Got your own online startup? Perhaps you’re building Zillow with millions in venture funding, or maybe it’s just you and your passion for furniture porn and other guilty pleasures. Either way, you’ll find something useful from the following list, which came straight from the mouth of a veteran online entrepreneur who’s been there, done (and still doing) that, and has the scars and successes to show for it.
These tips are from a recent NWEN breakfast talk by Ben Elowitz. Ben’s currently the founder & CEO of Wetpaint, a wiki company based here in Seattle, and was responsible for much of the success of Blue Nile and Fatbrain (I used to love that site). If you can’t learn something from what he’s got to share, you’re probably in the wrong business.
Here’s the list, adapted from memory:
- What gets you hot and bothered? Consumer or enterprise? Products or services? Profit-driven or world-changing? Everyone’s got their own preferences – just know what gets you going before jumping into a new idea, or you may run out of passion before you get to the finish line.
- Find a good sherpa. You wouldn’t climb Everest without finding the best sherpa possible, why start a business without doing the same? Pick someone who’s got a ton of experience, loves mentoring new entrepreneurs, and has the connections to help you move your business forward. This person doesn’t have to actually be an entrepreneur.
- Think leverage. Selling and shipping heavy books (Fatbrain) for tens of dollars per order was tough, and took lots of people. Selling and shipping tiny diamonds (Blue Nile) for thousands per order, with a smaller team? Brilliant. Think about how to build your business to apply maximum leverage with your limited resources (money, people, time). This is something Justin and I think about all the time with Menuism.
- Relationships and references matter. There are countless options for service providers for your business. When picking someone you may have to lean on, remember your relationships, and get lots of references. You don’t want your support network to fail you at the worst possible time.
- Bigger isn’t better. Big teams are great for powering through the initial “build it fast” phase, but then what are they gonna do (besides burn through your cash)? Stay lean and mean, and hire only when it’s painful not to.
- Be deliberate. Like it or not, your company will take on your personality, so think carefully about what image you want to project. Cost-conscious? Workaholic? Alcoholic? Your pick – just be ready for the consequences.
- Nothing’s bold when everything’s bold. You’re not trying to be everything to everyone, so figure out your differentiator. It doesn’t have to be some crazy new technology – just pick the one thing that you’re gonna do better than anyone else in your market.
Thoughts? Got your own list of tips/advice? Let us know in the comments.
Just a quick snapshot that neatly captures what our working sessions are all about: alcohol, caffeine, and curiosity. And lots of trash, in all senses of the word.
It’s Friday at 5 am and we just wrapped up our second in-person working session, just in time to catch Justin’s ridiculously early flight. Like the first one in Chicago, this session lasted for two weeks, which is about the maximum amount of time you want to spend heads-down, 24/7 on a project to maximize productivity without causing lasting physical damage.
While we didn’t have the crazy excitement of breaking ground on a new project, we were still energized and motivated and got a lot of stuff done, including:
- code-completion of our first-pass functionality
- tracing the core use scenarios and one-offs to create a set of core test cases and plans for more
- continued iterations with Julie on the logos and site design
- investigation of our production needs
- planning our large-block work items for the coming months
All in all, a very productive two weeks. It’s nice to see the project start to come together, and it’ll be much easier to accomplish work items separately as we were able to eliminate a lot of the ambiguities that can make early-stage project work tough. Now for the highlight reel:
- getting a PO box
- admiring our official business Operating Agreement – what a beautifully printed stock Word document
- the first purchase with our spiffy new corporate card
- multiple costco runs for cheap polish sausages and massive quantities of light beer
- the Diet Pepsi+Diet Mountain Dew+chicken+spinach debacle
- blowing our food budget by being too happy at happy hour
- one really, really clogged toilet
We’ve got a full list of things to do before I head to Chicago in mid-April, including good-to-write-about stuff like trademarking, business foreign entity registration, and site deployment processes. Stay tuned for more to come! For those who are really curious, mark your summer calendars for our projected Beta release. Exactly when in the summer depends on how many happy hours we can avoid.
We’re now doing the second round of 2-week working sessions in beautiful Kirkland, WA – much warmer than Chicago! We’re still coding away…staying motivated by high energy music from artists like Scooter and other Euro dance tracks.
Random comment: According to John, when you flush a toilet, the splash generated by the flushing action can reach a few feet! Keep those toilets covered while flushing! Back to work…
Like my partner, my first job out of college was with a large corporation. When I started job hunting I had absolutely no thoughts of leaving the Bay Area, where I had spent my entire life and built up a large group of wonderful friends. My tentative plans were to join a local startup in the hopes of striking silicon gold, or at least getting cushy job offers like my elder peers got. These hopes were attributable in part to having interning for Scient Corp. at the height of its lavish, money-burning glory.
Then Microsoft called. Honestly, I took the interview almost solely for the free trip to Seattle; I had no intention of leaving home, especially to work for a company as “evil” as Microsoft. With little sleep but lots of coffee I got through the interviews and got an offer to boot. Deciding to leave home to move to Seattle was not easy, but given the tech economy at the time it offered me two solid things: (1) a job and (2) an opportunity to see how software was developed in the real world.
During my time at MS I worked as both a Developer and a Program Manager (responsible for feature design, plus all the miscellaneous crud not Dev and Test related) in the Mobile Devices division, working on successive releases of the Windows Mobile platform. Microsoft is interesting in that every group has it’s own unique culture and personality; landing in the wrong group would make life hell. Luckily the mobile group was a good group for me, though it had its share of ups and downs and growing pains.
While working with neat gadgets and learning solid development practices was great, the thing that impressed me the most about Microsoft was its employees. Yes, many people there are damn smart; enough’s been said about that already. What was really cool was how everyone was so capable; there’s a small but significant difference between the two. Being able to trust that the people you’re working with will do what they say, in the right way, gives you the confidence (and lots of motivation) to bring your own game up a notch. Plus people were generally nice and down-to-earth; Microsoft might have a reputation for corporate sin but the individuals there are very genuine.
So if I liked the group and I liked the people I worked with, why did I leave? My decision was based almost 100% on the opportunity that presented itself; having a good idea, enough in the piggy bank to support the effort, and a willing partner and friend to chase it with was something too good to pass up.