“Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn” and 3 other startup tips

I love startups. I enjoy seeing hot new businesses burst onto the scene with a surge in popularity, though I prefer the slow and steady businesses which are making money from day one and quietly creeping up on the incumbents.

My love of the startup scene has even led me to develop a startup simulation game for iPhone. There’s no shortage of advice out there for running a startup but here’s my own two cents on the matter.

Rule #0: Don’t let your idea get carried away with itself
This is ‘rule zero’ as it comes before you’ve quit your job or spent a penny on your idea. Us startup types are easily excited and we can oftentimes blow things out of proportion – especially the possibilities for our businesses.

The majority of the failed startups that I’ve witnessed start with a simple and neat idea. Problem X isn’t being solved and Group Y would be willing to pay for it.

The trouble is: oftentimes Problem X isn’t big enough to generate enough revenue for a full time business. So instead of heading back to the drawing board, we come up with two or three phantom problems that also need to be solved and guess what? The revenue generated by solving those would be HUGE!

Except it won’t.

Because they’re not real problems.

I was guilty of this myself in my first startup: a music listing and fan engagement website for Irish music acts. At the time there was no real place to find the upcoming Irish gigs in one place online – that was the core of my idea. But a gig listing site isn’t the most interesting thing in the world so I had to build in features with which bands and venues could engage with their fans, as well as social networking features and a place that offers opinion pieces.

The gigs list got a bit of traction but, naturally enough, the rest didn’t.

From tiny acorns great oaks grow, but sometimes an acorn is just an acorn.

Rule #1: Get off Hacker News
Yup, this is gonna be a toughie but its important. Hacker News is such a huge time vacuum because:

1. It has a lot of interesting and, seemingly, relevant articles that are all about startups
2. It’s presented in a way that’s easily digested. It’s just a 20 item list but each one of those items is a trap door that could lead to an hours time wasted.

Allow yourself to check it once a day, twice at the max.

This goes for all startup related news sites too, just so it’s clear that I’m not trying to pick on HN.

Aside from time wasted as a result of distraction, I believe that sites like HN can have a detrimental affect on your psychology if you’re in a startup. Every post about how Startup X is killing it will make you question ‘Why isn’t mine?’. You should only ask yourself this question if you follow it up immediately with ‘What am I going to do about it?’.

Rule #2: Attack marketing and sales from Day One
I come from development background; I’m a real Product Guy. I used to believe that if a product is good enough then it will eventually succeed. Read this carefully:

If you don’t have an efficient marketing and sales strategy in place, your product will fail. Period.

Just like Rob Walling says in his (excellent) book Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup :

“…a brilliant product with no market or execution is dead. A mediocre product with brilliant marketing and execution will make you money”

You don’t wait until a month before launch to do marketing. You don’t “figure out” sales as you go along. You do both from day one – have a pre-marketing site (just like my forthcoming app) and you pitch a few customers before you spend a dime on development. Be clear: ask them would they would be willing to pay how much you plan on charging for your future product? Would they be willing to pay anything at all?

A side note on this feedback gathering/early sales process: don’t talk to your friends or family. Just don’t. They love you and want to see you do well but they give the worst feedback in the world and you can hardly blame them.

Ask for their feedback but discount it – in your mind, not to their face! However, ask them if they could put you in touch with someone who you don’t know who you believe fits in your niche. Take this person out for coffee and pitch them. They don’t know you so they have nothing to lose about being up front and honest – and that’s the only feedback you can trust.

When it comes to sales, some entrepreneurs think its a good idea to give away the first few copies of their product away, and it may well be. But I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical that you won’t know when to start charging – where do you draw the line on these free copies that are going to generate a “great word of mouth buzz”?

This holds even truer if you’re coming from a technical background like me where salesmanship was never important. But wait! We’ve got a great new invention called the App Store! This allows us developer types to get experience with basic marketing, sales and pricing without ever having to talk to anyone! Hooray for introverts!

I launched my very first mobile app about two years ago. It was a really simple app that polled Twitter to rank contestants popularity in a TV talent show. A very straight forward app to develop but the lessons I learnt from a business perspective were invaluable:

  • Branding is huge: I originally ripped off the show’s official logo and sold big numbers but I quickly got a cease and desist threatening legal action if I didn’t remove the offending items. Sales dropped, big time.
  • Marketing is hard: The show in question is HUGE in Ireland and the UK. I thought media outlets would be happy to talk about my app to fill column inches. Not so. I got in touch with about thirty different print and digital publications and only one featured my app.
  • Teens will follow you back: A huge number of my sales came from Twitter. I simply looked up who followed the show on Twitter and added them. I followed various different demographics but teens definitely seem to love following back whoever follows them. I got about 2000 followers that way which led to decent sales.
  • Trying different price points is important: if you could get an extra 25% margin on your product then why not try? I actually doubled the price of my app after a week and saw an increase in sales.

Rule #3: Exercise and eat healthy
I have noticed one thing about myself in the past two years since I got my health and fitness together: all motivation begins with exercise.

Whether it’s forcing myself to start a new project or taking piano lessons, I’m always motivated after I go for a run or hit the gym.

Running a startup is a tiring business – the peaks and troughs will wear you down. You quite simply need to exercise regularly in order to think straight. Don’t be afraid to put ‘exercise’ in as a required task in your daily plan in between ‘update pitch deck’ and ‘spec out feature X’.


Lke I said, there is no shortage of advice out there for building and launching your startup but I feel the points above are either not mentioned or not covered enough (especially sales and marketing).

Hipster CEO, my new iOS game, allows players to run a company how they like but, just like real life, their business won’t last long if they don’t have a solid bottom line.

If you’re thinking about launching a startup soon then I’d love to hear about it, you can find me on Twitter.

Posted by getchoo in Apps, Software, Startups | Tagged , , , , ,