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Ask HN: What do you wish you had known before starting up ?
34 points by vorador on Oct 16, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments
I'm thinking about founding a startup and I'm looking for first-hand advice.

Great question. Off the top of my head...

  1. if (ethics != 100%) return(DontBother);
  2. Regardless of paperwork, you're *married* to your co-founder.
  3. if (CofounderMarriage == wrong) return(StopNow);
  4. Customer first, technology second
  5. Make your customers love you, everything else gets easier.
  6. Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize.  People love passion.
  7. When in doubt, release. If you did #5, they'll understand.
  8. Get constant feedback. You don't know your requirements.
  9. Run out of cash and you're dead.
  10. Have fun!
[EDIT 11. Accept feedback willingly and implement as appropriate. Thanks, idlewords.]

Ah, there's your problem right there. You have assignment rather than comparison in line 3. Fix and try starting up again!

Make sure someone has a final call in the company. You can even divide it out: person a has final call on product design, person b has final call on scaling issues,etc. Even if you have 50% equity each, designate it through voting shares or just a bylaw.

A two person bureaucracy is a sure fire way to ensure things never get done as fast as they should. Joe Kraus' story in Founders at Work touched on this. I believe Vinod Khosla told him the best thing to do was break the equity up where someone had a final say (They all held equal shares before that).

Start selling things as quickly as possible.

The idea of "flying under the radar" should be thrown out.

Most importantly, ideas are worthless without action.

> The idea of "flying under the radar" should be thrown out.

That depends on the situation. If you're going head-to-head with a large, established company that could squash you in an instant it may pay off to stay below the radar until you're strong enough to handle them.

BigCorp has been known to simply sue small start-ups for the reason that it ties them up and makes them unattractive to investors. If they're not aware of you until you are much stronger that can be a real advantage.

for about 99.99% of the startups this is really wishful thinking. Big Co does not care about you.


Research and requirements are worthless without sales orders.

I was reading this, posted by Snaptalent (YC Winter '08), last night:


They talk about choices they made and the end result.

It would be great to hear more from YC people about their experiences (a number from the list on Wikipedia have sold or moved on).

If you have a partner, make sure you setup a vesting schedule. I didn't, and now wish I did.

- Charging money is a whole new learning curve. Our free product was humming along. We launched a premium product and... "What?! It's not taking off?!" There's a lot to learn about where to put the "pay wall" with a freemium offering, how to get users to upgrade, how to optimize a public/brochureware site for paying conversion, etc. With content sites, I imagine there's a lot to learn about selling ads, remnant ad space, ad networks, etc.

- Work on your public facing site a LOT. And measure it. In the early days, it's a constant salesperson for you. We all remark on how bad/confusing sites are, but lots of us treat the brochureware part of our business as a red-headed stepchild. After over a year of having a paid offering, we just redesigned our site and there was a 400%+ increase in conversion rate. Thinking about the revenue ramifications if we'd done that a year ago (or even 6 months ago) makes me wince. We were leaving lots of money on the table.

- Don't pitch big VCs unless you want big money. They take LOTS of meetings to get to a yes/no and make very few investments.

- Focus on relationships when fundraising. Almost every investor we got was through an introduction (social proof wins).

- How fast your site/app is is REALLY important.

- Focus on retention as a metric. The compound interest effect of retention (or return visits if you're a content site) are HUGE. Do the math.

- Keep your burn low and don't underestimate how long it takes to get to profitability. We raised more than we wanted to and it turns out we needed it.

- Marketing/sales wins. Almost always. The quality of your product is a multiplier on the success of your business. It's easier to build a great marketing engine on top of a great product than the inverse. VERY VERY few businesses launch a product and ride word of mouth to greatness.

- PR isn't all that. Great for SEO and social proof, but it's NOT a substitute for a sales/marketing engine.

Existing competitors more often mean that the market exists, not that the market is saturated.

Stand up for yourself.

Don't make any mistakes big enough to kill the company.

The moment you realize you can't pay a bill talk to the company you owe money to and explain to them exactly why. Then offer to work out a payment plan. You'd be surprised how many companies are just happy your communicating with them and more often than not will work out a payment plan you can handle.

If deep inside you are not 100% about a decision or direction, do something about it. If things don't work out, make sure you won't be able to blame others.

Be very cautions about the impact of hiring full time employees. Once you hire someone who needs healthcare and a 401k your company ceases to be an innocent hobby.

If it's your first start-up, have a business model so you can bootstrap - raising any significant money will be difficult without a reputation. [Though being in YC/TechStars will get reputation/connections quickly I guess.]

If you are doing it in your spare time, plan on it taking all of your spare time.

Marketing is difficult, free publicity (from blogs) is surprisingly difficult to get and when you do fewer people than you think sign up / click though.

Go to as many networking events / conferences as possible meet lots of people and be sure to meet key people like press, bloggers and other companies

Spend some time working out what the smallest, least feature rich version of your app is, with only the features in it would make the product unusable without them. I often find frill features only get 5-10% take up from users, so don't put them in the critical path to releasing the first version - put them in later (or wait for users to demand them).

Do something that is night and day better than the existing solutions currently out there, because if it's only slightly better it's very hard to sell it to people and by the time you've written yours the others will have got better.

Read HN [you got that one already], watch Jason Calacanis's http://thisweekinstartups.com/ every week [on later today], read all of Paul Graham's essays

All feedback is valuable, don't get offended and reply quickly to encourage more feedback.

Thanks for the plug for This Week in Startups. :-)

I also suggest: the "this week in tech" podcast, techcrunch, and thefunded

The below may be seem simple but i don't know when i was starting up :( ................

1.Don't go alone atleast partner with one or two similar minded person .

2.Keep run way for atleast 1 to 1/1/2 Year.(nothing auto magically happens)

3.More features will not make your product popular. Implement few set of features which uniquely showcases the core idea.These features has to be done very very very well (remarkable).

4.Atleast one mentors in same area.


That being a start-up is like being a goldfish in a sharktank.

Target businesses, not consumers. It is enticing to build a consumer-oriented service when you have a great idea and a strong team to implement it. The problem is that revenue per customer is low and you will need to attract a lot of users to offset costs and reach profitability. Your runway to success is basically as long as your cash lasts. This is quite a concern if you are an unproven entrepreneur, do not have a large amount of savings, and do not have accesss to a powerful network of people. While you will need to have strong sales skills, businesses are more likely than the average consumer to pay for your product. Your revenue per customer is higher and the burn-rate (servers, bandwidth) is probably going to be much lower.

That ideas are expensive, it's implementations that are valuable.

The smaller and narrower the idea, the easier it is to implement. Just keep whittling away more and more out of the idea and just boil it down to its core essence, so that you shed as much of the expense of your idea as possible. This makes it faster to implement, and once you've implemented it funding is easier (plus, you won't have time to work on code once you start looking for investors, they're even more expensive, and the more ideas you have to explain to them the more expensive they get).

So yeah, ideas are expensive. Don't worry, nobody will steal them, so share it with the world, if they tell you it's a bad idea, thank them, they just saved you a lot of time and money.

Cash is so important - don't take it lightly. When I first started, this was a side project for me and the tendency was not to be thrifty. Because of some bad decisions spending-wise, it ended up delaying when I was able to go full-time with the business.

I really don't see the point of these very vague Ask HN posts. Surely all of this has been said before in longer, better composed blog posts. Just read the stories that show up on HN and you'll find answers to your 10,000ft startup questions.

Ask HN is very useful for specific stuff, like "please give feedback on feature X of my site" or "should I pay for service X" On the flip side, I think it's kind of pointless to ask these kind of "How do I do a startup?" questions.

I agree re: "10k ft" questions.

I clicked on this post (hoping) for something slightly different, though: a kind of a "startup lint", a collection of very specific problems that people had, gotchas and things that caught them off guard.

    "File this form, not that form, with the IRS."

    "I thought I had security locked down. I was wrong. 
    Always check your ..."

    "A shotgun clause may seem like a good idea -- but 
    whatever you do, make sure that your lawyer includes a 
    clause to specify ..."

    "If you're trying to decide between a PayPal or 
    Authorize.NET solution for processing CC's, make sure 
    you factor in the cost of ..."
Collectively wide-ranging, but individually fine-grained. I see lots of 10k ft stuff in the comments, mostly not very valuable, but there are a few fine-grained nuggets.

Related question: what's the general feeling about starting a project that you believe will be popular, but that doesn't have a clear revenue path?

Troublesome. If you can avoid that sort of project as your 'first' you will have a much higher chance of success.

We got lucky in that respect, we had absolutely no clue on how to do it and then the first big ad brokers came on-line just as we needed them (24x7, doubleclick).

And back then ads were really a way to make income, nothing compared CPM or CPC wise to today. Think $10 CPM and 35 cts / click.

That ad income got us well into the .com crash, by that time we were large enough to pull enough paying users out of our premium program to survive.

But luck is a bad thing to have to base your business on, making something that people really need (and preferably several somethings) is a lot more solid business-wise.

Before my first start-up? I wrote it up here:


Many other things, too, most of which are mentioned in other responses here, but this would have saved me enormous amounts of grief and money if I'd read it and understood it ahead of time.

A guy I once met told me to: "Make something people want." The harder they want it, the less hard it will be to survive.

Pick partners that are just as enthusiastic about the actual idea and its business potential rather than those who are only really looking to line their pockets. You may miss it at first (especially if it's your first venture), but nobody can keep a facade up forever...

How long everything takes.

Also, how to listen to advice (my co-founder and I wrote this up for the SSE blog): http://blogs.sun.com/startups/entry/how_to_listen_to_advice

learn more about debit/cerdit cards and micro-payments

The market. The market. The competition.

100% tangible or 100% worthless.

product market fit.

forget users, focus revenue.


Sales matter.

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