will be sparse now and the foreseeable future. Yes, perhaps there’s someone else secretly working on the same thing as you right now, but if either of you turn out to be right, the other could be in a prime position to ride the other’s coat-tail to success.
Everyone has grand ideas and dreams. The dream of being the match winning goal scorer in the World Cup final. The dream of being richest man on Earth. The dream of being a great husband, great father, great friend. Then comes a time when we realise we’re a million miles away from the things we set out to achieve, we freeze and resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll probably never get there. Some will carry on regardless, and of those few, only a small handful will reach that end goal. But we don’t need to be in the majority of those that fall away at the way side. We just need to understand that to reach that final goal, requires us to achieve smaller ones first.
Weight lifting is the perfect example of this. If you want to squat 200kg, don’t load on 200kg and try, because you’ll most probably fail, injure yourself and never try again. To reach that goal, load on what you can manage, then each week come back and add some more. Some weeks you’ll lift it, some weeks you wont. But the more and more you come back and try to add just a little bit more weight, the closer and closer you’ll get to lifting your final goal. Then one day you’ll turn up and lift 200kg. You’ll look through your notebook, full of all your previous session’s numbers, and see all the steps it took to get there.
And that’s the same principal for anything in life. If you want to achieve something great, start with something small. Want to lose 100lbs? Then start with the first pound. Want to run a marathon? Then start by running just a single mile. Want to be amazing guitarist? Then start by learning a single chord.
This all applies so much to business. We see all these big businesses offering loads of products and services, or huge web applications packed with functionality, and we strive for that. But the burden will be too great. You’ll fail, your ego will be bruised and you’ll never try again. You never hear the story of how these businesses started by doing one thing and how they all built their empires from there. You need that first step to be sure that you can take the next. You can’t be everything to everybody, and if you try, you’ll be nothing to nobody. Don’t be sucked in by business porn. Don’t rush into a thousand things in the hope of achieving something or that something will stick, because you can’t apply enough stickiness to that many things at once. The humble beginnings are boring, that’s why you never hear about them. You read about startups on TechCrunch and don’t realise that people have been using and hashing out the issues on those sites for ages. If you’ve been around long enough, you get to experience the wonder of seeing someone truly launch their site for the first time and needing beta testers, then a year later seeing them doing their “real” launch. Only then can you really appreciate how these things evolve and how the subsequent success was down to focusing on a single idea/concept/function and executing that perfectly right at the very start.
Currently I’m reading Don John’s excellent book Never Let Go. In one of the essays he talks about being told that if something is important do it everyday, and the political prisoner exercise is a way of deciding what that thing should be. Imagine that you are a political prisoner and you are only allowed 15 minutes a day of exercise. What would you do? You wouldn’t waste your time on curls or skull crushers (well I hope you wouldn’t). You’d concentrate on the core lifts like squats and deadlifts or olympic lifts like snatch and clean and jerk. The aim would be to get the most “bang for your buck” with the limited time you have.
This applies to everything, including business, and relates to my previous post Professional Procrastination. Of all the things you can do, if you only have 15 minutes to do it in, do what’s going to give you the best results. Don’t neglect the big picture items for the sake of the small ones. Don’t neglect your entire body for the sake of flexing your biceps.
When a business is going nowhere, or even worse, going downhill, the temptation is to blame the idea or to blame customers. Rarely do we have the courage to admit the problem is really with ourselves. Potential sales are lost because people “just don’t get it”. We say that they’re stupid, brain dead and missing the opportunity of a lifetime. When business dries up we blame market conditions. When the lights are turned off for the last time we say the timing just wasn’t right.
Before we point the finger we should be asking if there is something we did wrong. Businesses are not limited by customers or market conditions, they are limited only by those that run them. Sometimes that can’t be helped, after all, there are only so many hours in a day and the limitations may be that of time or resources. More often than not, the problem is that of realisations. We don’t realise that we’re doing the wrong thing. We believe in the wrong ideals. We hope for X or Y to happen. We wait for feature X or Y to be ready. We blame everyone but ourselves.
Only when it’s too late, do we look back and see where we went wrong. How if we’d only done this instead of that, we could have made a break through. We’re so caught up in the moment of our business that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Imagine yourself three, six or twelve months from now. Imagine your business has failed from no traction or no revenue (or whatever factor determines your business a success or not). If you could spend that time again to get your business really going, would you do what you’re doing right now? If the urgency of surviving was hanging over your head, would you do what you’re doing right now?
Don’t limit your business or your life because you’re following the motions of what someone in your position should be doing. Don’t do something because you read it in a book. Don’t do it because someone told you to. Do the right thing. Your opportunity may not last.
The hardest part of creating a website isn’t writing the code or setting up the servers, it’s writing exactly the right thing to convince someone to sign up. As the creators of our own sites, it’s nearly impossible to put ourselves into the mind of a new visitor. We come up with great sounding headlines and slogans thinking they describe our products perfectly, when in reality they leave visitors scratching their heads and us with a high bounce rate.
“It does exactly what it says on the tin” – Ronseal
When writing your headlines and follow-on text, always ask yourself “How?”, “What?” and “Why?”. Those are the questions users will be asking themselves as they skim your site. Remember that you have only 10-20 seconds to capture their attention, so forget fancy and clever headlines and write concise and practical ones.
I believe an example of where perhaps things could have been improved was on a previous site I built contraswap.com.
The copy is perfect, but is it right? At first I would read it and think “Yeah, this describes our product perfectly.” and then after a period of time spent not working on the product, re-reading it made me question what the site actually did and left with questions. Ok, the why is that I’ll gain more readers, but what is an advertising barter exchange and how do I use one. You could argue that the answers are obvious, but I’m playing the role of a naive visitor. I heard a great quote at SeedCamp this year, that it’s not that users are stupid, it’s just that we haven’t earnt the right to their attention yet. Introductory text needs to allow me to not have to think. I even wondered if people even realised that it was an online tool.
A good example of a landing page is 37signals’ Backpack. The why is a better organised business. The how is by keeping everything in a centralised place. The what is that it’s a web-based tool. The copy is simple and reading-level low so that it doesn’t require much thought process to ingest.
On the surface this stuff seems easy, but believe me, it’s really hard. Always question the things you write or better yet, get someone else to read it, but make sure they have no prior knowledge of what your product does. Ask yourself “How?”, “What?” and “Why?” every time you write something your users will read.
A lot of people say that procrastination is the bane of their lives. That procrastination is what stops them actually getting anything done. But recently I’ve come to realise that the real enemy isn’t your typical “putting things off” sort of procrastination, it’s the “putting important things off” sort, or what I’ve come to name as “Professional Procrastination”.
If you really boil things down, this is perhaps one of the biggest business killers. It’s not picking up the phone to talk to customers. It’s not meeting with potential clients to make a sale. It’s moving pixels around on your homepage. It’s writing up marketing plans and creating spreadsheets planning out the next three years.
It’s doing all the things today, that might make you money tomorrow, when you could be doing things to make you money right now.
I love the term spinning the wheels, and this is it exactly. You don’t even realise you’re doing it because you feel so busy. I’m working 18+ hours a day, I must be doing some good. But you know what, it’s easy to be busy. I could shuffle around a gym all day and not lose weight, or I could go in bust my ass for 30mins and achieved a million times more. But that’s difficult. It’s difficult to realise results aren’t an outcome of random hours, results are an outcome of precise and definite action. I can’t remember where I read it, but a book said you should constantly ask yourself “Is what I’m doing right now, the most important thing I could be doing?”, and that’s be no means an easy question to answer. That bug may be critical, or that new feature may make all the difference. But are you doing and ignoring that customer who’s waiting for you to connect with them and make a sale? Are adding more features to certain areas of your site while ignoring what really matters most because? We do these things because the good stuff, the stuff that really brings home the bacon is hard. This blog post certainly isn’t the most important thing I could be doing right now though, that’s for sure.
In both your personal and business life, the goals you set have to be concrete. It’s not enough to say “I want to lose weight” or “I want to make revenues”. You need to say how much and by when, for the goal to mean anything. “I want to lose 5lbs this month” or “I want to make £500 in revenues this month”.
We are at our best when the goal is clear cut. A real goal makes us strive to achieve it and allows us the opportunity to measure our progress as we head towards it. If my goal is only to “make revenue”, then your brain just shuts off any effort needed to make any more then moment you receive £1. That’s how we’re designed to be. But if our goal is a sure fire £500, and we know we’ve got £499 to go, then we’ll keep moving until we reach that end goal.
When writing applications to rival existing solutions, quite often a lot of work will go into replicating all the existing functionality provided by those same rivals before moving onto the stuff that makes your product unique. This is just wrong.
You don’t need to be perfect in the areas that your competition focus on. You need to be perfect in the areas you focus on and the rest can come later. It’s arse about face, to make everything great before moving onto the things that your business is about. People don’t need an application that replicates their existing solution already, they want an application that solves the problems they currently have. If you solve those problems, people will be willing to put up with the lagging parts of the system that perhaps they don’t even really care about.
You don’t have to worry about being left behind in areas, if you’re ahead in others.
Successful inventors get to where they are by challenging the status quo. But constantly asking why things are they way they are, they come up with ingenious and clever solutions to problems. Entreprenures are even told to constantly ask why. Why this, why that. And if not, why not!
The problem is, there is a point when you just have to accept that somethings are they way they are for a reason. Persistantly badgering your development team for features and asking why it can’t be fit into the current schedule isn’t going to win you an award for the most forward thinking manager and isn’t exactly going to make you friends with your team. Why can’t you work more hours? Why do you have to go home? Why hasn’t this work been done?
Asking the question why should be a positive thing, don’t make it negative.
People setting out to build a webapp are often desperate to fill it with as many features as possible. They look at Facebook and see all the things it does, they read about some other hot “start-up” that just got bought and see all the the things they offer and immediately think they have to do the same. To anyone doing this, just stop. Stop right now. You’re going to kill yourself before you’ve even had a chance to get going. It’s like watching an F1 driver and thinking all you need to do is get in an F1 car, practice and you’ll be as good. What you don’t see is the the whole back story. The humble beginnings. The days when there was just one main feature on the site. The days when nothing worked and things hung together by a thread.
If you want to create a successful webapp, do just one thing. Then when you do that thing well, move on to the next and the next and the next. Don’t do everything at once. You’ll never get anything done.
I was thinking some more about my post yesterday on Ivory Towers. Not being on the front lines not only means that you don’t get the lay-of-the-land, but you can’t get a sense of the morale of your people. I’m sure that no one would be enthusiastic about being ordered to march to their own demise. And when you’ve been told to shut-up and to stop being negative, what can you do but put your head down and blindly follow orders. Not exactly the most productive environment to work in. I’ve been watching “Undercover Boss” recently, and nearly every boss is surprised when they find the people at the bottom have very low morale. That the orders they pass down the line just end up causing more problems, lower productivity and lower quality offerings. It’s a classic case of bosses living in their Ivory Towers and thinking that all is well is good, while the people at the bottom grumble and can see all the problems before them. Reminds me in a way of the Cylon rebellion against their makers and in the end against their masters. You can never excel when you feel like you’ve been set-up to fail.
I get this a lot. Orders come from up high about what needs to be done, while the people on the front lines are reporting back that it’s not working and something needs to be done. This can only be a losing battle. So what does one do? Give up and go home? Ignore the orders given to you and forge your own path forward? How can you work with someone who isn’t willing to listen to your input and advice? Simple answer is you can’t. If people are not willing to take on my advice based upon my experience and from what I’m seeing first hand, then they deserve to fail based upon their own decisions.
It amuses me to no end when in this situation. It’s evil and cruel I know, but you can’t save someone from their own moronic whims and desires. When that person’s decisions and actions are based upon emotion and reaction rather than logical and rational thought. It reminds me a lot of people I see in the gym. The posers who come in more to look like their doing something rather than actually achieving anything. They’ll swing some dumbbells around, run a bit on the treadmill and maybe even attend some classes. But they won’t break a sweat and they won’t progress. They want to appear to be busy. They want to spin the wheels. It’s the same in the business world. Meeting and greeting people and telling them about your hot new startup is just spinning the wheels when you’re not taking care of the flip side of it. Don’t sit in your ivory tower. Get down to the front lines and see for yourself what the real deal is.
There is the temptation to react to everything. A new competitor has launched with feature X, we need to drop everything and do it. A customer has called with problem Y, we need to drop everything and fix it. But if you’re constantly reacting to what’s going on around you, how can you ever get anywhere. Some problems will always need to be addressed straight away, but more often then not, everything else is just noise. Sometimes the long term goal is more important then the short term gains that you get by reacting. Reacting to everything is akin to just spinning the wheels.
I admit the title of this post is a little link-baitish. I’m not trying to say that you should only think of your customers as just dollars, what I’m trying to say is that you should never forget that it’s your customers that put money in your pocket. Every time you pick up the phone, answer and email or go out of your way to help someone, you’re putting money in your pocket if you do a good job. As much as customers can grate us, they pay our bills. There are times when customers are a negative drain on resources. When the amount of time taken to help is actually losing your money in the long term. The Four-Hour Workweek talks about cutting out the 20% of customers that take up 80% of customer service time. In those cases, the time can be better spent concentrating on other areas of the business. There is a balance. Just never forget where the money comes from.
I no longer get excited about numbers. Pageviews, unique visitors, signups, fans, likes. There was a time when I would, and I would feverishly refresh the counters to see what it was now at. Much like a new trader will constantly refresh the chart of a stock they’ve just bought. Over time, you realise, the daily ups and downs don’t matter as much as the overall trend. Are we actually gaining traction? Or are people filtering in at a steady pace?
On top of that, the numbers mean very little if they can’t be turned into something tangible. A million signups for my site means nothing, if those people never come back. A million fans on my Facebook page means nothing, if I can’t figure out how to get some money out of each one. Is an article about my startup on a site that gets 1m page views worth more than one on a site that only gets 1k?
Always remember the context of the numbers you are looking at and never take them at face value.