7 No-Nonsense Pieces of Startup Advice I Wish I Got When I Started
Advice for founders who are tired of bad advice.
There’s no shortage of advice for startup founders on the internet.
But sadly, most of it isn’t helpful.
The bad advice—the variety that makes up the overwhelming majority of those search results—typically falls into two categories:
- Advice so fluffy and vague (“product/marketing/support is everything”) that you don’t actually know what it means or what to do with it, or…
- Advice that sounds nice, but is simply wrong and dangerous (“embrace failure!”)
Over the last ten years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to get advice.
Much of it was like the above, and was useless to me.
But there were a few key pieces that I’ve collected over the years that have made a dramatic impact on our business.
No-nonsense lessons that I either picked up from people smarter than me, or learned the hard way.
It’s the advice that I wish I was given when I first started Groove.
And today, I’m going to share it with you.
It won’t all be useful to you right now, but if just one of these tips is as game-changing for you as it was for me, then I’ll consider this post a success.
1) There are only two things your business NEEDS to do.
I’m really, really tired of seeing headlines like this, often from respected publishers (these are all real examples):
At best, these contain valuable advice wrapped in hyperbole. At worst, they’re lies that will actually hurt your business.
And it’s time we began ignoring them.
At the end of the day, there are two things that every business, if it wants to survive, needs to do:
- Deliver something that’s valuable to some people or organizations
- Make a profit from it
If somebody tells you that your business needs to be doing something, and it’s not one of those two things above, then chances are:
- They’re not considering what the word “need” really means (or deliberately ignoring it), or
- They have something to sell you that relies on you believing in that “need”, or
- They’re demonstrating a cognitive bias and think that the way that they did something is the only way to do it
In any of the three cases above, that’s not advice to take as gospel.
Make something valuable. And sell it at a profit.
Everything else is negotiable. Doing too much of that “everything else” can and will distract you. Distractions can and will kill you.
When you see or hear somebody tell you that there’s something that you’re not doing that you “need” to be doing, don’t feel guilty about it, and don’t deviate from the strategies you’re testing until you know if they’re working or not.
Don’t fall into the trap of chasing every tactic out there just because others tell you that they’re “must-do’s”.
2) Relationships with smart people will save your business.
You’re going to fall into a lot of valleys of despair along the startup journey.
Some days, some weeks, some months… just suck.
Having people I could turn to for smart guidance has saved me more times than I can count.
And even in the good times, those relationships have led to incredible opportunities for us.
- A relationship with another founder led to one of our key product partnerships
- A relationship with a mentor led to the introduction that launched our popular interview series
- A relationship with a smart advisor helped us commit 100% to being a remote team and stop dwelling on it after weeks of waffling back and forth and losing productivity
Networking matters. But probably not the way you think (if you hate networking, anyway).
A lot of people think of networking as trading business cards.
It’s not, and the reason why is that your business card has no value.
Relationships are built on adding value to each other’s lives. Building your network is about delivering value to as many of the right people as possible so that when you need something, somebody in your network will be happy to help you get it.
Now, it’s not transactional. You’re not trading favors.
But forget the conferences and the business cards, and think about who you want to meet that might be valuable to you.
Then you can do one of two things:
Reach out to them and help them with something, with no expectation of anything in return.
Reach out to someone that they know and trust and help them with something, with no expectation of anything in return. Eventually, you’ll be able to ask for an introduction. Warm introductions are the best—and often only—way to get to the busiest and most successful people.
Here’s the thing: a free sample of your product, or a 15 minute call to learn more about how you can help them, are not valuable to the people you want to network with. They’re busy and they don’t need discounts, so both of these are totally wrong.
Instead, ask yourself:
- Is there something you’re good at (for example, design or conversion optimization) that they might not be experts at, and can you offer them free help on their site or a side project?
- Can you send them ideas for improving their business that they haven’t thought of? James Altucher comes up with 10 ideas a day, and when he was getting started would often send them to companies for free. That’s how he landed many of his paying clients.
- Are there people that you know that the person in question would like to meet? Can you make a warm introduction?
- Are there books or products (not yours) that the person could get a lot of value from? Noah Kagan, a master networker, used to send people Ex-Officio underwear.
Take any of these ideas, implement them, and repeat hundreds of times. Networking is a long-term effort, but it’s the best way to open yourself to incredible opportunities, whether that’s investment, advice or business deals.
3) Your product is a commodity.
You’re selling a commodity.
While that may not have been true ten years ago, today, it increasingly is.
Sure, there are exceptions; but they are few and far between.
For the overwhelming majority of us: if your product isn’t already a commodity, it will become one in the next few years.
It has never been easier and less costly to build things.
Sure, it was a big deal when the cloud made it possible to start up without needing to buy your own physical servers.
But that’s just one huge example that everyone points to.
The reality is that these sorts of technical and operational advancements happen every year, making various parts of running a business cheaper and easier.
Each one may be on a smaller scale than cloud computing, but there are thousands of them, and together, they’ve combined to create a snowball effect where building a product is getting tremendously easier and cheaper with each passing year.
Anyone who builds a successful product now risks commoditization from two directions:
- From below, where new startups can quickly “copy” the product you’ve validated in the marketplace.
- From above, where cash-rich businesses who can’t (or won’t) acquire you can throw money at the challenge and build a similar product.
Of course, there are a few exceptions, like exceedingly sophisticated technical products and unique products with defensible IP, but even those will become commoditized, just on a bit longer timeline.
But the good news is this: while it’s easier than ever to build a product, it’s still not easy to build a healthy business.
That’s the reason why so many startups still fail, and it’s the reason why so many ripoff initiatives from large companies still fail (see: many of Google’s greatest product flops).
So while your product is certain to become a commodity, that doesn’t mean that your business will fail.
You just have to work on building and defending the aspects of your business that won’t be commoditized: your brand and your culture. Here’s how.
4) Talk to your customers. A lot.
I know that this is scary for some people.
But not doing it won’t end well for you, I promise.
The ultimate “win” from talking to customers is deep insight into how your customers think, feel and use your product.
That insight is absolutely critical to the growth of any business, and it’s the biggest reason to do this.
Even if there were no other benefits, that benefit one alone would make it worthwhile. With that said, talking with your customers will deliver a host of other benefits:
- You’ll better understand the personas in your customer base, and what matters to each one (so that you can market to them better)
- You’ll turn unhappy customers into happy ones
- You’ll get feedback that would otherwise go unshared (and would have either led to dissatisfaction or, worse, churn)
I spend hours each month talking with our customers.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to be complicated. Set a simple goal: 5 conversations a week, 15 minutes each. You can find some good guidelines for how to conduct the conversations here.
If you haven’t done this, you’ll be amazed by what you learn and get from the exercise.
5) Invest in things that give you more time.
There’s nothing in a founder’s world more precious than time.
You have a finite amount, and a seemingly infinite amount of tasks to accomplish in that time.
Good time management is critical to success (here’s how I do it), but even then, too many founders leave too much time on the table throughout the day by doing things they don’t need to be doing.
Invest in things that give you time leverage, especially when they’re not expensive.
Spending time creating reports? Use Zapier to automate things and save yourself the time.
Going back and forth via email to schedule things? This can add up to hours each year, so spring for a $10/mo Calendly account.
Hitting the road a lot and managing your own travel bookings? Stop. Use Fancy Hands or hire an assistant.
It may seem “scrappy” to do all of these things rather than outsource them, but it’s not; it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, as it robs you, your team and your customers of the time you could be spending on the more important work of improving your business.
Want work/life balance and the opportunity to go home at a reasonable hour?
It’s definitely attainable (see the next tip), but it means you have to be ruthless in protecting your time.
6) Define success for yourself.
People who champion the “hustle all the time” mentality love to talk about “it.”
Do you have what it takes? Because it takes hustle to get there.
The promise sounds great, and I’m sure it has inspired more than a few people to push themselves.
But what the hell is It?
To me, It should be your own personal vision; what you want to achieve in your business or life.
But does It really take day-after-unsustainable-day of backbreaking work to achieve?
If you’re Gary Vaynerchuk, then sure. Building mega-brands with the goal of buying a multi-billion dollar football team absolutely requires the work he’s putting into it.
But his It is probably not your It. Nor is it the It of most of us.
It took me a long time (and coming close to burnout more than once) to realize that my It isn’t the same as that of some of the hard-chargers I looked up to.
My It is a lot simpler.
For me, It means loving my work, being challenged by it and learning and growing every day.
It means having a comfortable house, cars for my wife and me, and a couple of surfboards and a snowboard.
It means having the means to provide for my wife and our young son.
It means living near the water and being able to surf whenever I want.
It means having my best friends and family close by and in good health. Helping my parents financially when they retire, because they’ve spent their lives putting nearly every disposable dime they had into raising us and putting us through private schools and universities.
You don’t have to let other people define success for you. Do it for yourself.
Think about what an ideal lifestyle actually looks like for you, and come up with the number for how much it’ll cost to fund.
Then build your business working backwards from there. You may have to “hustle” a lot less than you thought.
7) Learn to sell your vision.
If you’re not already good at selling, get good at it.
Whatever you’re looking for—cofounders, investors, team members, beta customers, technology partners—you need to be able to sell your vision.
Because in the early days, people don’t join you because of who you are today. They join you because of who you’ll be tomorrow.
One of my favorite stories is the one David Hauser shared in his interview with us about the early days of Grasshopper.
When David and his co-founder, Siamak, were getting started, they needed servers. A lot of them. In fact, given their plans and early growth, the data center they needed to build should have cost them around a million dollars.
Instead, by selling their vision to early partners, they were able to get what they needed for around $150,000; 85% cheaper than they were initially quoted.
We learned to sell our story, and that helped us get crazy terms with our suppliers, many of whom essentially loaned us money in the form of equipment or whatever else we needed.
We weren’t saying, hey Dell, help us out. We were talking to smaller companies where we might be talking to a VP, or even a founder. We were telling a story about how we were going to grow and have hundreds of thousands of customers, and instead of buying one server next year, we were going to buy 20.
We said, look, we’re young, we’re doing something new and different and we were very honest about not having the money to do it. But we convinced them that we would be loyal to them and that we would grow. We showed them our business plan, we showed them all of that “regular stuff” but ultimately we sold them on the vision that we were going to do something different.
Nearly every startup success story has an anecdote like this from its early days.
When you have nothing but a vision, selling it is the only thing you can do to get others to help you turn it into a reality.
Like any other skill, selling your vision can be learned and improved.
I’ve known founders who weren’t great at it, who deliberately worked on the skill, got much better, and in turn became immeasurably stronger as leaders.
While I wish I had a clever hack here for getting better, there are really only two things to do that I can virtually guarantee will move the needle for you:
First, know exactly what your vision is.
If you can’t clearly define your vision, then you have no hope of being able to sell it.
My vision for Groove was never clearer than when our business coach, Kris, made me sit down and fill out a questionnaire to lay out our company’s “Vivid Vision.”
Vivid Vision is a concept coined by Cameron Herold, author of Double Double.
I highly recommend Cameron’s book, but if you’re interested in being walked through defining your own Vivid Vision, you can check out chapter one, which he generously offers for free on his site.
If you’ve never done this exercise, stop reading right here, click on that link, read chapter one (again, it’s free) and answer the questions Cameron poses. If you’re anything like me, you’ll come out of this exercise with clarity like you’ve never experienced before.
Second, if you want to get better at selling your vision, then you need to sell your vision.
I know it sounds obvious, but the only way to improve this skill is to practice it.
Once you have your vision, sell it.
Sell it to your employees.
Sell it to your prospects.
Sell it to your significant other.
Sell it to the barista at your local coffeeshop.
Sell it to anyone who will listen—or even those who won’t—because every single time will make you better.
Ask for feedback, incorporate the things that sound wise to you, and keep going. Forever.
How to Apply This to Your Business
I know that not all of these tips will be useful for you today.
But most great advice won’t be.
The best advice I’ve ever received has been advice I’ve saved for months or years, and then relied on when I hit a challenge that the advice was relevant for.
At that point, I was really happy to have it.
So while I hope that you’ve found something in today’s post to give you value today, I also hope that you’ll bookmark it and refer to it later when you need it most.
And then come back here and tell me about it.