Why You Should Blog Before You Build Your Startup

typing on type writer

Most startups today do not face technological risks. The building is challenging and grueling, but it is known to be possible. Instead the majority of startups face market risks. It is usually unknown if the market actually wants the product you’re building.

Market risk is often ignored by entrepreneurs, especially technical founders. It is honestly just more interesting to start creating than to validate whether the problem you’re solving is painful and if your customers are actually interested in solving it.

In the early days I think it makes sense to spend minimal time building and instead spend time researching your market. There’s multiple ways to research, but I believe the way with most benefit and least amount effort is to start a blog. Many successful startups were created as blog first startups, including Groupon, AngelList, and Moz. These startups reaped the benefits of blogging before building.

Learn how to reach your target customers

If you can’t find people who are willing to invest 10 minutes reading your blog post, it’s going to be really challenging to find people willing to take the plunge on your product. By blogging, you’ll be forced to flex your distribution muscles to build readership. Luckily, most of the techniques used to find readers in the early days will be useful for finding early customers as well.

Does anyone care?

A popular blog post spreads because it resonates with readers. Building a blog following takes awhile, but you should be able to tell early on if people care about your startup’s pain points. If you are explaining how to solve a true pain point in someone’s life, he will take the time to click a link and read your post. If your readers share your posts on Twitter, Facebook and through email, and leave passionate comments, chances are you’ve hit a nerve with your potential customers.

Build an audience of early adopters

The people who read your posts are self identifying as potential early adopters of your product. Insert a call to action on each of your blog posts that links to a landing page designed to explain your product and gather email addresses. A good example of this technique is the Buffer blog, which strikes a nice balance between delivering content and peddling their product.

buffer blog call to action

Gather feedback

Enable comments on your blog and provide the opportunity for your audience to leave their thoughts. Don’t worry about negative comments – they are a good thing because they show people at least care enough to leave thoughts. Having no comments is probably the worst signal, as it generally means people are not passionate about your market.

Comments will also provide valuable feedback from your audience and start a dialogue with potential early adopters. Disqus comments are optimal because people generally use their real identify, which gives you an opportunity to reach our for more feedback via Twitter or email.

Solidify the pain points

By writing about your market and being forced to condense your ideas into specific blog posts, you’ll solidify exactly what the pain points are your customers face. If your idea is a social network for college students, but you can’t distill what the current challenges college students face when trying to meet peers, you’re in trouble. Teaching is the best litmus test for understanding.

Build with a better understanding

Startup founders, especially technical ones, often forget that users of a product are human. When building software, it’s easy to get wrapped up in edge cases and technical challenges, but writing is an exercise solely designed for communication with other human beings. As you write blog posts about your topic, you’ll build a mental model of exactly the types of people in your target market. Having a mental model of your users, and the exact use cases they are using your product to solve, is invaluable once you start building.

Are you actually interested in your market?

Startups are a long term time investment, usually taking 5-7 years to pan out. When your initial excitement wears off after the first few months, are you still going to be interested enough in the market to grind it out for years? If you can’t even sit down and write a few blog posts related to your market, you may want to think about changing ideas.

What do you think? Are there better ways to validate a startup idea and build an audience? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

Your Fiercest Competitor is Not Another Startup

godzilla vs foe

Right now, there are at least 10 other teams across the globe working to solve the same problem as your startup. They are just as smart, driven, and resourceful as your team. The good news for you is that these teams really don’t matter in changing whether your startup’s outcome will be successful or failure. I’ve personally learned first hand not to get too worked up about new entrants promising disruption of the rental industry and change in the sharing habits of the world through collaborative consumption.

In the early days of Rentabilities, I would stumble across a new competitor about once every two months. Immediately, my blood would seath and I’d frantically navigate every page of their website to compare how they stacked up against our team and our product. A quick email with only a link to the site would be fired off to my cofounder, and we’d spend the next hour on the phone discussing this new potential threat. After the call, I’d spend more precious mental energy dreaming up the possible ways this new rival could crush us, just to make sure we were not blindsided.

In hindsight, I should have realized these new companies were not going to make or break my startup. Most rental merchants use paper calendars, green-screen keyboard-based point-of-sales, or some sort of other cobbled together system to take orders from customers. On the flip side, most consumers use Google and the telephone to find and connect with rental merchants, or just rent from the store they drive past on their way to work everyday. Building intelligent and efficient systems to connect both our merchants and customers is and always has been our hardest challenge with Rentabilities.

This is the case for almost all software startups. You are competing with Microsoft Excel. You are competing against Google and the telephone. You are fighting against people continuing to solve their problems the same way they always have, or not bothering trying to solve their problems at all.

I’m sure Uber’s #1 challenge right now is not competing with other on-demand transportation apps. It’s changing people’s traditional behavior of just walking outside and hailing a taxi. I doubt GrubHub is very worried about other food ordering apps, and instead is trying to figure out ways of stopping their customers from Google searching a restaurant’s name and ordering a pizza over the telephone. Mint’s main competitor was not another software startup in the early days. Their customers either used Microsoft Excel or just had a general laziness towards personal finances.

“Aaron’s father has research experience and we spent countless weeks figuring out what people really wanted before we ever launched our beta. Guess who we found out Mint’s biggest competitor was? No one. Apathy. This shocked me! Most people would rather not track anything and just see how they are doing when they go to the ATM. Guess who was #2? Ms Money, Intuit, Wesabe? NOPE. Microsoft Excel. Who would have believed that!” – Noah Kagan

I often give the advice to new entrepreneurs obsessed with competition to just stop tracking rival teams. Sure, you can take a quick look at their website to check how they are doing, or set up some Google Alerts on their company name, but to spend time talking in circles with your team about competitors is time lost talking about how to solve your customer’s problems. Your fiercest competitor is, and will always be, your potential customers not knowing about your startup or just not caring to solve their problems at all.

Why I Stopped Worrying About My Competitors Success

Being emailed a funding announcement about your direct competitor by 5 different people is not the best way to end the day. That’s exactly what happened to me last Wednesday, when one of our competitors announced another funding round from some of the Valley’s most respected investors.

Personally, I’m not as worried about it as every one thought I would be. I’m actually happy for them and wish them well because over the last two years I’ve learned that competition is an essential part of the startup journey. The reason why I am not upset is because another startup is not who we are fighting on daily basis at Rentabilities. Our main opponents are apathy, inertia, and the status quo.

Having competition is actually good for your startup. It means other smart people have identified your market has issues, and it’s worth their time and money trying to solve them, which probably means if worth your time as well.

VC funded competitors may be good news as well because VCs are generally good at identifying opportunities, and by investing dollars in your market, they at the very least are validating you also have a decent opportunity to make money. If you are looking to raise money too, you now have a decent story where another startup raised funding from a respected firm, and you should merit investment as well because you are better for x, y, and z reasons.

Like most founders, I’m fiercely competitive, and I want to win the market and change the world, My primary focus is on beating the market though, not beating a specific competitor. If we outperform every other startup tackling the same problem on every metric, and that isn’t enough to win the market, we still lose. The motive to do well with your business should not be driven by the desire to beat the competition, it should be driven by the desire to solve your customer’s problems.

In actuality, the founders of competitive startups are probably the few people who really understand the struggles you persist through on a day-to-day basis. A few months ago, one of our competitors moved out of the rental industry to pursue other opportunities. Our teams swapped stories about the market via email and realized we had mostly the same challenges. It’s refreshing to know that we aren’t the only ones struggling through the trough of sorrow in order to bring the rental industry online.

When you’re paranoid about competitors, you’re not paranoid about customers

I do think it’s important to stay on top of industry news and be knowledgeable about competitors , however, it’s a detriment to your startup to focus more on your competition than your customers. When you spend your time discussing with your cofounder what another team may be working on, you are not spending time discussing how to make your product better. Only the paranoid survive, and the survivors are most paranoid about creating an amazing experience for customers.

No one will solve the problem quite like you

Your competitors do not have the same backgrounds as you, so chances are the solutions you design to solve your customers’ problems will be dramatically different. On the small chance that another startup happens to build out the exact product you’ve envisioned, that’s actually a good thing, because now that the product you wanted to exist exists, you can move onto something else and make the world an even better place. The goal of any startup should not be to get rich, it should be to enrich the lives of your customers.

Beware of Startup Vampires

Vampires are some of the most cunning, deadly and feared creatures on Earth and they are killing startups as you read this. Most people think vampires are a myth, but they are in fact very real. With Halloween upon us, it’s important to be on the lookout for these blood sucking fiends, especially when it comes to protecting your startup. Startup vampires are everywhere, and if one manages to infiltrate your ranks, it will slowly suck the life out of your company by draining your most precious resource – time.

startup-vampires

I’ve heard bad influences in startups often described as cancer, slowly intoxicating your organization from the inside out. I prefer to think of these bad influences as vampires instead, because unlike cancer, which often can’t be defended against, startup vampires can be defeated.

Vampire investors

One of the the more common types of startup vampires are investors. Investor vampires try to be involved with every decision and force you to waste your precious time explaining why you are making certain choices. They usually need constant progress updates, and instead of spending time working with your team to get shit done, you’re talking with them about how you plan to get shit done. A vampire investor may even force you to have meetings with his vampire buddies to make himself look good by showcasing his portfolio. If you have a feeling that an investor is going to be hard to work with and will probably waste your time, just do yourself a favor and avoid him so he can’t infect you.

Vampire customers

Vampires can also sneak into your startup by posing as customers. Customer vampires usually demand custom features and constantly need one-on-one support, causing you to die a slow and painful death if you are not adept at defending yourself. It’s difficult to differentiate between a customer who legitimately needs a feature and one that is actually a detriment to your success, and it’s up to you to figure out which one is which. If you find your constantly in the weeds with one customer in particular while your other ones are just fine, you may have a vampire on your hands. A good test to see if you have a vampire is to envision the scenario of firing this customer, and if you’re leaping for joy at the thought and think you can move much more quickly by focusing on making your other customers happier, chances are you have a vampire on your hands in need of some slaying.

Vampire employees

The third most common form of vampires are the deadliest of all and can infect and kill your company from the inside out. Yes, I’m talking about the bloodthirsty employee vampire.

We all like to think we’re fantastic at choosing the A%2B players for our team, but sometimes a vampire can infiltrate our ranks without us even realizing it. Employee vampires are skilled at talking a big game without producing many real results. They will keep score of their accomplishments, however minor, so when their vampirism is pointed out, they have a solid defense mounted. They’re adept at persuasion and will probably try to bring the rest of your team down to their level just so they don’t have to work as hard. As a startup founder, it’s your job to drive vampires out of your startup and keep the rest of your team safe from the negativity and ineptitude.

Defending against startup vampires

Is it possible to defend against startup vampires? Yes, and it’s surprisingly easy. Vampires cannot enter a place unless first invited into it, so just don’t invite vampires into your startup in the first place! This fact is so simple, yet subtle, that the main problem at hand is not defeating vampires, it’s figuring out who they are in the first place.

Startup vampires look almost identical to non-vampires so it’s very hard to guess who will end up sucking your startup’s lifeblood. Luckily, the human brain is unbelievably efficient at unconsciously aggregating your experiences into meaningful data for you to quickly react on, more commonly thought of as your gut. Your gut is your single most powerful tool for avoiding vampires. If you met a real vampire, your gut would pick up on its pale skin, aversion to sunlight, and opposition to showing its teeth. When you feel that something is a just not right about a person, that’s your gut warning you that you’re talking with a vampire. and you should avoid that person.

Defeating startup vampires

When you find yourself spending valuable time and mindshare musing with your cofounder or confidant about someone who gives you the creeps, chances are he’s a vampire and it’s your job to go Buffy on his ass and slay him before he starts feeding off your time. If you’re having any doubts about someone, then politely decline to invite that person into your startup, because usually it’s the people you choose to work with that will destroy you, not the people you avoid.

And if you do happen to realize you’ve let a vampire into your startup, you’re going to have to kill him, and the reality is that vampires are extremely hard to kill. They are skilled offensively with super strength and speed, so you’re best offense is to strike before they strike you. Remember that it’s ok to not take an investors term sheet, sign on a new customer, or fire an employee who sucks. It can be painful to have to stab someone with a wooden stake or rip off her head, but once your startup is vampire free, you can proceed stronger than ever before.

Do you have any experiences or horror stories about dealing with startup vampires? Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

How to Make Smarter Start-up Decisions

Overnight success is usually a myth and creating a successful start-up involves thousands of tiny decisions aggregated into one giant whole.

What do you do when you’re stuck on a problem and can’t come to a decision though? Rarely will one decision kill your start-up, but it could set you on a wind-about path and cause you to lose time.

These are techniques I’ve realized work for me over the years and I’ve decided to share. I would also love for you to share your methods for making smarter decisions with me in the comments.

Tip #1 – Take a Break and Relax

This may sound counter intuitive for actually reaching a decision, but letting your mind drift and your ambient thought process run can actually make you a more productive decider.

How many times has this scenario happened to you? You’re busy coding away and having a productive night, and then hit a problem you can’t quite figure out. Two hours later, you’re still hacking on the same issue. You feel like you’ve tried everything, and then find yourself trying the same things over again. Frustrated, you head to bed unsatisfied, only to realize a simple solution existed the next morning while taking a shower.

I believe our minds have the ability to sub consciously problem solve, taking in and processing much more information more efficiently than when we are stimulated by the world around us. When you let your mind drift, you can solve problems you wouldn’t otherwise be able to solve when you’re distracted by daily life.

I don’t suggest watching TV or playing video games when trying to solve a hard problem because your mind is unlikely to drift and relax by those stimulating activities. When trying to make a tough decision, take some time to recharge your brain’s batteries by going for a jog, reading a book, or getting a beer with a friend. You’ll be amazed at how clear headed you become once you take a step back.

Tip #2 – Sleep at Least 8 Hours

You wouldn’t want to compete in a race on a half night’s sleep because your body would be tired, so why would you try to compete in the start-up world when your mind is tired?

The benefits of sleeping enough not only help you, but also help your start-up. Sleep deprivation clouds your ability to make decision, and can even cause you to be overly optimistic. You’ll also be more pleasant to work with, allowing your team to make better decisions because they don’t have to deal with your crankiness. Make decisions for your start-up when your brain is 100% charged and ready to think.

Tip #3 – Know When You’re in the Weeds

“In the weeds” is a termed used in the restaurant industry for when you are overwhelmingly busy, are doing a poor job executing on your responsibilities, and are likely to keep doing a poor job because you can’t catch up.

The start-up weeds are no different and they can slowly kill your company. When you’re in the start-up weeds, you’re still moving forward, but moving very slowly and making almost no meaningful progress on a daily basis.

It’s not easy to know when you’re in the start-up weeds. A quick test I like to use to check if you’re in the weeds comes from Steve Jobs:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.’ – Steve Jobs

Getting out of the weeds will help you make smarter decisions because your emotions will be at bay and your judgement will not be clouded by day-to-day problems. Escaping usually involves making a hard decision or two. You may need to better train or fire an employee. You may need to fire a customer that requests an excessive amount of personal support. You may need to think about pivoting your product to be simpler.

If you’re in the start-up weeds, take a day off from work and remove yourself temporarily from the problems that are causing you stress. This will help you conserve your mental and emotional energy, and create an escape plan.

Try to examine the root cause of why you’re having issues in the first place. Suppose you have excessive amounts of customer support to do everyday. The probem could be caused by bugs, which force people to contact you. Fix the bugs, and your customer support problem is solved. Perhaps your customers just don’t understand how to do use the product. You could make some short video tutorials to scale your support. Or maybe your customers aren’t using the support forums. Do customers even know where the support forums are? You could add a link into your product that customers won’t miss.

If you keep asking yourself why you’re in the weeds in the first place, you’ll eventually backtrack to how you got there, and can set out on a journey to get out.

Tip #4 – Go with your Gut

If you ever read Blink by Malcom Gladwell, you’ll know your gut is actually a sub conscious collection of all the experiences you’ve had in your life, which can be used to help you thing slice situations and make smarter decisions. More and more I’m learning to trust my gut and avoid poor decisions in the first place.

It’s much easier for someone you are actively working with to kill your start-up than for someone who is not involved at all. If an employee, investor, or vendor just doesn’t feel right, then don’t work with them.

Tip #5 – Hang out with Smart and Motivated People

Humans have a natural tendency to act like the people we associate with. Hanging around people who are constantly drinking and doing nothing will most likely cause you to drink and do a lot of nothing.

The good news is you are not forced to be friends with specific people, and have the opportunity to fraternize with smart and motivated people. When you surround yourself with smart people, you’ll naturally sponge up new information and ideas from them. When you are friends with smart people, you can ask for advice on hard decisions. When you hang out with smart people, you will naturally work as hard or harder than them to keep up.

Your parents have been telling you for years to avoid peer pressure, but in reality it’s nearly impossible to avoid. The best way to combat peer pressure is to just hang out with people who are smarter than you, and allow them to pressure you to be better. Do not underestimate how much personality you absorb from your peers, which is then baked in your product, start-up culture and every decision you make.

Please let me know what you think below or share your methods for making smarter decisions. I’m new to writing, and greatly appreciate any and all feedback.

How to Kill Start-up Distractions

Start-ups are hard, but there are a few things that you can do to make your life simpler and give your start-up a better chance of success.

These are lessons I’ve picked up along the way and now live by to simplify my life and optimize the amount of time I have to work on my company.

Side Start-ups are Poison

If you are a start-up founder, you should not have any other companies you work on. Do not start hacking on a new start-up idea. Do not get involved with anyone else’s companies. Do not even start thinking about other ideas unless you are ready to permanently throw in the towel on your current start-up.

Start-ups take a tremendous amount of energy and time to succeed, and by splitting your resources between multiple start-ups, you’re guaranteed to have a lot of of unsuccessful and half baked companies.

This doesn’t just happen to “bad” entrepreneurs. Lack of focus happens to almost every founder.

“After my first company died, I did an inventory of the projects I had worked on in the last year. There were something like 30 projects that I had started on and not finished. My total weakness was focusing on things.”
- Ev Williams, cofounder – Twitter

If you are tempted to start something new, here’s a good test. Keep track of where your mind is drifting to on weekends, in the shower, and when you sleep. If you are not thinking about your current start-up constantly, then it’s time to move on. Most start-up founders do not suffer from a lack of amazing ideas, they suffer from a lack of focus. If you stay focused, you’ll be unstoppable.

Also, I used the term side start-up above deliberately and I am totally fine with founders having side projects. In my opinion, a side project is something you work on in your spare time to hone your skills, learn and have fun. You should have no responsibilities to customers, employees, or investors on a side project, which is what makes it different from a side start-up.

Usually side projects help you learn something new that you can incorporate back into your start-up.This blog is a side project of mine that I use to improve my writing skills, help others, and archive my ideas. If I decided to close down shop tomorrow because it was making me stressed, I wouldn’t be letting anyone down.

Hell Yeah, or No

It took me too long to realize that my time is my most valuable asset. My start-up is all consuming, so when I agree to do things for other people on top of my already busy lifestyle, that is taking away from my leisure time. When I do not have leisure time, I do not think clearly and make poor decisions, thus hurting my company.

Derek Sivers introduced me to the concept of “Hell Yeah, or No” in his book Anything you Want (highly recommended). The basic idea is that if you aren’t thinking, “Hell yeah I want to have a meeting with you!”, then you shouldn’t take the meeting with the person who asks.

This rule has not steered me wrong yet, and has gotten me out of countless meetings and distractions that I would have regretted doing later on.

Let Your Customers Captain the Ship

There’s no better way to stay focused than to talk to your customers. Talking to your customers is never a waste of time. Your job as a start-up founder is to build an amazing product and sell it. By talking to your customers, your biggest issues and main priorities will automatically bubble to the surface, keeping you focused and on track.

Respect the Headphones

As a start-up founder, you have the opportunity to set the culture of your company. Building a respectful workplace free of avoidable interruptions is very important. Teach your employees that when someone has headphones on, you should avoid interrupting him at all costs. Being in a state of flow is when you are most productive (and scientifically proven to be happiest).

This concept was referenced in the Social Network as being “wired in,” and I 100% agree with it. Even if it’s inconvenient at first and kind of socially awkward, just try it out and you’ll quickly see gains in productivity across your entire company.

Use Chat

My cofounder and I communicate through chat during the workday whenever possible. When we had interns this summer, we asked them all to use chat and not interrupt us and each other. Compare the two scenarios below:

Talking

Chat

Bill: Hey
Ted: (ignores because headphones are on)
Bill: (wheels over, hits on arm)
Ted: What?
Bill: Do you think the sign up button should be green or red?
Ted: Red because…(2 minute explanation)
Bill: Ok – thanks (wheels back)

Bill: What color do you think I should make the sign up button?
Ted: red – http://bit.ly/oh4JPM

The talking scenario could take a total of 10-15 minutes for Bill to focus back on his work. The chat scenario takes 30 seconds total to finish, and because the interruption was shorter, getting focused again will not take as long.

Work Odd Hours

If all else fails, you can always try working early in the morning or late at night. These are times when the Internets are slowed down and there will be less tweets and post on HackerNews to read and be distracted. You’ll also be free of phone calls, text messages, and people wanting to bother you.

Start-ups are about moving as fast as possible. If you avoid distractions that slow you done,
you’ll greatly increase your chances of survival.

Do you have any tips or stories about how you killed distractions from your life? Share in the comments below.