Startup Commandments — The Hardest Lessons to Learn

Paul Graham wrote a masterful thing about the hardest lessons for startups to learn. Below is my summary and notes recorded here so I can take them with me forever. Check out his original article here.

1. Release Early. Get a version 1 out fast, then improve it based on users’ reactions. Not something full of bugs, but something minimal. There are many reasons to do this. Perhaps the most important reason is that it makes you work harder.

“Users hate bugs, but they don’t seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there’s more coming soon.”

2. Keep Pumping Out Features. If you’re going to start with something that doesn’t do much, you better improve it fast. I don’t mean make your application ever more complex. By “feature” I mean one unit of hacking — one quantum of making users’ lives better.

“…people get used to how things are. Once a product gets past the stage where it has glaring flaws, you start to get used to it, and gradually whatever features it happens to have become its identity. […] I think the solution is to assume that anything you’ve made is far short of what it could be.”

3. Make Users Happy. A startup has to sing for its supper. Tell visitors (cater to casual visitors) what your site is about by showing them.

“Users are a fickle wind, but more powerful than any other. If they take you up, no competitor can keep you down.”

4. Fear the Right Things. Disasters are normal in startups — they won’t kill you unless you let them. Don’t fear the established players, fear other startups you don’t know exist yet — they’re cornered animals like you. Compete against what someone else could be doing, not just what you can see people doing.

And in any case, competitors are not the biggest threat. The three biggest are: internal disputes, inertia, and ignoring users.

“You should compete against what someone else could be doing, not just what you can see people doing.”

5. Commitment Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence — determination. Running a startup is like walking on your hands: it’s possible, but it requires extraordinary effort — and it happens against the backdrop of regular disasters. Not stubborn — you have to be determined, but flexible, like a running back.

“Everyone who deals with startups knows how important commitment is, so if they sense you’re ambivalent, they won’t give you much attention. If you lack commitment, you’ll just find that for some mysterious reason good things happen to your competitors but not to you. If you lack commitment, it will seem to you that you’re unlucky.”

6. There Is Always Room. It’s not likely that in a hundred years the only social networking sites will be Facebook and twitter. At every point in history, even the darkest bits of the dark ages, people were discovering things that made everyone say “why didn’t anyone think of that before?” The number of possible startups is limited only by the amount of wealth that can be created.

“Startups make wealth, which means they make things people want, and if there’s a limit on the number of things people want, we are nowhere near it.”

7. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up. Founder optimism is a nuclear reactor: a very dangerous source of power. It’s ok to be optimistic about what you can do, but assume the worst about machines and other people. Just assume it — whatever “it” is, a deal, a partnership, a sale, etc. — isn’t going to work out. Not to save yourself from disappointment, but to prevent yourself from leaning your company against something that’s going to fall over, taking you with it.

“It’s ok to be optimistic about what you can do, but assume the worst about machines and other people.”

“It seems ridiculous to me when people take business too seriously. I regard making money as a boring errand to be got out of the way as soon as possible.”