Starting up is hard to do

The Posse team during its morning stand-up meeting. Credit Posse.

Twelve months ago, we introduced Posse, a “social search engine” that helps users get recommendations for products, places and services from their friends. I prepared for this by attending every start-up conference I could, by reading books and learning concepts. But nothing prepared me for the challenges I have faced in the past year. Everything about starting this company has been hard: raising the first money; hiring, then unhiring several people and services; building the first product; figuring out that our planned strategy wouldn’t work; running out of money; raising money again. Now, it finally feels as if we have the right model and the right team, and we are not about to run out of cash — not quite, anyway. But there is no letup. I have yet to discover a point at which life becomes easier.

Conference speakers often discuss start-ups as if they were projects created in a university lab. The basic concept of “The Lean Startup,” for example, is that teams design, build and introduce a minimally viable product, one that tests customer interaction. Next come design improvements and a second version, then another test and more design improvements, and so on. This makes a lot of sense but can be difficult and frustrating. The team members want to be proud of the product they release, so they invest too much effort in designing for perfection. But it is impossible to predict how many times we may have to rebuild something, and no one likes developing the same code over and over. Everyone becomes disheartened when improvements don’t work.

My job as a founder has been to manage the storm as best I can, guiding my ship toward shore without running out of oxygen, hitting the rocks or being overwhelmed by a wave. Along the way, there is a constant battle between producing quality work and rushing to test. We know that time is a luxury few start-ups can enjoy. The team could run out of energy, the cash pool could dry up, investors could lose enthusiasm, a bigger fish could swim along and gobble the market. While balancing these issues over the past 12 months has been tough, we have continued to develop our product. We now have more than 40,000 merchants on the platform, with a weekly engagement that is improving all of the time. Posse hasn’t taken off, but we believe it is on the runway.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

1. Work Fast

We have an excellent team of engineers who like to test everything thoroughly — as they should. Yet, in our case, it’s more critical to introduce new features so we can learn and evolve than it is to produce perfect code with no bugs. Although we have no idea how long it will take to get the product right, we have a limited amount of money and time. Speed is imperative.

2. Focus on Things That Move the Needle

Everyone wants to fix the things that annoy them most, but those things may not have the biggest impact on users. With time and resources limited, it’s vital that every team member focus on the things that make the biggest impact. Right now, we have three engineers building the Android app because at present we are iOS only, which limits our growth. Two more engineers are working to open the iOS app so users do not need to log in to use it. This is essential: We know that only one in three people who download our app creates an account.

Five more engineers continue to develop the user-facing website and to upgrade our merchant dashboard so we can start charging stores, which is important so we can stay in business. Right now, I’m working on our next round of fund-raising to ensure we survive. I’m confident everyone is working to capacity and attending to the right things. But it’s a constant struggle because we are always aware of the many things we have not yet gotten to.

3. Look for Breakout Opportunities

The road map of features we would like to add would take our current team more than a year to complete. It’s easy to become bogged down trying to accomplish everything, but I’ve learned that it is essential to keep searching for new ideas. Every three months I take the team away to a beach house, and we try to look at Posse with a fresh perspective. We analyze what has created the breakout success of other products, like Airbnb or Candy Crush. They are very different products from Posse, but the makers of most of these products spend years trying different things until one change sparks rapid growth. We think through our users’ objectives and look for breakout ideas that could catapult Posse into the stratosphere. Each session results in fresh ideas and a rewrite of our road map.

4. Test and Measure Everything

Start-up founders know they should run regular user tests and can obsess about the analytics of their products. Yet, with so many issues to think about, testing can become something that slips. I’ve spoken to other founders, and many admit privately to doing far less measuring than they should.

Building a product without good analytics is like staggering around in the dark. We have made several time-wasting mistakes by building features that early testing would have revealed were never going to work. Now, I try to complete a user test every week, and we have hired a university student for two days each week to attend to the collection and analysis of data from our products. Having someone focused on this means that it will not be bumped in favor of work on more features.

5. Meditate

I find it easy to run on adrenaline, and I enjoy it. When we first introduced our product at the South By Southwest festival last March I was traveling and working, day and night, and I continued that regimen when I came home. During this period I achieved a lot, but after a while I noticed that I was not on my game. Ideas were not flowing the way they normally did. I became frustrated easily, impatient when things did not work the way I had hoped. Not sleeping properly, I was permanently tired.

I learned to meditate several years ago and started practicing again twice a day. I went back to yoga, and at first, all of the problems of our site streamed through my head like a freight train. Remarkably, I required only a few days to return to normal. Everyone has their own methods of relieving stress. Yoga and meditation are mine — but they are always the first things to go when I’m under pressure.

Introducing a tech product like Posse is hard going. When you use an app that works, like Airbnb, it is tempting to imagine that the product came together seamlessly. But when you read the back story, you generally find out that the start-up endured years of sweat and uncertainty before it took off. Right now, we’re in that phase, with a finite amount of time and energy to get it right. It’s scary.

 

CATEGORY: Growth, New York Times, Strategy

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