3 Startup Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Over the past decade, I’ve spent most of my professional life building startup businesses. In thinking about what I’ve learned, I realized that the most valuable lessons can be boiled down to three simple lessons:

  1. The middle sucks.
  2. Your idea doesn’t matter.
  3. There is no secret to startup success.

The middle sucks

Most startups die before launching because they get caught in the “valley of death.” The startup “valley of death” lies in between startup success and startup failure and it’s the worst place to get stuck.

Startups get stuck here because they usually fail to raise money and exhaust their finances by spending time on useless business plans and demos.

Business plans are always wrong so stop obsessing about them! And, unless you can pitch a demo as well as Steve Jobs, you are not going to persuade anyone to invest in your startup using one.

You can only raise money by pitching the “Dream” or by selling “Traction(post on this coming soon). So either bootstrap your startup or raise money in the early “dream” (no code, no plan, just a dream) phase or in the “traction” (the model is working) phase of your business.

Your idea doesn’t matter.

Like almost all startup founders I spend way too much time obsessing about my ideas.

Guess what? Nobody cares about my idea, and they don’t care about your idea, either. Nobody.

People are selfishly motivated first and foremost — they want to know how you are going to help them, not what you think would be cool to build. I never fully understood this until I read The Del.icio.us Lesson by my Performable co-founder, Joshua Porter. Focus all your energy on solving a critical problem. Forget your idea.

Read 3 Warning Signs that Your Product Sucks for clues on whether the problem you’re solving is critical or not.

There is no secret to startup success.

This is where I see most startup wannabes spend all their time. They are so paralyzed by the fear of failing that they spend every waking moment reading Techcrunch (don’t do it, please) and other blogs, reading countless books and attending startup events all in the quest to learn some “secret” they think is going to help them succeed.

Believe me failing sucks really bad but there are no repeatable patterns that lead to startup success. None. Stop looking for one and just f***ing do it (#JFDI).

Starting is the easy part, building a valuable business that people actually care about is really, really hard and humbling. Focus on creating a product that people truly care about and on distributing and monetizing that product.

Note: These lessons originally appeared in my Creating a Data Driven Startup presentation from September 2010.