The first rule of startups: don’t say “startup”

Feb 24 2014

“Ignore this book at your own peril.” –Seth Godin

That’s spelled out on the front cover of “Rework,” a book written by two robust, march-to-the-beat-of-their-own-drum individuals who say they know what’s up in the growing business self-help industry.

Authors Jason Fried and David Hansson founded 37signals, a privately held web application/design company. They decided to keep their methods simple, clear and most importantly: honest. And they set out to write their own – slightly nuanced – business philosophies.

So, how to succeed in business without really emulating what other business giants are trying?

Here are some tips that stood out to me as I continue to peruse the pages.

First off – nix the word “startup.”

The word “startup” creates inspiration, but as the book says, inspiration is perishable. A lot of times, businesses will use that quick adrenaline rush to build the final product without considering how it will sustain itself.

The question of viability is something we tackle at the Reese News Lab. How will our product reap revenue? The product that my team is working on, a database that serves as a watchdog for judges in North Carolina, will most likely be financed through periodic subscriptions. We’re even considering the possibility of another legal research database buying our product.

Market the why more than the what.
Have a vision. Stick with it. Let it grow into a movement. Nurture it. Sell it. For my team, that means not just building a database that profiles judges based on experience, education, biases and how often their decisions are reversed. We want to create a window into the court system, to promote transparency and accountability. We want to put judges in the hot seat. That’s what we’re really trying to do. There’s a reason that not many people ponder about what goes in the courtrooms – and we’re trying to fix that.

Less is more.
OK Sherlock. You can cringe at this one. But really – ignore the details early on. We don’t have fixate on each flaw and predict what could go wrong. Let’s leave that out for now. The feasibility component of our product is important but surprisingly easy to deal with.

Also, we can do a lot more with just a few people. As a team of four, we’ve managed to develop personas to represent our target audience, write up a memo for a venture capitalist, execute our first pitch, research upon research upon research, and we’re in the process of forming a business model spreadsheet as well as sending out surveys to potential users. We’re doing a lot by just getting together face-to-face for five hours a week. We don’t have to be workaholics. In fact, we enjoy enjoying things, like and Beyoncé music videos.

Embrace constraints.
Why, this is exactly how our semester started. Constraints, ironically, help creativity to start oozing. They force us to think outside the box. We began training with just two topics: weather and North Carolina politics. Six weeks later, it’s safe to say I’ve never known more about those two topics than I do now.

It’s better to build half a product well than one really bad product.
At the lab, we ultimately strive to successfully pitch our product and to build a prototype. There’s no rush, and there’s no need to.

Learning from mistakes is overrated.
New Year’s resolutions. The notion is: what have you failed at in the previous year that you shouldn’t fail at this year? It’s all about everything that went wrong, that didn’t happen, that could have been better.

Why not reinforce things you’ve already done well? This doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to learn from mistakes, but rather it is equally important to avoid undermining things that already worked for you.

Our team plunged into the trough of sorrow when we realized we wouldn’t have access to the information needed to successfully quantify how successful lawyers are, and as a result we altered our idea. But – the vision is still the same. We’re still continuing to data mine and come up with an easily consumable way to look at how legal professionals perform.

Don’t be a hero.
So, maybe Jesse Eisenberg was actually right at first in Zombieland. Still, when dealing with the zombies of the entrepreneurial world – setbacks, doubts – it’s not about fleeing over fighting. It’s about being efficient with your time.
When our team realized that we’d have to jump through too many hoops to make our original idea work, we made some quick decisions. We fought off the “startup” zombie by refining our vision into a more doable set-up. We weren’t expending excess energy to tackle our zombie – how to quantify lawyer success rates. Instead, we met with a librarian in the UNC School of Law and produced results.

We weren’t heroes. We didn’t save our original idea. But maybe now we can realize and embrace a new set of impossibilities, and end up with something even better.

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