My series of notes on Y Combinator’s Startup Library:
Takeaway: Understand my users so I can improve their lives.
One of the things I always tell startups is a principle I learned from Paul Buchheit: it’s better to make a few people really happy than to make a lot of people semi-happy.
1. Pick good cofounders.
In a startup you can change your idea easily, but changing your cofounders is hard. And the success of a startup is almost always a function of its founders.
2. Launch fast.
You haven’t really started working on [your product] till you’ve launched. Launching teaches you what you should have been building. Till you know that you’re wasting your time. So the main value of whatever you launch with is as a pretext for engaging users.
3. Let your idea evolve.
Launch fast and iterate. As in an essay, most of the ideas appear in the implementing.
4. Understand your users.
You can envision the wealth created by a startup as a rectangle, where one side is the number of users and the other is how much you improve their lives. The second dimension is one you have most control over.
As in science, the hard part is not answering questions but asking them: the hard part is seeing something new that users lack. The better you understand them the better the odds of doing that. That’s why so many successful startups make something the founders need.
5. Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.
Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first.
6. Offer surprisingly good customer service.
Go out of your way to make people happy. In the earliest stages of a startup, it pays to offer customer service on a level that wouldn’t scale, because it’s a way of learning about your users.
7. You make what you measure.
Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it.
Corollary: be careful what you measure.
8. Spend little.
Most startups fail before they make something people want, and the most common form of failure is running out of money. So being cheap is (almost) interchangeable with iterating rapidly. But it’s more than that. A culture of cheapness keeps companies young in something like the way exercise keeps people young.
9. Get ramen profitable.
“Ramen profitable” means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
10. Avoid distractions.
Nothing kills startups like distractions. The worst type are those that pay money: day jobs, consulting, profitable side-projects.
11. Don’t get demoralized.
Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus. Starting a startup is a huge moral weight. Understand this and make a conscious effort not to be ground down by it, just as you’d be careful to bend at the knees when picking up a heavy box.
12. Don’t give up.
Even if you get demoralized, don’t give up. You can get surprisingly far by just not giving up. Sheer effort is usually enough, so long as you keep morphing your idea.
13. Deals fall through.
One of the most useful skills we learned from Viaweb was not getting our hopes up. After the first 10 or so [deals fell through] we learned to treat deals as background processes that we should ignore till they terminated.
Which is the one to keep?
Understand your users. That’s the key. The essential task in a startup is to create wealth; the dimension of wealth you have most control over is how much you improve users’ lives; and the hardest part of that is knowing what to make for them. Once you know what to make, it’s mere effort to make it, and most decent hackers are capable of that.