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Wow is this list good. It has the kind of resonance you only get when you're writing from a lot of hard experience.

As I just wrote when I sent this link to the current YC batch, if you see advice here that puzzles you, it may be a sign of a painful lesson you're going to learn in the future.

> if you see advice here that puzzles you, it may be a sign of a painful lesson you're going to learn in the future.

Ugh, does anybody mind taking a stab at paraphrasing this one:

> Don’t say things if your competitors can’t say the opposite. For example, your competitors can’t say their product is slow, so saying yours is fast is sloppy marketing. On the other hand, your competitors can say their software is for Python programmers, so saying yours is for Ruby programmers is good marketing. Apple can get away with breaking this rule, you can’t.

This is the only bullet out of the list that I can't quite brain.

Hard won marketing lesson: being different is way better than being better.

Scott McNealy polarized this further -- he would say, I want half the potential customers to hate my products but half to love them.

Actually, being "differentiated" is what's needed, not being different. There is a difference :) sorry for the pun.

Differentiated means that your statement is very defensible, and the competition cannot copy it or it will backfire on them. Differentiated means very unique to you, and it creates a position in the minds of your prospects that lodges you there and keeps you there.

For e.g., "“a16z enables entrepreneurs to utilize expertise from Operating Partners who specialize in business development, technical talent, executive talent, market intelligence, marketing and brand building” is a differentiated statement, but "Andreessen Horowitz is a venture capital firm that provides seed, venture and growth stage funding to the best new technology companies" is not.

I wrote a long post on Positioning: The Battle for Your Startup- that explains a modern version of Positioning, http://startupmanagement.org/2013/04/18/positioning-the-batt...

You can be better only for so long. Being different can be timeless if you're only different enough.

Ahhh, that reminds me of the wonderful success that was OS/2. Makes perfect sense now, thanks.

Yep. Scott's nightmare was that everyone would think his products were fine.

I'd come across a similar suggestion in a political context. Saying "we want a fair tax system" is meaningless, because any political party could say that.

Saying "we want higher taxes on the wealthy to help the poor" or "we want lower taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment" is meaningful and distinctive.

Here's Marc Andreesen saying the same thing with very different words:

"There are always real and legitimate reasons why people often pass on opportunities — they see the risks and they wish to avoid them."

And here's me trying to say the thing in still other words:

Most people are not stupid. If they've chosen to make their product a certain way, it's probably for a real reason. If your marketing implies that they're stupid, people will assume that you can't see their real reason, and assume that you're stupid. It's better to phrase things in terms of trade-offs instead, and let your market decide whether the trade-offs you've made are more appropriate for their use-case than the trade-offs your competitors have made.

For an example from a project I just released:


(Incidentally, almost all the comments on Gumbo were of the vein of "Why should I use this?" until I started making replies like this, saying "Here's what html5lib does, here's why they made the choices they did, and here's how Gumbo differs from those choices. Here's what validator.nu does, here's why they made the choices they did, and here's how Gumbo differs. Here's what Hubbub does, here's why they made the choices they did, and here's how Gumbo differs."

*Marc Andreessen

Don't make positive assertions about your product which your competitor wouldn't make an opposite assertion of their product. Stop trying to say you're the hottest shit on the planet, try to make it clear how you're different without trying to imply everyone is shit. Makes it harder for people to get into idiotic debates about whether the claims are true or not for some stupid metric.

That is, I suppose, unless your product actually is somehow much faster, smaller, bigger, whatever and it does everything else exactly the same.

Here's a go...

Everyone gets innundated with marketing and communications, so the things you say about your product / company have to be maximally valuable to you. I think, the goal is to use marketing to:

1. define a market, 2. define yourself within the market.

If performance isn't a differentiator, talking about it doesn't help to further define your market or yourself within it. It becomes noise and hurts the clarity of your product.

Python vs Ruby, however, defines discrete boundaries between what your product is and isn't with respect to the differentiators your market cares about. This makes the idea of your product / company more clear.

A small set of direct, differentiating messages can be internalized by an audience. A broad set of tangential messages are hard for an audience to adopt.

I actually disagree with the advice. Well, I'll walk that back: the advice is sound but too specific. I think it's more like, "Don't say things unless it's hard for your competitors to disagree." If your competitor is insisting on the opposite it would of course be hard for them to disagree, but I think that obscures what's really going on.

Take Volvo, for example, a brand strongly associated with safety. They'd never croon about how slow their cars were, of course. It's more like they've chosen a third route -- in the "fast vs. slow" game they've decided to not play.

In a world where Volvo was the only car brand, there is an opportunity for a competitor to differentiate themselves from Volvo by focusing on speed over safety, even though Volvo isn't claiming "the opposite." In fact, this works really well because the type of people who are attracted to raw speed will probably be turned on by the idea of their car being a little more dangerous. I don't need the same protection my grandmother does -- I want something exciting! You see how even though in some sense being "less safe" is objectively worse, it might nevertheless resonate with the customer psychologically?

Once consumers reflexively think "Volvo" when one says "safety," however, you're never going to out-safety them. It's better to compete in a different game than compete in the game they've won.

That's what folks mean when they say "Being different is more important than being better."

I think engineers have a hard time with branding because they imagine building a brand or a product involves maximizing some utility function. People don't work like that, though. They operate in terms of narratives and stories and identity. Who am I? What does using this product say about me? They generalize their utilitarian temperament to everyone else, when in fact that temperament is just one of many.

If you tried to out-safety Volvo you wouldn't be known as the "safer brand," you'd risk being known as "the brand that claims it's more safe than Volvo." But is it really? I don't know, man, I'm scared of buying a car that might not be safe. I'm going to stick with Volvo.

My view -- which marketing people frequently yell at me for having, so take it for what it's worth --

There are product categories outside of tech (in particular) that are sold to consumers, whose products are more or less interchangeable. Those products get marketed and sold a lot more on how they make the buyer feel, than anything about the actual product. So Volvo is bought by people who want other people around them to think they're the kind of person who would prioritize safety (and therefore boring/conservative) over other attributes -- even though none of those customers, and none of us, actually have any idea whether Volvos in 2013 are actually safer than any other car.

This is classic brand marketing -- it's how Coca-Cola, P&G, bottled water companies, etc. make a living. And it's fine for them.

BUT in the fields in which we operate -- both enterprise tech and consumer tech -- the customers more often actually care about the products. So marketing that is disconnected from actual product differentiation generally doesn't work.

The clearest illustration of this in the past decade is mobile handsets. There's been a series of dramatic (and catastrophic) rises and falls of mobile handset companies -- Motorola, Nokia, RIM, HTC, Samsung, Microsoft. Each of these companies, when they were on top, had state of the art marketing teams and advertising agencies doing classic brand marketing at huge scale -- and none of it did any of them any good when the product trends turned against them. I know a lot of the people at these companies and in each case they were utterly shocked when their brands and their marketing budgets were not more effective buffers against big declines when technology shifted.

So my general MO is -- admire companies outside of tech that are really good at consumer marketing, daydream about someday being in a business where I can pull a Don Draper and sell a product on the basis of it being "toasted" (the classic Lucky Strike cigarettes positioning -- even though all cigarettes are toasted), but never assume that I can get away with marketing a technology product on the basis of anything other than real product differentiation.

p.s. The pushback I often get on this is, oh, no, I drink Coke vs Pepsi or Pepsi vs Coke because I like its flavor better. Same with bottled water and all the rest. To which I say, you are fooling yourself -- in any double-blind study you'd never be able to tell the products apart. Hell, people can't even tell white and red wine apart when they can't see it.

Hmm. I'm letting this rattle around my head. I'm going to avoid your mobile handset example both because you know more about the ins and outs than I do, but also because the OP mentioned that the one exception to his rule is Apple and I don't know how to talk about what happened in the world of mobile handsets without talking about Apple. :D

I feel like a few things are being conflated. For example, it seems like you're treating "the set of products marketed and sold a lot more on how they make the buyer feel" as a subset of "products that are more-or-less interchangeable." That is, if consumers can reliably differentiate between products based on "empirical" metrics, they will. If they can't, marketers have to resort to "branding tactics" to create the appearance of more differentiation than there actually is.

I'm skeptical because it seems too consistent with how engineers see the world. The world doesn't seem this discrete to me. I guess I see it more as, "Prefer playing along a new dimension rather than playing along a dimension someone else already owns." To me "different" means "playing along an orthogonal axis" while "better" means "trying to outdo someone else along an already-claimed axis."

Here's the game theory version of what I was trying to say. Your brand position is a good one if it resonates with potential customers and none of your competitors can encroach on it without running the risk of weakening their own brand position. A competitor staking out an opposite brand position in a particular dimension is the most extreme and obvious instance of this, but it's not the only one or even the most prevalent one (IMO).

I agree re: CPG. They're hard to differentiate because they live in such a low-dimensional "brand space," so marketers (who need to differentiate them) go crazy. Bottled water for men! For women! From the mountains! From underground streams! From reclaimed bird urine! Whatever. Physically speaking, there's very little to ground these claims in. Source, material, production process, and maybe a few other things I can't think of. There's a kind of fun, wild west aspect to inventing a new drink or other CPG that takes off. It seems like pure theater to me.

I also agree with you that a claim to differentiation grounded in reality is an easier thing to pull of for those of us, like myself, who are no Don Draper.

But let's take another market where feeling is at the core: fashion and apparel. I don't think it's fair to conflate what the hypothetical bottled water brand is doing with what fashion brands do. I'll give an example from Everlane, a company I was very involved with early on.

"Radical transparency" was one of our brand pillars from the very start.

First, this isn't a case of "water from the mountains" vs. "water from an underground stream" or "toasted cigarettes." Everlane is actually touring factories in China and Europe, taking photos, interviewing people, etc. It's grounded in a real, physical difference, although not in the product itself. In fact, part of our story is that we use the same factories that top brands do. However, it is grounded concrete actions that Everlane is taking, but our competitors aren't. Our customers have access to something they didn't before, viz., insight into the production process.

Second, take the OP's original advice: "Don’t say things if your competitors can’t say the opposite."

What competitor of Everlane, present or future, would say the opposite? "Forget radical transparency -- we're radically opaque!" "Buy from us! We like hiding information from you about how our apparel is made." Nobody is saying that and nobody believes that. Who would brag about that? Everlane wasn't able to get away with this because we're Apple or anything approaching Apple, either, so we appear to be an exception to the OP's rule.

Even so, very few of our competitors can say "We're transparent!" Why? Either it's inconsistent with their existing brand, e.g., they deliberately cultivate an air of mystery super chic blahdeblah, or it's consistent with but ultimately unrelated to their brand. In the former case it'd be suicidal for them to say it and in the latter it'd both dilute their message and run the risk of validating our market position.

The great upshot for Everlane is that if you imagine the web being a tribe, one of the things it values (culturally) is transparency and access to otherwise-hidden information. That was the mindset that led us down the path to radical transparency, not any thoughts about product features.

I think this is just as true of fashion and apparel as it is of consumer tech and I think lots of folks in consumer tech miss it because they imagine everyone sees the world in the same product-centric way they do. One interesting thing I've seen is that consumer tech startups from NYC are much less likely to miss these opportunities than consumer tech startups from the SF Bay Area.

That's the best picture I have in my head right now. I just felt the OP's rule left a lot of opportunity on the table.

I like this explanation


from 2004 from Eric Sink, and this recent application of his own advice


It also resonates especially when you're reading from hard experience. A year ago I would have quickly read & enjoyed this, then moved on. Now too many items give me pause as I recall some mistake I've made. It is very good.

Can you tell apart founders who sponge up advice vs those who are doomed to learn on their own? I suspect the answer is conversational resourcefulness (http://www.paulgraham.com/word.html) but wonder if you have more to say.

With respect, I completely disagree with you. I'm sure a lot of this advice is valid and useful for founders, maybe even the majority of it, but I see a lot that strikes me as false.

I'm not a founder of a startup, but I don't think a lot of these are good advice because Slava comes across as so condescending when he states them. That's not to say I'm attacking his tone instead of the advice, but I don't think the advice is valid because it comes from a place of dogmatic declaration (I understand he has a lot of experience, but I don't think some of these subjects can have absolute statements said about them).

Take this one, which other commenters have mentioned already:

>"If it doesn’t augment the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way, it’s not worth doing."

I'm going to say this is not only blatantly false, but just bad advice and nothing but discouragement.

'cperciva's startup, Tarsnap, is not something I'd say "augments the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way" - it's Colin's full-time job, and I personally think it's fantastic, creative, and genuinely useful to his client-base.

But apparently, it's not worth doing because it doesn't "augment the human condition." (I don't mean to involve you, Colin, it's just a relatively well-known example on HN).

Let's see...'patio11. His most recent startup, Appointment Reminder, might fall into the category of augmenting the human condition. Does Bingo Card Creator? Maybe I'm reaching here...but no, probably not. Was it not worth doing? Absolutely not. (Again, same to you Patrick).

Then we have this tidbit:

>"Pick new ideas because they’ve been made possible by other social or technological change. Get on the train as early as possible, but make sure the technology is there to make the product be enough better that it matters."

This encourages the stream of, for example, crappy camera apps that currently saturate the app store. A lot of developers got on the train, but giving this kind of advice will probably (as history suggests) make founders believe they have the technology to genuinely make a difference in a highly saturated market.

On the other end of the extreme:

>"Don’t build something that already exists. Customers won’t buy it just because it’s yours."

If you do get on that train early, and you can genuinely innovate, or just plain reverse-engineer at a lower manufacturing cost, by all means do it. That's a good starting recipe for profit.

>"Pick implementations that give 80% of the benefit with 20% of the work."

The 80/20 ratio has cropped up everywhere and grown in popularity for a while now, but I think it's too vague. In particular, I believe this advice would encourage the wrong kind of behavior. It could be interpreted as being efficient, or it could be interpreted as foregoing the more rewarding, effort-filled path with the one that's only marginally useful but exponentially easier. Risky absolutes for advice.


>"If you can’t get to ramen profitability with a team of 2 – 4 within six months to a year, something’s wrong. (You can choose not to be profitable, but it must be your choice, not something forced on you by the market)."

Maybe Slava successfully did this, but I don't think it's fair to hold all startups to this bar.

I also don't think things like being a "final say" CEO are fully compatible with evenly splitting stocks. This is a very highly debated part of startup financial management. So, yes, this is my opinion, but equally importantly, the opposite advice is also Slava's opinion.

Now, on the other hand, a lot of these statements are really good. I'm not flaming the entire post. In particular, I liked:

>"Product sense is everything. Learn it as quickly as you can. Being good at engineering has nothing to do with being good at product management."

Yes, very true, and something you have echoed before as well, pg. Running a company in any sense of the term is completely different from engineering a company's product.

>"Learn the difference between people who might buy your product and people who are just commenting. Pay obsessive attention to the former. Ignore the latter."

Often stated, definitely true, also applies to investor courting.

My personal favorite:

>"Morale is very real and self-perpetuating. If you work too long without victories, your investors, employees, family, and you yourself will lose faith. Work like hell not to get yourself into this position."

This is one of those murky, non-actionable truths of startups that you don't really get until you've tried it. Judging from the "I failed" Ask HN: posts, I think this might be one of the least expected but extremely true ones. I might even say that for personal well-being, this might be the most important piece of advice.

I'm sure I'll be downvoted for this, but I would ask people to at least explain why they disagree so we can have productive discussion. I respect the OP, I'm just expressing my disagreements here.

I don't think the advice is valid because it comes from a place of dogmatic declaration

I hear this from people once in a while, so I've been trying to watch my tone when I say and write stuff. The thing is, I don't mean to be dogmatic (and it's not how things sound in my head). These are my truths that I discovered, and things I try to look out for. When people find a different set of truths that work for them -- that's absolutely wonderful. I always try to learn from others, and try to never make prescriptive statements. I really should learn what about my tone makes it come off prescriptive and dogmatic, and then not do that.

'cperciva's startup, Tarsnap, is not something I'd say "augments the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way"

On the contrary, I would say it does. It lets people store their data and have a complete peace of mind -- people can be secure in knowledge that others won't read it. It changes how people feel as they walk about their day, because security of their data is in the back of their minds. That's changing the human condition.

This encourages the stream of, for example, crappy camera apps that currently saturate the app store.

It also discourages the stream of, for example, services that try to let people order pizzas online, when it's clear that pizza shops don't want them, they never wanted them, and nothing has changed that will make them want such a service now. This isn't the only criteria to look out for -- it's necessary but not sufficient.

I'm confused by your last line. Here in Australia, both the major pizza chains (Dominos and Pizza Hut) have full online ordering. Personally, I always use them when ordering pizza.

Is this a US cultural assumption? Or is there something else I'm missing?

Hey, thanks for responding to my comment directly. Sorry if I sounded harsh :)

I understand you didn't intentionally mean to be dogmatic, I probably could have worded that more appropriately. But I think it comes across that way because it's unintentional. That said, it's not as though every piece of advice came across that way. And again, I want to emphasize I'm attacking the advice stated in that way, not you, because you didn't apply this blanket to every piece of advice.

If you believe Tarsnap fits into your own definition of augmenting the human condition, then I suppose I can't argue that. But taken at face value, the original statement appeared to strike a chord with a number of commenters and myself because of the implicit scale - if you ask which companies augment the human condition, I believe most people would respond with companies on the scale of Apple. Small, almost boutique-level startups are very successful without this level of grandeur.

But again, I revise my original criticism if the definition of impact is broadened, like you just clarified.

As for pizza shops - I can see how your advice encourages appropriate behavior, and I agree to that. But I also believe that (and this wouldn't be your fault) it can also encourage "easy exit" mentalities where people just copy a fad and tweak it for success.

In the Netherlands just such a service where you can order food from a lot of different places is very succesful: http://www.thuisbezorgd.nl/en/

> It changes how people feel as they walk about their day, because security of their data is in the back of their minds.

Not necessarily. I'm confident there are people who do backups not because they actively worry about data security, but because they know that not worrying won't protect them.

(edit: though I guess this isn't particularly relevant, if it changes how many people feel as they go about their day.)

> That's changing the human condition.

This seems like a stretch; I suspect the phrase means something slightly different to you than it does to me?

Tarsnap and BCC are pretty awful by the metrics by which startups are judged. They've take. Many years to produce a very modest return.

That doesn't mean they're not worthwhile projects, but make no mistake: they are very lousy startups - so bad that the only reason to invest time or money in them is love or learning. The financial return is pretty close to zero compared to other ways Colin and Patrick could have spent their time.

Startups are high growth businesses. If there's no high growth potential, it's not a startup.

The list is pretty clearly about startups, not pet projects.

> If there's no high growth potential, it's not a startup.

I mostly agree.

We need a good term for stuff like BCC:

* Does not have huge growth prospects.

* Does have very good prospects for automation so that, once launched, the ratio of time dedicated to it / revenue is a good one.

* Is not a "small business" where the owner is also the primary worker, like a small restaurant, or software consultant, or something like that (Hey, DHH, how many owners of small trattorias can afford super expensive cars?)

Not being in SV, and being a bit older than the average, I'm very sold on this approach. I don't need to get rich, or make a "dent in the universe", I just want to be mostly free to do the things I want without worrying about money.

Relevant Twitter stream between patio11 and others people in the same "market" about how to find a "good term" for stuff like BCC https://twitter.com/patio11/status/360236486307749888

Interesting discussion, if a bit inconclusive. It also very much highlights the limitations of twitter as a means to discuss things.

Lifestyle business is the term commonly used outside the software industry.

That's not a great term as it's both a bit vague as well as a bit condescending in some circles.

What about freedom business? Or freedom-focused online business?

Passive Income Generators. PIGs.

  > If there's no high growth potential, it's not a startup.
How would we determine that a company has high growth potential without actually starting the company and trying to find out? Does this definition mean that a company isn't a startup until it finds this huge growth potential? (That would mean that almost all companies that have received angel investment are not startups, since so many will fail to find high growth.)

(edit: I should have said: "many companies that have received angel investment are not startups, since so many have no obvious high growth potential." I sort of get it that as a founder I'd want to be conservative, and launch into a large and well understood market if I'm taking outside money, but that seems to run against the spirit of what VCs are trying to do, that is fund companies that are trying to discover new, untapped markets, in order to reap larger rewards.)

With respect, I think everything you said here is opinion. Slava responded to my comment arguing for the merits of Tarsnap augmenting the human condition instead of saying it's not a startup.

That's not to say your rebuttal isn't valid, but that I think there's confusion of what really constitutes a startup. Was Instapaper a startup? It sold for an exit, but on the face of it I don't see how it inherently scales differently from something like Tarsnap.

I would define any budding tech company as a startup, though it might not be accepted by VC's or Y-Combinator because it couldn't scale. That's my own opinion.

There definitely is confusion over what constitutes a startup. But I think we can all agree that it's not just any small business.

Some people use the definition of small tech company (as you have), but that doesn't meaningfully differentiate a company like BCC from Dropbox, which have very different economics.

PG defined it in his essay on growth [1] and it seems to work pretty well. It also makes the OP's points about working on something that augments the human condition make a lot more sense.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/growth.html

So you're not a founder but you're offended by his advice to founders. Interesting!

Nice try, but no, I'm not offended by his advice; I think some of it is highly opinionated.

It's reasonable for you to question my "credentials" for critiquing startup advice if it's accompanied by an analysis of my critique. Then it's relevant and valid. However, alone the comment becomes reduced to an ad hominem dismissal of my point without any real weight beyond it.

I'm not going to engage in the trolling further with you.

You have no idea who pmarca is, right?

Marc Andreessen. I don't mean any offense to him - trolling was a harsh word - he's not trolling. I would love to debate the original point with him, him being who he is, but I will defend my comment on the grounds that it derides my point just because I'm not a founder. I don't think it's fair to reduce someone's argument just because of their level of authority without examining the argument itself, no matter who is questioning your authority.

I guess I'm saying this: I respect Andreessen a lot, but if you read that comment from a name other than pmarca, would you defend it?

Not sure why you're being downvoted. As you said: the list contains great, tough advice, but some of it is wrong as it's personal preference or pompous.

"augmenting the human condition" sounds like it'd be better achieved by writing a novel. I'm trying to imagine the person who could say their startup was "augmenting the human condition" with a straight face.

I'd agree, that one phrase seems a little out of touch. If it had been phrased differently (e.g. "Do something that changes the world") I still would have taken issue with it. I'm not attacking the phrasing so much as the sentiment that startups need to have Google-level ambitions (something I don't think Larry and Sergey had in the beginning, in fact). Even pg has observed in one of his essays that not all founders set out to disrupt entire industries.

But to be fair, there are plenty of examples of companies (Microsoft, Google, Airbnb, Dropbox) which arguable have legitimately augmented the human condition for huge numbers of people. There's just plenty more that didn't, and that's okay.

Yup. Also I doubt anyone who sets out to "augment the human condition" will: most founder of big cos set out to do something small, & and grew from there when it worked well.

If Google started with the goal of being where it is today (self-driving cars, ubiquity), rather than to build the best search-engine possible, it'd have undoubtably failed.

How about "solve problems people care about"?

Well I disagree with the ramen profitability timeframe, since sometimes it is better first to penetrate the market without compromising your products (ads) and then implement money generating components. Example facebook... They implemented ads at a later stage, long after 6-12 months

Isn't that covered by the caveat contained in the point? ... (You can choose not to be profitable, but it must be your choice, not something forced on you by the market).

I think some business models only make sense at scale. While the caveat does apply to facebook (they probably could have been a profitable niche student social network) occasionally I see businesses that it just doesn't make sense to even start unless you plan on getting really big. Examples would be PayPal, Google and Spotify.

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