This was written by Evan Williams. He started a thing called Blogger. Then he went on to help start a thing called Twitter.
#1: Be Narrow Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve that would potentially be useful. Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too. Focusing on a small niche has so many advantages: With much less work, you can be the best at what you do. Small things, like a microscopic world, almost always turn out to be bigger than you think when you zoom in. You can much more easily position and market yourself when more focused. And when it comes to partnering, or being acquired, thereâ€™s less chance for conflict. This is all so logical and, yet, thereâ€™s a resistance to focusing. I think it comes from a fear of being trivial. Just remember: If you get to be #1 in your category, but your category is too small, then you can broaden your scopeâ€”and you can do so withÂ leverage.
#2: Be Different Ideas are in the air. There are lots of people thinking aboutâ€”and probably working onâ€”the same thing you are. And one of them is Google. Deal with it. How? First of all, realize that no sufficiently interesting space will be limited to one player. In a sense, competition actually is goodâ€”especially to legitimize new markets. Second, see #1â€”the specialist will almost always kick the generalistâ€™s ass. Third, consider doing something thatâ€™s not so cutting edge. Many highly successful companiesâ€”the aforementioned big G being oneâ€”have thrived by taking on areas that everyone thought were done and redoing them right. Also? Get a good, non-generic name. Easier said than done, granted. But the most common mistake in naming is trying to be too descriptive, which leads to lots of hard-to-distinguish names. How many blogging companies have â€œblogâ€ in their name, RSS companies â€œfeed,â€ or podcasting companies â€œpodâ€ or â€œcastâ€? Rarely are they the ones that stand out.
#3: Be Casual Weâ€™re moving into what I call the era of the â€œCasual Webâ€ (andÂ casual content creation). This is much bigger than the hobbyist web or the professional web. Why? Because people have lives. And now, people with lives also have broadband. If you want to hit the really big home runs, create services that fit in withâ€”and, indeed, helpâ€”peopleâ€™s everyday lives without requiring lots of commitment or identity change.Â Flickr enables personal publishing among millions of folks who would never consider themselves personal publishersâ€”theyâ€™re just sharing pictures with friends and family, a casual activity.Â Casual games are huge. Skype enables casual conversations.
#4: Be Picky Another perennial business rule, and it applies to everything you do: features, employees, investors, partners, press opportunities. Startups are often too eager to accept people or ideas into their world. You can almost always afford to wait if something doesnâ€™t feel just right, and false negatives are usually better than false positives. One of Googleâ€™s biggest strengthsâ€”and sources of frustration for outsidersâ€”was their willingness to say no to opportunities, easy money, potential employees, and deals.
#5: Be User-Centric User experience is everything. It always has been, but itâ€™s still undervalued and under-invested in. If you donâ€™t know user-centered design, study it. Hire people who know it. Obsess over it. Live and breathe it. Get your whole company on board. Better to iterate a hundred times to get the right feature right than to add a hundred more. The point of Ajax is that it can make a site more responsive, not that itâ€™s sexy. Tags can make things easier to find and classify, but maybe not in your application. The point of an API is so developers canÂ add value for users, not to impress the geeks. Donâ€™t get sidetracked by technologies or the blog-worthiness of your next feature. Always focus on the user and all will be well.
#6: Be Self-Centered Great products almost always come from someone scratching their own itch. Create something you want to exist in the world. Be a user of your own product. Hire people who are users of your product. Make it better based on your own desires. (But donâ€™t trick yourself into thinking youÂ are your user, when it comes to usability.) Another aspect of this is to not get seduced into doing deals with big companies at the expense or your users or at the expense of making your product better. When youâ€™re small and theyâ€™re big, itâ€™s hard to say no, but see #4.
#7: Be Greedy Itâ€™s always good to have options. One of the best ways to do that is to have income. While itâ€™s true thatÂ traffic is now again actually worth something, the give-everything-away-and-make-it-up-on-volume strategy stamps an expiration date on your companyâ€™s ass. In other words, design something to charge for into your product and start taking money within 6 months (and do it with PayPal). Done right, charging money can actually accelerate growth, not impede it, because then you have something to fuel marketing costs with. More importantly, having money coming in the door puts you in a much more powerful position when it comes to your next round of funding or acquisition talks. In fact, consider whether you need to have a free version at all. TheÂ TypePad approachâ€”taking the high-end position in the marketâ€”makes for a great business model in the right market. Less support. Less scalability concerns. Less abuse. And much higher margins.
#8: Be Tiny Itâ€™s standard web startup wisdom by now that with the substantiallyÂ lower costs to starting something on the web, theÂ difficulty of IPOs, and the willingness of the big guys toÂ shell out for small teams doing innovative stuff, the most likely end game if youâ€™re successful is acquisition. Acquisitions are much easier if theyâ€™re small. And small acquisitions are possible if valuations are kept low from the get go. And keeping valuations low is possible because it doesnâ€™t cost much to start something anymore (especially if you keep the scope narrow). Besides the obvious techniques, one way to do this is to use turnkey services to lower your overheadâ€”Administaff,Â ServerBeach,Â web apps, maybe evenÂ Elance.
#9: Be Agile You know that old saw about a plane flying from California to Hawaii being off course 99% of the timeâ€”but constantly correcting? The same is true of successful startupsâ€”except they may start out heading toward Alaska. Many dot-com bubble companies that died could have eventually been successful had they been able to adjust and change their plans instead of running as fast as they could until they burned out, based on their initial assumptions. Pyra was started to build a project-management app, not Blogger. Flickrâ€™s company was building a game. Ebay was going to sell auction software. Initial assumptions are almost always wrong. Thatâ€™s why the waterfall approach to building software is obsolete in favorÂ agile techniques. The same philosophy should be applied to building a company.
#10: Be Balanced What is a startup without bleary-eyed, junk-food-fueled, balls-to-the-wall days and sleepless, caffeine-fueled, relationship-stressing nights? Answer?: A lot more enjoyable place to work. Yes, high levels of commitment are crucial. And yes, crunch times come and sometimes require an inordinate, painful, apologies-to-the-SO amount of work. But it canâ€™t be all the time. Nature requires balance for healthâ€”as do the bodies and minds who work for you and, without which, your company will be worthless. There is no better way to maintain balance and lower your stress that Iâ€™ve found thanÂ David Allenâ€™s GTD process. Learn it. Live it. Make it a part of your company, and youâ€™ll have a secret weapon.
#11 (bonus!): Be Wary Overgeneralized lists of business â€œrulesâ€ are not to be taken too literally. There are exceptions to everything.