A few things I would’ve done differently at my first startup.
Prior to working on what would become Decide.com, we spent 18 months working on a dozen other ideas that didn’t work. One of the ideas was for a social sharing job post didn’t get a single user. Suffice to say, we failed a lot.
Our first project was Eggsprout, a tool that aggregated and mined resumes to create a comprehensive career map. Think LinkedIn’s Career Explorer but 4 years earlier. We wanted to be able to say things like 20% of people that majored in Computer Science at the University of Washington worked at Microsoft after graduating and within 5 years 10% of the original 20% had been promoted. We were recent college graduates that wanted data to make career decisions. Maybe other people did too.
After 18 months and 3 pivots, we shut it down. The product wasn’t any good and we weren’t getting any traction. A few months and several ideas later, we started working on Priceyeti the precursor to Decide.com. Since then we’ve raised 3 rounds, grown to 30 people and built a product people pay for. Although I’ve talked to my co-founders about our early mistakes, I haven’t sat down to reflect and write about them. Hopefully you’ll find them useful. Here goes.
We’d heard it a million times and still got it wrong. We worked on Eggsprout for nine months before launching. Locked in my brother’s basement, we wrote code seven days a week and barely talked to anyone. We built and redesigned the career map visualization several times. My brother spent almost the entire time writing an algorithm to extract data from resumes.
A month after launch, our daily metrics were a couple dozen visits and a handful of resumes. The value of our product, the career map, was directly proportional to the number of resumes we could acquire. We needed hundreds of thousands before it would be interesting. We had a couple hundred.
We should’ve launched earlier, probably in the first month. We didn’t for all the classic reasons (wanting it to be perfect, thinking we needed more features, etc.) you already know. The sooner you launch the sooner you realize what your first order problems are. For us that was acquiring resumes. Solve first order problems first.
Traction is slow and not obvious
As I mentioned earlier, we pivoted 3 times in 18 months. From career map to create your own job board to create a home for your professional group. It’s hard to know whether these were the right pivots at the right times but it did teach me two things about traction.
Traction takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, it’ll take several times longer than you think and it’ll probably be years not months.
Traction isn’t obvious. In the first few months you’ll be doing a few hundred visits, maybe a few thousand. Is that good or bad? Traction isn’t a giant welcome sign, it’s a trail of tiny breadcrumbs. You’ll find them talking to users, looking at metrics, etc. They’re hard to find, easy to misidentify and you can’t be sure where they’ll lead but you gotta keep looking.
Equal partners, unequal say
We started the company as four equal partners (two sets of brothers). Brian was technically the CEO but we operated democratically, everyone’s opinion was valued equally. Great in theory, harmful in practice.
We moved slowly, bogged down by indecision. Everyone needed to agree before moving forward. We’d debate for hours. Days would pass without a decision. Sometimes the debate took longer and more energy than the work. When we did reach a decision it was full of compromises. Which leads me to my next point.
Too much compromise. Instead of allowing a single person’s vision for the product prevail, we’d compromise. Nobody would feel great about the compromise and often was worse for the product. A product is a collection of decisions. When that collection primarily consists of compromises it lacks a cohesive vision. Without a cohesive vision there’s no focus. Without focus there’s feature bloat, complexity, and ultimately confusion.
We should’ve admitted this role was necessary and trusted someone to do it from the beginning. The longer we went without it, the harder it was for someone to step-up and the more confusing our product became.
Get to know your other founders
My brother and Brian worked at Zillow together for 18 months before Brian quit to start a startup. He wrote a long (useless) business plan and tried to recruit my brother. My brother suggested he talk to me too since I was interested in startups. Brian pitched us the idea of doing zestimates (Zillow’s algorithm for valuing houses) but for job applicants. We thought the idea was interesting. He told us his brother would be involved. Eggsprout was born.
Compared to other founder stories I’ve heard, things worked out for us. Brian’s getting married in a few months and we’re all in the wedding party. If I’m being honest though, it shouldn’t have. I hadn’t even met Ian before we became co-founders. In hindsight, here’s what I wished I’d known.
Get to know their value system. Do they want to start a company to get rich or build something cool? Should the company be run from the ground up or top down? Should you build products for yourself or for others? Are we going to release products iteratively or wait until they’re perfect? Most disagreements stem from differences in people’s value systems not what’s actually be discussed. Making sure you’re value systems are similar will save you a lot of trouble down the road.
You’ll be working together for longer than you think. I honestly thought we’d work together for a few months but it’s been almost six years. There’s a bond that develops between founders, a by-product of how hard and volatile founding a startup is. People say co-founding a company together is like getting married, I think that’s true. Make sure you like your new wife, you’ll probably see her more than your actual wife.
Despite the mistakes, things worked out for us, we’ve been fortunate. You’re going to make mistakes, probably the same mistakes we did, that’s ok. When you’re doing a startup, you’re going to make mistakes, accept it, don’t let it get you down and keep moving. Don’t lose sight of why you wanted to start a company in the first place. We wanted to build stuff and have fun. If we got anything right, it was staying true to that.