Paul Graham Startup Essay Checker

March 2005

(This essay is derived from a talk at the Harvard Computer Society.)

You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.

And that's kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. Hard, but doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too. Hard, but doable.

If there is one message I'd like to get across about startups, that's it. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve.

The Idea

In particular, you don't need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn't take brilliance to do better.

Google's plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn't suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within Google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. [1]

There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google. I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck.

For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there's a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.

An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.

Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route. Microsoft's original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn't occur to them until IBM dropped it in their lap five years later.

Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they're not transferrable. They're not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about.

What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people.

People

What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.

What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won't take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.

Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did. The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but you knew there would be no rest for them till they'd signed up.

If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence "so-and-so is an animal." If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.

For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around?

That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn't stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren't truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first.

When nerds are unbearable it's usually because they're trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like "I don't know," "Maybe you're right," and "I don't understand x well enough."

This technique doesn't always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I'm told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances.

It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say "I don't know" of anyone I've met. (At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT.) No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.

Like most startups, ours began with a group of friends, and it was through personal contacts that we got most of the people we hired. This is a crucial difference between startups and big companies. Being friends with someone for even a couple days will tell you more than companies could ever learn in interviews. [2]

It's no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that's where smart people meet. It's not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same.

If you start a startup, there's a good chance it will be with people you know from college or grad school. So in theory you ought to try to make friends with as many smart people as you can in school, right? Well, no. Don't make a conscious effort to schmooze; that doesn't work well with hackers.

What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.

Ideally you want between two and four founders. It would be hard to start with just one. One person would find the moral weight of starting a company hard to bear. Even Bill Gates, who seems to be able to bear a good deal of moral weight, had to have a co-founder. But you don't want so many founders that the company starts to look like a group photo. Partly because you don't need a lot of people at first, but mainly because the more founders you have, the worse disagreements you'll have. When there are just two or three founders, you know you have to resolve disputes immediately or perish. If there are seven or eight, disagreements can linger and harden into factions. You don't want mere voting; you need unanimity.

In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good. Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette.

Do the founders of a startup have to include business people? That depends. We thought so when we started ours, and we asked several people who were said to know about this mysterious thing called "business" if they would be the president. But they all said no, so I had to do it myself. And what I discovered was that business was no great mystery. It's not something like physics or medicine that requires extensive study. You just try to get people to pay you for stuff.

I think the reason I made such a mystery of business was that I was disgusted by the idea of doing it. I wanted to work in the pure, intellectual world of software, not deal with customers' mundane problems. People who don't want to get dragged into some kind of work often develop a protective incompetence at it. Paul Erdos was particularly good at this. By seeming unable even to cut a grapefruit in half (let alone go to the store and buy one), he forced other people to do such things for him, leaving all his time free for math. Erdos was an extreme case, but most husbands use the same trick to some degree.

Once I was forced to discard my protective incompetence, I found that business was neither so hard nor so boring as I feared. There are esoteric areas of business that are quite hard, like tax law or the pricing of derivatives, but you don't need to know about those in a startup. All you need to know about business to run a startup are commonsense things people knew before there were business schools, or even universities.

If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you'll learn something important about business school. After Warren Buffett, you don't hit another MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only 5 MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you'd do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA. [3]

There is one reason you might want to include business people in a startup, though: because you have to have at least one person willing and able to focus on what customers want. Some believe only business people can do this-- that hackers can implement software, but not design it. That's nonsense. There's nothing about knowing how to program that prevents hackers from understanding users, or about not knowing how to program that magically enables business people to understand them.

If you can't understand users, however, you should either learn how or find a co-founder who can. That is the single most important issue for technology startups, and the rock that sinks more of them than anything else.

What Customers Want

It's not just startups that have to worry about this. I think most businesses that fail do it because they don't give customers what they want. Look at restaurants. A large percentage fail, about a quarter in the first year. But can you think of one restaurant that had really good food and went out of business?

Restaurants with great food seem to prosper no matter what. A restaurant with great food can be expensive, crowded, noisy, dingy, out of the way, and even have bad service, and people will keep coming. It's true that a restaurant with mediocre food can sometimes attract customers through gimmicks. But that approach is very risky. It's more straightforward just to make the food good.

It's the same with technology. You hear all kinds of reasons why startups fail. But can you think of one that had a massively popular product and still failed?

In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn't want the product. For most, the cause of death is listed as "ran out of funding," but that's only the immediate cause. Why couldn't they get more funding? Probably because the product was a dog, or never seemed likely to be done, or both.

When I was trying to think of the things every startup needed to do, I almost included a fourth: get a version 1 out as soon as you can. But I decided not to, because that's implicit in making something customers want. The only way to make something customers want is to get a prototype in front of them and refine it based on their reactions.

The other approach is what I call the "Hail Mary" strategy. You make elaborate plans for a product, hire a team of engineers to develop it (people who do this tend to use the term "engineer" for hackers), and then find after a year that you've spent two million dollars to develop something no one wants. This was not uncommon during the Bubble, especially in companies run by business types, who thought of software development as something terrifying that therefore had to be carefully planned.

We never even considered that approach. As a Lisp hacker, I come from the tradition of rapid prototyping. I would not claim (at least, not here) that this is the right way to write every program, but it's certainly the right way to write software for a startup. In a startup, your initial plans are almost certain to be wrong in some way, and your first priority should be to figure out where. The only way to do that is to try implementing them.

Like most startups, we changed our plan on the fly. At first we expected our customers to be Web consultants. But it turned out they didn't like us, because our software was easy to use and we hosted the site. It would be too easy for clients to fire them. We also thought we'd be able to sign up a lot of catalog companies, because selling online was a natural extension of their existing business. But in 1996 that was a hard sell. The middle managers we talked to at catalog companies saw the Web not as an opportunity, but as something that meant more work for them.

We did get a few of the more adventurous catalog companies. Among them was Frederick's of Hollywood, which gave us valuable experience dealing with heavy loads on our servers. But most of our users were small, individual merchants who saw the Web as an opportunity to build a business. Some had retail stores, but many only existed online. And so we changed direction to focus on these users. Instead of concentrating on the features Web consultants and catalog companies would want, we worked to make the software easy to use.

I learned something valuable from that. It's worth trying very, very hard to make technology easy to use. Hackers are so used to computers that they have no idea how horrifying software seems to normal people. Stephen Hawking's editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half. When you work on making technology easier to use, you're riding that curve up instead of down. A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn't just increase your sales 10%. It's more likely to double your sales.

How do you figure out what customers want? Watch them. One of the best places to do this was at trade shows. Trade shows didn't pay as a way of getting new customers, but they were worth it as market research. We didn't just give canned presentations at trade shows. We used to show people how to build real, working stores. Which meant we got to watch as they used our software, and talk to them about what they needed.

No matter what kind of startup you start, it will probably be a stretch for you, the founders, to understand what users want. The only kind of software you can build without studying users is the sort for which you are the typical user. But this is just the kind that tends to be open source: operating systems, programming languages, editors, and so on. So if you're developing technology for money, you're probably not going to be developing it for people like you. Indeed, you can use this as a way to generate ideas for startups: what do people who are not like you want from technology?

When most people think of startups, they think of companies like Apple or Google. Everyone knows these, because they're big consumer brands. But for every startup like that, there are twenty more that operate in niche markets or live quietly down in the infrastructure. So if you start a successful startup, odds are you'll start one of those.

Another way to say that is, if you try to start the kind of startup that has to be a big consumer brand, the odds against succeeding are steeper. The best odds are in niche markets. Since startups make money by offering people something better than they had before, the best opportunities are where things suck most. And it would be hard to find a place where things suck more than in corporate IT departments. You would not believe the amount of money companies spend on software, and the crap they get in return. This imbalance equals opportunity.

If you want ideas for startups, one of the most valuable things you could do is find a middle-sized non-technology company and spend a couple weeks just watching what they do with computers. Most good hackers have no more idea of the horrors perpetrated in these places than rich Americans do of what goes on in Brazilian slums.

Start by writing software for smaller companies, because it's easier to sell to them. It's worth so much to sell stuff to big companies that the people selling them the crap they currently use spend a lot of time and money to do it. And while you can outhack Oracle with one frontal lobe tied behind your back, you can't outsell an Oracle salesman. So if you want to win through better technology, aim at smaller customers. [4]

They're the more strategically valuable part of the market anyway. In technology, the low end always eats the high end. It's easier to make an inexpensive product more powerful than to make a powerful product cheaper. So the products that start as cheap, simple options tend to gradually grow more powerful till, like water rising in a room, they squash the "high-end" products against the ceiling. Sun did this to mainframes, and Intel is doing it to Sun. Microsoft Word did it to desktop publishing software like Interleaf and Framemaker. Mass-market digital cameras are doing it to the expensive models made for professionals. Avid did it to the manufacturers of specialized video editing systems, and now Apple is doing it to Avid. Henry Ford did it to the car makers that preceded him. If you build the simple, inexpensive option, you'll not only find it easier to sell at first, but you'll also be in the best position to conquer the rest of the market.

It's very dangerous to let anyone fly under you. If you have the cheapest, easiest product, you'll own the low end. And if you don't, you're in the crosshairs of whoever does.

Raising Money

To make all this happen, you're going to need money. Some startups have been self-funding-- Microsoft for example-- but most aren't. I think it's wise to take money from investors. To be self-funding, you have to start as a consulting company, and it's hard to switch from that to a product company.

Financially, a startup is like a pass/fail course. The way to get rich from a startup is to maximize the company's chances of succeeding, not to maximize the amount of stock you retain. So if you can trade stock for something that improves your odds, it's probably a smart move.

To most hackers, getting investors seems like a terrifying and mysterious process. Actually it's merely tedious. I'll try to give an outline of how it works.

The first thing you'll need is a few tens of thousands of dollars to pay your expenses while you develop a prototype. This is called seed capital. Because so little money is involved, raising seed capital is comparatively easy-- at least in the sense of getting a quick yes or no.

Usually you get seed money from individual rich people called "angels." Often they're people who themselves got rich from technology. At the seed stage, investors don't expect you to have an elaborate business plan. Most know that they're supposed to decide quickly. It's not unusual to get a check within a week based on a half-page agreement.

We started Viaweb with $10,000 of seed money from our friend Julian. But he gave us a lot more than money. He's a former CEO and also a corporate lawyer, so he gave us a lot of valuable advice about business, and also did all the legal work of getting us set up as a company. Plus he introduced us to one of the two angel investors who supplied our next round of funding.

Some angels, especially those with technology backgrounds, may be satisfied with a demo and a verbal description of what you plan to do. But many will want a copy of your business plan, if only to remind themselves what they invested in.

Our angels asked for one, and looking back, I'm amazed how much worry it caused me. "Business plan" has that word "business" in it, so I figured it had to be something I'd have to read a book about business plans to write. Well, it doesn't. At this stage, all most investors expect is a brief description of what you plan to do and how you're going to make money from it, and the resumes of the founders. If you just sit down and write out what you've been saying to one another, that should be fine. It shouldn't take more than a couple hours, and you'll probably find that writing it all down gives you more ideas about what to do.

For the angel to have someone to make the check out to, you're going to have to have some kind of company. Merely incorporating yourselves isn't hard. The problem is, for the company to exist, you have to decide who the founders are, and how much stock they each have. If there are two founders with the same qualifications who are both equally committed to the business, that's easy. But if you have a number of people who are expected to contribute in varying degrees, arranging the proportions of stock can be hard. And once you've done it, it tends to be set in stone.

I have no tricks for dealing with this problem. All I can say is, try hard to do it right. I do have a rule of thumb for recognizing when you have, though. When everyone feels they're getting a slightly bad deal, that they're doing more than they should for the amount of stock they have, the stock is optimally apportioned.

There is more to setting up a company than incorporating it, of course: insurance, business license, unemployment compensation, various things with the IRS. I'm not even sure what the list is, because we, ah, skipped all that. When we got real funding near the end of 1996, we hired a great CFO, who fixed everything retroactively. It turns out that no one comes and arrests you if you don't do everything you're supposed to when starting a company. And a good thing too, or a lot of startups would never get started. [5]

It can be dangerous to delay turning yourself into a company, because one or more of the founders might decide to split off and start another company doing the same thing. This does happen. So when you set up the company, as well as as apportioning the stock, you should get all the founders to sign something agreeing that everyone's ideas belong to this company, and that this company is going to be everyone's only job.

[If this were a movie, ominous music would begin here.]

While you're at it, you should ask what else they've signed. One of the worst things that can happen to a startup is to run into intellectual property problems. We did, and it came closer to killing us than any competitor ever did.

As we were in the middle of getting bought, we discovered that one of our people had, early on, been bound by an agreement that said all his ideas belonged to the giant company that was paying for him to go to grad school. In theory, that could have meant someone else owned big chunks of our software. So the acquisition came to a screeching halt while we tried to sort this out. The problem was, since we'd been about to be acquired, we'd allowed ourselves to run low on cash. Now we needed to raise more to keep going. But it's hard to raise money with an IP cloud over your head, because investors can't judge how serious it is.

Our existing investors, knowing that we needed money and had nowhere else to get it, at this point attempted certain gambits which I will not describe in detail, except to remind readers that the word "angel" is a metaphor. The founders thereupon proposed to walk away from the company, after giving the investors a brief tutorial on how to administer the servers themselves. And while this was happening, the acquirers used the delay as an excuse to welch on the deal.

Miraculously it all turned out ok. The investors backed down; we did another round of funding at a reasonable valuation; the giant company finally gave us a piece of paper saying they didn't own our software; and six months later we were bought by Yahoo for much more than the earlier acquirer had agreed to pay. So we were happy in the end, though the experience probably took several years off my life.

Don't do what we did. Before you consummate a startup, ask everyone about their previous IP history.

Once you've got a company set up, it may seem presumptuous to go knocking on the doors of rich people and asking them to invest tens of thousands of dollars in something that is really just a bunch of guys with some ideas. But when you look at it from the rich people's point of view, the picture is more encouraging. Most rich people are looking for good investments. If you really think you have a chance of succeeding, you're doing them a favor by letting them invest. Mixed with any annoyance they might feel about being approached will be the thought: are these guys the next Google?

Usually angels are financially equivalent to founders. They get the same kind of stock and get diluted the same amount in future rounds. How much stock should they get? That depends on how ambitious you feel. When you offer x percent of your company for y dollars, you're implicitly claiming a certain value for the whole company. Venture investments are usually described in terms of that number. If you give an investor new shares equal to 5% of those already outstanding in return for $100,000, then you've done the deal at a pre-money valuation of $2 million.

How do you decide what the value of the company should be? There is no rational way. At this stage the company is just a bet. I didn't realize that when we were raising money. Julian thought we ought to value the company at several million dollars. I thought it was preposterous to claim that a couple thousand lines of code, which was all we had at the time, were worth several million dollars. Eventually we settled on one millon, because Julian said no one would invest in a company with a valuation any lower. [6]

What I didn't grasp at the time was that the valuation wasn't just the value of the code we'd written so far. It was also the value of our ideas, which turned out to be right, and of all the future work we'd do, which turned out to be a lot.

The next round of funding is the one in which you might deal with actual venture capital firms. But don't wait till you've burned through your last round of funding to start approaching them. VCs are slow to make up their minds. They can take months. You don't want to be running out of money while you're trying to negotiate with them.

Getting money from an actual VC firm is a bigger deal than getting money from angels. The amounts of money involved are larger, millions usually. So the deals take longer, dilute you more, and impose more onerous conditions.

Sometimes the VCs want to install a new CEO of their own choosing. Usually the claim is that you need someone mature and experienced, with a business background. Maybe in some cases this is true. And yet Bill Gates was young and inexperienced and had no business background, and he seems to have done ok. Steve Jobs got booted out of his own company by someone mature and experienced, with a business background, who then proceeded to ruin the company. So I think people who are mature and experienced, with a business background, may be overrated. We used to call these guys "newscasters," because they had neat hair and spoke in deep, confident voices, and generally didn't know much more than they read on the teleprompter.

We talked to a number of VCs, but eventually we ended up financing our startup entirely with angel money. The main reason was that we feared a brand-name VC firm would stick us with a newscaster as part of the deal. That might have been ok if he was content to limit himself to talking to the press, but what if he wanted to have a say in running the company? That would have led to disaster, because our software was so complex. We were a company whose whole m.o. was to win through better technology. The strategic decisions were mostly decisions about technology, and we didn't need any help with those.

This was also one reason we didn't go public. Back in 1998 our CFO tried to talk me into it. In those days you could go public as a dogfood portal, so as a company with a real product and real revenues, we might have done well. But I feared it would have meant taking on a newscaster-- someone who, as they say, "can talk Wall Street's language."

I'm happy to see Google is bucking that trend. They didn't talk Wall Street's language when they did their IPO, and Wall Street didn't buy. And now Wall Street is collectively kicking itself. They'll pay attention next time. Wall Street learns new languages fast when money is involved.

You have more leverage negotiating with VCs than you realize. The reason is other VCs. I know a number of VCs now, and when you talk to them you realize that it's a seller's market. Even now there is too much money chasing too few good deals.

VCs form a pyramid. At the top are famous ones like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, but beneath those are a huge number you've never heard of. What they all have in common is that a dollar from them is worth one dollar. Most VCs will tell you that they don't just provide money, but connections and advice. If you're talking to Vinod Khosla or John Doerr or Mike Moritz, this is true. But such advice and connections can come very expensive. And as you go down the food chain the VCs get rapidly dumber. A few steps down from the top you're basically talking to bankers who've picked up a few new vocabulary words from reading Wired. (Does your product use XML?) So I'd advise you to be skeptical about claims of experience and connections. Basically, a VC is a source of money. I'd be inclined to go with whoever offered the most money the soonest with the least strings attached.

You may wonder how much to tell VCs. And you should, because some of them may one day be funding your competitors. I think the best plan is not to be overtly secretive, but not to tell them everything either. After all, as most VCs say, they're more interested in the people than the ideas. The main reason they want to talk about your idea is to judge you, not the idea. So as long as you seem like you know what you're doing, you can probably keep a few things back from them. [7]

Talk to as many VCs as you can, even if you don't want their money, because a) they may be on the board of someone who will buy you, and b) if you seem impressive, they'll be discouraged from investing in your competitors. The most efficient way to reach VCs, especially if you only want them to know about you and don't want their money, is at the conferences that are occasionally organized for startups to present to them.

Not Spending It

When and if you get an infusion of real money from investors, what should you do with it? Not spend it, that's what. In nearly every startup that fails, the proximate cause is running out of money. Usually there is something deeper wrong. But even a proximate cause of death is worth trying hard to avoid.

During the Bubble many startups tried to "get big fast." Ideally this meant getting a lot of customers fast. But it was easy for the meaning to slide over into hiring a lot of people fast.

Of the two versions, the one where you get a lot of customers fast is of course preferable. But even that may be overrated. The idea is to get there first and get all the users, leaving none for competitors. But I think in most businesses the advantages of being first to market are not so overwhelmingly great. Google is again a case in point. When they appeared it seemed as if search was a mature market, dominated by big players who'd spent millions to build their brands: Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Inktomi. Surely 1998 was a little late to arrive at the party.

But as the founders of Google knew, brand is worth next to nothing in the search business. You can come along at any point and make something better, and users will gradually seep over to you. As if to emphasize the point, Google never did any advertising. They're like dealers; they sell the stuff, but they know better than to use it themselves.

The competitors Google buried would have done better to spend those millions improving their software. Future startups should learn from that mistake. Unless you're in a market where products are as undifferentiated as cigarettes or vodka or laundry detergent, spending a lot on brand advertising is a sign of breakage. And few if any Web businesses are so undifferentiated. The dating sites are running big ad campaigns right now, which is all the more evidence they're ripe for the picking. (Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell a company run by marketing guys.)

We were compelled by circumstances to grow slowly, and in retrospect it was a good thing. The founders all learned to do every job in the company. As well as writing software, I had to do sales and customer support. At sales I was not very good. I was persistent, but I didn't have the smoothness of a good salesman. My message to potential customers was: you'd be stupid not to sell online, and if you sell online you'd be stupid to use anyone else's software. Both statements were true, but that's not the way to convince people.

I was great at customer support though. Imagine talking to a customer support person who not only knew everything about the product, but would apologize abjectly if there was a bug, and then fix it immediately, while you were on the phone with them. Customers loved us. And we loved them, because when you're growing slow by word of mouth, your first batch of users are the ones who were smart enough to find you by themselves. There is nothing more valuable, in the early stages of a startup, than smart users. If you listen to them, they'll tell you exactly how to make a winning product. And not only will they give you this advice for free, they'll pay you.

We officially launched in early 1996. By the end of that year we had about 70 users. Since this was the era of "get big fast," I worried about how small and obscure we were. But in fact we were doing exactly the right thing. Once you get big (in users or employees) it gets hard to change your product. That year was effectively a laboratory for improving our software. By the end of it, we were so far ahead of our competitors that they never had a hope of catching up. And since all the hackers had spent many hours talking to users, we understood online commerce way better than anyone else.

That's the key to success as a startup. There is nothing more important than understanding your business. You might think that anyone in a business must, ex officio, understand it. Far from it. Google's secret weapon was simply that they understood search. I was working for Yahoo when Google appeared, and Yahoo didn't understand search. I know because I once tried to convince the powers that be that we had to make search better, and I got in reply what was then the party line about it: that Yahoo was no longer a mere "search engine." Search was now only a small percentage of our page views, less than one month's growth, and now that we were established as a "media company," or "portal," or whatever we were, search could safely be allowed to wither and drop off, like an umbilical cord.

Well, a small fraction of page views they may be, but they are an important fraction, because they are the page views that Web sessions start with. I think Yahoo gets that now.

Google understands a few other things most Web companies still don't. The most important is that you should put users before advertisers, even though the advertisers are paying and users aren't. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads "if the people lead, the leaders will follow." Paraphrased for the Web, this becomes "get all the users, and the advertisers will follow." More generally, design your product to please users first, and then think about how to make money from it. If you don't put users first, you leave a gap for competitors who do.

To make something users love, you have to understand them. And the bigger you are, the harder that is. So I say "get big slow." The slower you burn through your funding, the more time you have to learn.

The other reason to spend money slowly is to encourage a culture of cheapness. That's something Yahoo did understand. David Filo's title was "Chief Yahoo," but he was proud that his unofficial title was "Cheap Yahoo." Soon after we arrived at Yahoo, we got an email from Filo, who had been crawling around our directory hierarchy, asking if it was really necessary to store so much of our data on expensive RAID drives. I was impressed by that. Yahoo's market cap then was already in the billions, and they were still worrying about wasting a few gigs of disk space.

When you get a couple million dollars from a VC firm, you tend to feel rich. It's important to realize you're not. A rich company is one with large revenues. This money isn't revenue. It's money investors have given you in the hope you'll be able to generate revenues. So despite those millions in the bank, you're still poor.

For most startups the model should be grad student, not law firm. Aim for cool and cheap, not expensive and impressive. For us the test of whether a startup understood this was whether they had Aeron chairs. The Aeron came out during the Bubble and was very popular with startups. Especially the type, all too common then, that was like a bunch of kids playing house with money supplied by VCs. We had office chairs so cheap that the arms all fell off. This was slightly embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect the grad-studenty atmosphere of our office was another of those things we did right without knowing it.

Our offices were in a wooden triple-decker in Harvard Square. It had been an apartment until about the 1970s, and there was still a claw-footed bathtub in the bathroom. It must once have been inhabited by someone fairly eccentric, because a lot of the chinks in the walls were stuffed with aluminum foil, as if to protect against cosmic rays. When eminent visitors came to see us, we were a bit sheepish about the low production values. But in fact that place was the perfect space for a startup. We felt like our role was to be impudent underdogs instead of corporate stuffed shirts, and that is exactly the spirit you want.

An apartment is also the right kind of place for developing software. Cube farms suck for that, as you've probably discovered if you've tried it. Ever notice how much easier it is to hack at home than at work? So why not make work more like home?

When you're looking for space for a startup, don't feel that it has to look professional. Professional means doing good work, not elevators and glass walls. I'd advise most startups to avoid corporate space at first and just rent an apartment. You want to live at the office in a startup, so why not have a place designed to be lived in as your office?

Besides being cheaper and better to work in, apartments tend to be in better locations than office buildings. And for a startup location is very important. The key to productivity is for people to come back to work after dinner. Those hours after the phone stops ringing are by far the best for getting work done. Great things happen when a group of employees go out to dinner together, talk over ideas, and then come back to their offices to implement them. So you want to be in a place where there are a lot of restaurants around, not some dreary office park that's a wasteland after 6:00 PM. Once a company shifts over into the model where everyone drives home to the suburbs for dinner, however late, you've lost something extraordinarily valuable. God help you if you actually start in that mode.

If I were going to start a startup today, there are only three places I'd consider doing it: on the Red Line near Central, Harvard, or Davis Squares (Kendall is too sterile); in Palo Alto on University or California Aves; and in Berkeley immediately north or south of campus. These are the only places I know that have the right kind of vibe.

The most important way to not spend money is by not hiring people. I may be an extremist, but I think hiring people is the worst thing a company can do. To start with, people are a recurring expense, which is the worst kind. They also tend to cause you to grow out of your space, and perhaps even move to the sort of uncool office building that will make your software worse. But worst of all, they slow you down: instead of sticking your head in someone's office and checking out an idea with them, eight people have to have a meeting about it. So the fewer people you can hire, the better.

During the Bubble a lot of startups had the opposite policy. They wanted to get "staffed up" as soon as possible, as if you couldn't get anything done unless there was someone with the corresponding job title. That's big company thinking. Don't hire people to fill the gaps in some a priori org chart. The only reason to hire someone is to do something you'd like to do but can't.

If hiring unnecessary people is expensive and slows you down, why do nearly all companies do it? I think the main reason is that people like the idea of having a lot of people working for them. This weakness often extends right up to the CEO. If you ever end up running a company, you'll find the most common question people ask is how many employees you have. This is their way of weighing you. It's not just random people who ask this; even reporters do. And they're going to be a lot more impressed if the answer is a thousand than if it's ten.

This is ridiculous, really. If two companies have the same revenues, it's the one with fewer employees that's more impressive. When people used to ask me how many people our startup had, and I answered "twenty," I could see them thinking that we didn't count for much. I used to want to add "but our main competitor, whose ass we regularly kick, has a hundred and forty, so can we have credit for the larger of the two numbers?"

As with office space, the number of your employees is a choice between seeming impressive, and being impressive. Any of you who were nerds in high school know about this choice. Keep doing it when you start a company.

Should You?

But should you start a company? Are you the right sort of person to do it? If you are, is it worth it?

More people are the right sort of person to start a startup than realize it. That's the main reason I wrote this. There could be ten times more startups than there are, and that would probably be a good thing.

I was, I now realize, exactly the right sort of person to start a startup. But the idea terrified me at first. I was forced into it because I was a Lisp hacker. The company I'd been consulting for seemed to be running into trouble, and there were not a lot of other companies using Lisp. Since I couldn't bear the thought of programming in another language (this was 1995, remember, when "another language" meant C++) the only option seemed to be to start a new company using Lisp.

I realize this sounds far-fetched, but if you're a Lisp hacker you'll know what I mean. And if the idea of starting a startup frightened me so much that I only did it out of necessity, there must be a lot of people who would be good at it but who are too intimidated to try.

So who should start a startup? Someone who is a good hacker, between about 23 and 38, and who wants to solve the money problem in one shot instead of getting paid gradually over a conventional working life.

I can't say precisely what a good hacker is. At a first rate university this might include the top half of computer science majors. Though of course you don't have to be a CS major to be a hacker; I was a philosophy major in college.

It's hard to tell whether you're a good hacker, especially when you're young. Fortunately the process of starting startups tends to select them automatically. What drives people to start startups is (or should be) looking at existing technology and thinking, don't these guys realize they should be doing x, y, and z? And that's also a sign that one is a good hacker.

I put the lower bound at 23 not because there's something that doesn't happen to your brain till then, but because you need to see what it's like in an existing business before you try running your own. The business doesn't have to be a startup. I spent a year working for a software company to pay off my college loans. It was the worst year of my adult life, but I learned, without realizing it at the time, a lot of valuable lessons about the software business. In this case they were mostly negative lessons: don't have a lot of meetings; don't have chunks of code that multiple people own; don't have a sales guy running the company; don't make a high-end product; don't let your code get too big; don't leave finding bugs to QA people; don't go too long between releases; don't isolate developers from users; don't move from Cambridge to Route 128; and so on. [8] But negative lessons are just as valuable as positive ones. Perhaps even more valuable: it's hard to repeat a brilliant performance, but it's straightforward to avoid errors. [9]

The other reason it's hard to start a company before 23 is that people won't take you seriously. VCs won't trust you, and will try to reduce you to a mascot as a condition of funding. Customers will worry you're going to flake out and leave them stranded. Even you yourself, unless you're very unusual, will feel your age to some degree; you'll find it awkward to be the boss of someone much older than you, and if you're 21, hiring only people younger rather limits your options.

Some people could probably start a company at 18 if they wanted to. Bill Gates was 19 when he and Paul Allen started Microsoft. (Paul Allen was 22, though, and that probably made a difference.) So if you're thinking, I don't care what he says, I'm going to start a company now, you may be the sort of person who could get away with it.

The other cutoff, 38, has a lot more play in it. One reason I put it there is that I don't think many people have the physical stamina much past that age. I used to work till 2:00 or 3:00 AM every night, seven days a week. I don't know if I could do that now.

Also, startups are a big risk financially. If you try something that blows up and leaves you broke at 26, big deal; a lot of 26 year olds are broke. By 38 you can't take so many risks-- especially if you have kids.

My final test may be the most restrictive. Do you actually want to start a startup? What it amounts to, economically, is compressing your working life into the smallest possible space. Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four. And maybe end up with nothing-- though in that case it probably won't take four years.

During this time you'll do little but work, because when you're not working, your competitors will be. My only leisure activities were running, which I needed to do to keep working anyway, and about fifteen minutes of reading a night. I had a girlfriend for a total of two months during that three year period. Every couple weeks I would take a few hours off to visit a used bookshop or go to a friend's house for dinner. I went to visit my family twice. Otherwise I just worked.

Working was often fun, because the people I worked with were some of my best friends. Sometimes it was even technically interesting. But only about 10% of the time. The best I can say for the other 90% is that some of it is funnier in hindsight than it seemed then. Like the time the power went off in Cambridge for about six hours, and we made the mistake of trying to start a gasoline powered generator inside our offices. I won't try that again.

I don't think the amount of bullshit you have to deal with in a startup is more than you'd endure in an ordinary working life. It's probably less, in fact; it just seems like a lot because it's compressed into a short period. So mainly what a startup buys you is time. That's the way to think about it if you're trying to decide whether to start one. If you're the sort of person who would like to solve the money problem once and for all instead of working for a salary for 40 years, then a startup makes sense.

For a lot of people the conflict is between startups and graduate school. Grad students are just the age, and just the sort of people, to start software startups. You may worry that if you do you'll blow your chances of an academic career. But it's possible to be part of a startup and stay in grad school, especially at first. Two of our three original hackers were in grad school the whole time, and both got their degrees. There are few sources of energy so powerful as a procrastinating grad student.

If you do have to leave grad school, in the worst case it won't be for too long. If a startup fails, it will probably fail quickly enough that you can return to academic life. And if it succeeds, you may find you no longer have such a burning desire to be an assistant professor.

If you want to do it, do it. Starting a startup is not the great mystery it seems from outside. It's not something you have to know about "business" to do. Build something users love, and spend less than you make. How hard is that?







Notes

[1] Google's revenues are about two billion a year, but half comes from ads on other sites.

[2] One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you're not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon. Believe it or not, under current US law, you're not even allowed to discriminate on the basis of intelligence. Whereas when you're starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.

[3] Learning to hack is a lot cheaper than business school, because you can do it mostly on your own. For the price of a Linux box, a copy of K&R, and a few hours of advice from your neighbor's fifteen year old son, you'll be well on your way.

[4] Corollary: Avoid starting a startup to sell things to the biggest company of all, the government. Yes, there are lots of opportunities to sell them technology. But let someone else start those startups.

[5] A friend who started a company in Germany told me they do care about the paperwork there, and that there's more of it. Which helps explain why there are not more startups in Germany.

[6] At the seed stage our valuation was in principle $100,000, because Julian got 10% of the company. But this is a very misleading number, because the money was the least important of the things Julian gave us.

[7] The same goes for companies that seem to want to acquire you. There will be a few that are only pretending to in order to pick your brains. But you can never tell for sure which these are, so the best approach is to seem entirely open, but to fail to mention a few critical technical secrets.

[8] I was as bad an employee as this place was a company. I apologize to anyone who had to work with me there.

[9] You could probably write a book about how to succeed in business by doing everything in exactly the opposite way from the DMV.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Sarah Harlin, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this essay, and to Steve Melendez and Gregory Price for inviting me to speak.

July 2013

One of the most common types of advice we give at Y Combinator is to do things that don't scale. A lot of would-be founders believe that startups either take off or don't. You build something, make it available, and if you've made a better mousetrap, people beat a path to your door as promised. Or they don't, in which case the market must not exist. [1]

Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going. A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.

Recruit

The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can't wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.

Stripe is one of the most successful startups we've funded, and the problem they solved was an urgent one. If anyone could have sat back and waited for users, it was Stripe. But in fact they're famous within YC for aggressive early user acquisition.

Startups building things for other startups have a big pool of potential users in the other companies we've funded, and none took better advantage of it than Stripe. At YC we use the term "Collison installation" for the technique they invented. More diffident founders ask "Will you try our beta?" and if the answer is yes, they say "Great, we'll send you a link." But the Collison brothers weren't going to wait. When anyone agreed to try Stripe they'd say "Right then, give me your laptop" and set them up on the spot.

There are two reasons founders resist going out and recruiting users individually. One is a combination of shyness and laziness. They'd rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. But for a startup to succeed, at least one founder (usually the CEO) will have to spend a lot of time on sales and marketing. [2]

The other reason founders ignore this path is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first. This can't be how the big, famous startups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate. If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you'll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year you'll have 14,000 users, and after 2 years you'll have 2 million.

You'll be doing different things when you're acquiring users a thousand at a time, and growth has to slow down eventually. But if the market exists you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods. [3]

Airbnb is a classic example of this technique. Marketplaces are so hard to get rolling that you should expect to take heroic measures at first. In Airbnb's case, these consisted of going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings. When I remember the Airbnbs during YC, I picture them with rolly bags, because when they showed up for tuesday dinners they'd always just flown back from somewhere.

Fragile

Airbnb now seems like an unstoppable juggernaut, but early on it was so fragile that about 30 days of going out and engaging in person with users made the difference between success and failure.

That initial fragility was not a unique feature of Airbnb. Almost all startups are fragile initially. And that's one of the biggest things inexperienced founders and investors (and reporters and know-it-alls on forums) get wrong about them. They unconsciously judge larval startups by the standards of established ones. They're like someone looking at a newborn baby and concluding "there's no way this tiny creature could ever accomplish anything."

It's harmless if reporters and know-it-alls dismiss your startup. They always get things wrong. It's even ok if investors dismiss your startup; they'll change their minds when they see growth. The big danger is that you'll dismiss your startup yourself. I've seen it happen. I often have to encourage founders who don't see the full potential of what they're building. Even Bill Gates made that mistake. He returned to Harvard for the fall semester after starting Microsoft. He didn't stay long, but he wouldn't have returned at all if he'd realized Microsoft was going to be even a fraction of the size it turned out to be. [4]

The question to ask about an early stage startup is not "is this company taking over the world?" but "how big could this company get if the founders did the right things?" And the right things often seem both laborious and inconsequential at the time. Microsoft can't have seemed very impressive when it was just a couple guys in Albuquerque writing Basic interpreters for a market of a few thousand hobbyists (as they were then called), but in retrospect that was the optimal path to dominating microcomputer software. And I know Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia didn't feel like they were en route to the big time as they were taking "professional" photos of their first hosts' apartments. They were just trying to survive. But in retrospect that too was the optimal path to dominating a big market.

How do you find users to recruit manually? If you build something to solve your own problems, then you only have to find your peers, which is usually straightforward. Otherwise you'll have to make a more deliberate effort to locate the most promising vein of users. The usual way to do that is to get some initial set of users by doing a comparatively untargeted launch, and then to observe which kind seem most enthusiastic, and seek out more like them. For example, Ben Silbermann noticed that a lot of the earliest Pinterest users were interested in design, so he went to a conference of design bloggers to recruit users, and that worked well. [5]

Delight

You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy. For as long as they could (which turned out to be surprisingly long), Wufoo sent each new user a hand-written thank you note. Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them.

Why do we have to teach startups this? Why is it counterintuitive for founders? Three reasons, I think.

One is that a lot of startup founders are trained as engineers, and customer service is not part of the training of engineers. You're supposed to build things that are robust and elegant, not be slavishly attentive to individual users like some kind of salesperson. Ironically, part of the reason engineering is traditionally averse to handholding is that its traditions date from a time when engineers were less powerful—when they were only in charge of their narrow domain of building things, rather than running the whole show. You can be ornery when you're Scotty, but not when you're Kirk.

Another reason founders don't focus enough on individual customers is that they worry it won't scale. But when founders of larval startups worry about this, I point out that in their current state they have nothing to lose. Maybe if they go out of their way to make existing users super happy, they'll one day have too many to do so much for. That would be a great problem to have. See if you can make it happen. And incidentally, when it does, you'll find that delighting customers scales better than you expected. Partly because you can usually find ways to make anything scale more than you would have predicted, and partly because delighting customers will by then have permeated your culture.

I have never once seen a startup lured down a blind alley by trying too hard to make their initial users happy.

But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they've never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they've been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn't send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can't. But you can. That's one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can. [6]

Once you realize that existing conventions are not the upper bound on user experience, it's interesting in a very pleasant way to think about how far you could go to delight your users.

Experience

I was trying to think of a phrase to convey how extreme your attention to users should be, and I realized Steve Jobs had already done it: insanely great. Steve wasn't just using "insanely" as a synonym for "very." He meant it more literally—that one should focus on quality of execution to a degree that in everyday life would be considered pathological.

All the most successful startups we've funded have, and that probably doesn't surprise would-be founders. What novice founders don't get is what insanely great translates to in a larval startup. When Steve Jobs started using that phrase, Apple was already an established company. He meant the Mac (and its documentation and even packaging—such is the nature of obsession) should be insanely well designed and manufactured. That's not hard for engineers to grasp. It's just a more extreme version of designing a robust and elegant product.

What founders have a hard time grasping (and Steve himself might have had a hard time grasping) is what insanely great morphs into as you roll the time slider back to the first couple months of a startup's life. It's not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user. The product is just one component of that. For a big company it's necessarily the dominant one. But you can and should give users an insanely great experience with an early, incomplete, buggy product, if you make up the difference with attentiveness.

Can, perhaps, but should? Yes. Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it's a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good. Making a better mousetrap is not an atomic operation. Even if you start the way most successful startups have, by building something you yourself need, the first thing you build is never quite right. And except in domains with big penalties for making mistakes, it's often better not to aim for perfection initially. In software, especially, it usually works best to get something in front of users as soon as it has a quantum of utility, and then see what they do with it. Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination, and in any case your initial model of users is always inaccurate, even if you're one of them. [7]

The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get. When you're so big you have to resort to focus groups, you'll wish you could go over to your users' homes and offices and watch them use your stuff like you did when there were only a handful of them.

Fire

Sometimes the right unscalable trick is to focus on a deliberately narrow market. It's like keeping a fire contained at first to get it really hot before adding more logs.

That's what Facebook did. At first it was just for Harvard students. In that form it only had a potential market of a few thousand people, but because they felt it was really for them, a critical mass of them signed up. After Facebook stopped being for Harvard students, it remained for students at specific colleges for quite a while. When I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg at Startup School, he said that while it was a lot of work creating course lists for each school, doing that made students feel the site was their natural home.

Any startup that could be described as a marketplace usually has to start in a subset of the market, but this can work for other startups as well. It's always worth asking if there's a subset of the market in which you can get a critical mass of users quickly. [8]

Most startups that use the contained fire strategy do it unconsciously. They build something for themselves and their friends, who happen to be the early adopters, and only realize later that they could offer it to a broader market. The strategy works just as well if you do it unconsciously. The biggest danger of not being consciously aware of this pattern is for those who naively discard part of it. E.g. if you don't build something for yourself and your friends, or even if you do, but you come from the corporate world and your friends are not early adopters, you'll no longer have a perfect initial market handed to you on a platter.

Among companies, the best early adopters are usually other startups. They're more open to new things both by nature and because, having just been started, they haven't made all their choices yet. Plus when they succeed they grow fast, and you with them. It was one of many unforeseen advantages of the YC model (and specifically of making YC big) that B2B startups now have an instant market of hundreds of other startups ready at hand.

Meraki

For hardware startups there's a variant of doing things that don't scale that we call "pulling a Meraki." Although we didn't fund Meraki, the founders were Robert Morris's grad students, so we know their history. They got started by doing something that really doesn't scale: assembling their routers themselves.

Hardware startups face an obstacle that software startups don't. The minimum order for a factory production run is usually several hundred thousand dollars. Which can put you in a catch-22: without a product you can't generate the growth you need to raise the money to manufacture your product. Back when hardware startups had to rely on investors for money, you had to be pretty convincing to overcome this. The arrival of crowdfunding (or more precisely, preorders) has helped a lot. But even so I'd advise startups to pull a Meraki initially if they can. That's what Pebble did. The Pebbles assembled the first several hundred watches themselves. If they hadn't gone through that phase, they probably wouldn't have sold $10 million worth of watches when they did go on Kickstarter.

Like paying excessive attention to early customers, fabricating things yourself turns out to be valuable for hardware startups. You can tweak the design faster when you're the factory, and you learn things you'd never have known otherwise. Eric Migicovsky of Pebble said one of things he learned was "how valuable it was to source good screws." Who knew?

Consult

Sometimes we advise founders of B2B startups to take over-engagement to an extreme, and to pick a single user and act as if they were consultants building something just for that one user. The initial user serves as the form for your mold; keep tweaking till you fit their needs perfectly, and you'll usually find you've made something other users want too. Even if there aren't many of them, there are probably adjacent territories that have more. As long as you can find just one user who really needs something and can act on that need, you've got a toehold in making something people want, and that's as much as any startup needs initially. [9]

Consulting is the canonical example of work that doesn't scale. But (like other ways of bestowing one's favors liberally) it's safe to do it so long as you're not being paid to. That's where companies cross the line. So long as you're a product company that's merely being extra attentive to a customer, they're very grateful even if you don't solve all their problems. But when they start paying you specifically for that attentiveness—when they start paying you by the hour—they expect you to do everything.

Another consulting-like technique for recruiting initially lukewarm users is to use your software yourselves on their behalf. We did that at Viaweb. When we approached merchants asking if they wanted to use our software to make online stores, some said no, but they'd let us make one for them. Since we would do anything to get users, we did. We felt pretty lame at the time. Instead of organizing big strategic e-commerce partnerships, we were trying to sell luggage and pens and men's shirts. But in retrospect it was exactly the right thing to do, because it taught us how it would feel to merchants to use our software. Sometimes the feedback loop was near instantaneous: in the middle of building some merchant's site I'd find I needed a feature we didn't have, so I'd spend a couple hours implementing it and then resume building the site.

Manual

There's a more extreme variant where you don't just use your software, but are your software. When you only have a small number of users, you can sometimes get away with doing by hand things that you plan to automate later. This lets you launch faster, and when you do finally automate yourself out of the loop, you'll know exactly what to build because you'll have muscle memory from doing it yourself.

When manual components look to the user like software, this technique starts to have aspects of a practical joke. For example, the way Stripe delivered "instant" merchant accounts to its first users was that the founders manually signed them up for traditional merchant accounts behind the scenes.

Some startups could be entirely manual at first. If you can find someone with a problem that needs solving and you can solve it manually, go ahead and do that for as long as you can, and then gradually automate the bottlenecks. It would be a little frightening to be solving users' problems in a way that wasn't yet automatic, but less frightening than the far more common case of having something automatic that doesn't yet solve anyone's problems.

Big

I should mention one sort of initial tactic that usually doesn't work: the Big Launch. I occasionally meet founders who seem to believe startups are projectiles rather than powered aircraft, and that they'll make it big if and only if they're launched with sufficient initial velocity. They want to launch simultaneously in 8 different publications, with embargoes. And on a tuesday, of course, since they read somewhere that's the optimum day to launch something.

It's easy to see how little launches matter. Think of some successful startups. How many of their launches do you remember? All you need from a launch is some initial core of users. How well you're doing a few months later will depend more on how happy you made those users than how many there were of them. [10]

So why do founders think launches matter? A combination of solipsism and laziness. They think what they're building is so great that everyone who hears about it will immediately sign up. Plus it would be so much less work if you could get users merely by broadcasting your existence, rather than recruiting them one at a time. But even if what you're building really is great, getting users will always be a gradual process—partly because great things are usually also novel, but mainly because users have other things to think about.

Partnerships too usually don't work. They don't work for startups in general, but they especially don't work as a way to get growth started. It's a common mistake among inexperienced founders to believe that a partnership with a big company will be their big break. Six months later they're all saying the same thing: that was way more work than we expected, and we ended up getting practically nothing out of it. [11]

It's not enough just to do something extraordinary initially. You have to make an extraordinary effort initially. Any strategy that omits the effort—whether it's expecting a big launch to get you users, or a big partner—is ipso facto suspect.

Vector

The need to do something unscalably laborious to get started is so nearly universal that it might be a good idea to stop thinking of startup ideas as scalars. Instead we should try thinking of them as pairs of what you're going to build, plus the unscalable thing(s) you're going to do initially to get the company going.

It could be interesting to start viewing startup ideas this way, because now that there are two components you can try to be imaginative about the second as well as the first. But in most cases the second component will be what it usually is—recruit users manually and give them an overwhelmingly good experience—and the main benefit of treating startups as vectors will be to remind founders they need to work hard in two dimensions. [12]

In the best case, both components of the vector contribute to your company's DNA: the unscalable things you have to do to get started are not merely a necessary evil, but change the company permanently for the better. If you have to be aggressive about user acquisition when you're small, you'll probably still be aggressive when you're big. If you have to manufacture your own hardware, or use your software on users's behalf, you'll learn things you couldn't have learned otherwise. And most importantly, if you have to work hard to delight users when you only have a handful of them, you'll keep doing it when you have a lot.







Notes

[1] Actually Emerson never mentioned mousetraps specifically. He wrote "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

[2] Thanks to Sam Altman for suggesting I make this explicit. And no, you can't avoid doing sales by hiring someone to do it for you. You have to do sales yourself initially. Later you can hire a real salesperson to replace you.

[3] The reason this works is that as you get bigger, your size helps you grow. Patrick Collison wrote "At some point, there was a very noticeable change in how Stripe felt. It tipped from being this boulder we had to push to being a train car that in fact had its own momentum."

[4] One of the more subtle ways in which YC can help founders is by calibrating their ambitions, because we know exactly how a lot of successful startups looked when they were just getting started.

[5] If you're building something for which you can't easily get a small set of users to observe—e.g. enterprise software—and in a domain where you have no connections, you'll have to rely on cold calls and introductions. But should you even be working on such an idea?

[6] Garry Tan pointed out an interesting trap founders fall into in the beginning. They want so much to seem big that they imitate even the flaws of big companies, like indifference to individual users. This seems to them more "professional." Actually it's better to embrace the fact that you're small and use whatever advantages that brings.

[7] Your user model almost couldn't be perfectly accurate, because users' needs often change in response to what you build for them. Build them a microcomputer, and suddenly they need to run spreadsheets on it, because the arrival of your new microcomputer causes someone to invent the spreadsheet.

[8] If you have to choose between the subset that will sign up quickest and those that will pay the most, it's usually best to pick the former, because those are probably the early adopters. They'll have a better influence on your product, and they won't make you expend as much effort on sales. And though they have less money, you don't need that much to maintain your target growth rate early on.

[9] Yes, I can imagine cases where you could end up making something that was really only useful for one user. But those are usually obvious, even to inexperienced founders. So if it's not obvious you'd be making something for a market of one, don't worry about that danger.

[10] There may even be an inverse correlation between launch magnitude and success. The only launches I remember are famous flops like the Segway and Google Wave. Wave is a particularly alarming example, because I think it was actually a great idea that was killed partly by its overdone launch.

[11] Google grew big on the back of Yahoo, but that wasn't a partnership. Yahoo was their customer.

[12] It will also remind founders that an idea where the second component is empty—an idea where there is nothing you can do to get going, e.g. because you have no way to find users to recruit manually—is probably a bad idea, at least for those founders.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Paul Buchheit, Patrick Collison, Kevin Hale, Steven Levy, Jessica Livingston, Geoff Ralston, and Garry Tan for reading drafts of this.

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