10 Startup Lessons in 2021

Iteration

This is probably one of the most important concepts when it comes to product development and engineering. It can be quite overwhelming to start on something and make it good – which can sometimes cause paralysis to even get started. The idea of perfectionism impedes us from putting out the first version. Iteration is not only helpful for getting started, but also for making something better. Every time we thought our current version is the best, the next iteration turned out to be much better – always.

Distribution

I learned about distribution very recently. Initially, I thought it was mostly about building a good product. After learning about how some of the most successful companies had gotten off the ground, distribution seems to have played an important role. The concept of distribution could be tied to manually recruiting the initial set of customers (a good essay by PG on this) or having some sort of a hack to somehow get that initial set of customers. Paid advertising is usually not it – at least initially.

Growth

The umbrella term for this could be – marketing. However, it seems that 'growth' is much more than that. It seems to be an artistic mix of integrating different APIs to track and measure user behaviour with finding ways to get exposure by building certain aspects in the product itself. Sean Ellis has a good book on this, called Hacking Growth. Growth, in an early-stage startup context, could mean a special kind of referral program for instance, where the cost of acquiring new customers is significantly low. Dropbox is a good example of this – where their referral program included extra storage instead of money, which was significantly cheap for Dropbox.

Design

Before truly dabbling into the world of design, I thought it essentially meant 'pretty'. It's definitely much more than that. There are elements of the UI being aesthetically pleasing, but so much goes behind the scenes from a usability standpoint – or at least it should. It is a nuanced expression of emotion, where the placement of every little thing elicits a certain conscious or subconscious reaction. This, in turn, could play an immensely important role in getting somebody to use a product.

Engineering

Sometimes engineering problems are exciting to solve, which can lead to over-engineering. This could become more of an issue while debugging or adding new functionality. More specifically – we ran into issues like doing high-level abstraction much early on without specific future use cases in mind. This inevitably leads to more complexity. We also chose consistency over utility for certain engineering implementations, which limited our overall development. We learnt that sometimes utility should take precedence over consistency – essentially, the standardization should evolve around the utility.

Simplicity

The most widely used products are very simple. Regardless of how complex a solution might be, the elegance of it only shines through the simplicity of its delivery. Aaron Levie has some good tweets on this topic. It was another reminder of how less is more. Getting to simplicity is quite difficult. It requires much more cognitive effort and creativity to remove stuff than to just add.

Motivation

Managing personal motivation requires constant work. Because the process of trying to build something from scratch is so precarious, not every moment feels motivational. This is where having a sense of long-term ambitions and vision helps. Although it might even sound ridiculous at the moment, it could serve the purpose of reigniting motivation. Day in, day out the progress feels slow; accumulation over weeks or months could be quite surprising though. Either way, laying one brick a day is usually the most productive use of time and probably the best predictor of any kind of progress or success.

Patience

Building a new product or concept usually takes longer than expected. There seems to be a lot of trial and error, and hypothesis testing that happens during the process. Some things work and others we learn from. This process of trying to find a solution for a pain point involves patience. It could feel discouraging at times, but this process seems inevitable in order to find something that works.

Stories

Learning about how companies got started and the challenges they faced in their early stages has helped me the most. It provides perspective on what it takes to go through the process of building something. While the nuances of challenges may differ, there seem to be general mental models or mental frames that are worth noting. One such mental model is pivoting, for example.

Focus

In the early stages, it is difficult to tackle everything at once given the lack of resources. It seems obvious in retrospect. This is when ambitious goals might be distracting. Picking up one thing and doing it well for a small subset of users seems to be much more important than trying to do everything at once.