Launching My First Incubated Startup Today
Here’s what I’ve quietly been up to for the second half of 2010: Slipstream. It’s my first incubated startup and I’m proud to announce that it’s launching today.
In July 2010, I was the first one accepted into LaunchBox10, LaunchBox Digital‘s 3rd accelerator program. 130 startups applied. 7 were accepted. They said they’d never take a single founder. They made an exception for Slipstream.
This was a huge leap forward for me and my company. It meant moving across the country, from Berkeley, CA to Durham, NC for 3 months. It meant getting my first round of (seed) funding. It meant figuring out my first term sheet. It meant a ton of work packed into a very short period, all done by one person: me.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- I LOVE the Problem I’m Solving
From day one, I had to tell a story. That story couldn’t just end with my progress so far, what I expect to achieve at LaunchBox or after, or something that trends up and to the right. Why should anyone but me care? I spent a lot of time thinking about where my startup fits into the world. This took me through the history of communication, from cave men grunts to social media and beyond. When I was done creating my own reality distortion field, my story convinced some of the best advisors in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park (RTP) to back me. That vision kept me going regardless of how wonderful or awful any given day was.
- It Doesn’t Matter How Much I Work if Stress is Low
If I make it through the first month without burning out, I’ll be fine. That’s what I told myself. I tried to work hard and keep myself accountable, while not worrying much about things beyond my control. LinkedIn launched a neat product called Signal. Twitter itself promised to help information overload. News like that stirred me up when it first hit. But ultimately, I stayed focused on what I could control: my vision, my product, and how much feedback I could gather. That’s a lot fewer things than all those I can’t control. I don’t recall taking a single day off in October but I never burned out because I stayed focused on what I could actually change.
- Many, Many Things Don’t Matter in the Beginning
If you don’t ruthlessly prioritize when starting a startup, you’ll spend a lot of time working without making any real progress. This is incredibly hard to do without experience or people who have more experience than you. My advisors made a world of difference here.
There are a ton of things your company could and should have, but how many are necessary today so you could understand if you have a business? This can range from having business cards, a company blog, exhaustive unit tests, and efficient code to buying domains, having a company name, being incorporated, or even having working code. What’s so important to blog about before finishing a prototype? What’s so essential to test or optimize before you validate that people want those features? Why commit to a company name, incorporation documents, or a single line of code before finding just one person who has your problem?
What’s the simplest possible thing you can do today to learn what you need for tomorrow? How little do you really need to learn about the problem you’re solving, the solution you’re building, and the people you’re helping?
- Missing One of the Essentials Can Be Devastating
I built two Twitter clients before asking anybody if they wanted another Twitter client. I asked many related questions later, most notably: “what would it take for you to switch to my Twitter client?” People gave me long lists of features, the most common of which I began adding to what I built. I did plenty of research and got plenty of answers, as one of my advisors would say. But I didn’t listen on a deeper level or notice the pattern. Maybe replicating every last feature of every other Twitter client and then sprinkling in my own wasn’t the best solution. This chart clarified things for me:
A new Twitter client would mean trying to climb this mountain. Instead, I decided to build on top of it by working on top of Twitter.com. That took several months and discarding code that should have never been written if I just asked “what would it take to switch?” up front. I didn’t learn enough before I started building too much.
- Weekly Goals Really Move Me Forward
I met with my advisors on a weekly basis. The goals we set for each week weren’t always met but regularly presenting progress to others really pushed me to get more done. Daily goals would have been too painstaking to set. Monthly goals would have created a lot more room to slack off or work on things that didn’t matter right now.
- Doing a Startup Alone Makes Me Lazier in the Rest of Life
Now, I’m less likely to cook, buy groceries, do chores, call friends, or even write blog posts like this one (that’s why it’s been nearly six months since my last post). A lot of this has to do with being a single founder. If I take a day off, my company takes a day off. After weeks of waking up with that feeling, it’s harder to make time for anything else. I temporarily optimized my time for my startup: more fast food, living that creates less chores to do, not staying in touch unless people reach out to me, and less writing.
- You’re Not Alone, Even as a Single Founder
Delegate anything that doesn’t have to be done by you and only you. Get an intern. Ask for help. Your girlfriend is nice enough to make banner ads for you. Your closest friends will tweet on your behalf. There are plenty of supportive people in your life. It’s foolish to not leverage any of them and try to do everything yourself.
- Conflicting Advice is Wonderful
From day one, I heard lots of conflicting advice. LaunchBox told us this would happen but the sheer amount and frequency of it was still surprising. Everyone seems to have succeeded and failed in their own ways. But instead of trying to go in a thousand directions or let things cancel each other out, just listen and be glad that you have so much diverse input to choose from. There’s no way you would have been able to come up with it all yourself.
- No Incubator is Alike
I’ve heard from friends who’ve gone through Y Combinator and got to spend some time with David Cohen and Brad Feld from TechStars when they came by to help us in November. From the amount of hands-on time, to what’s prioritized, to the quantity and quality of advisors, you wouldn’t believe how different all these programs are. I’m starting to think they have more differences than things in common.