This month we celebrated 2 years (!) since the launch of MyItThings.com. In March 2007 I quit my corporate job (which was my dream job by the way) and together with my biz partner we shared our secret project with the world. Since then, even in the toughest times, I never looked back, and still proud of myself for having the courage to make that decision.
The past 2 years taught me things that I would never learn any other way. Unfortunately, no matter how much you can learn from others, making your own mistakes is still the most powerful learning tool. Looking back, I believe personally experiencing the outcomes of these mistakes is part of the process and often is necessary for the growth. Only now I can understand why investors always prefer serial entrepreneurs, even if they failed in the past. Those failures are the most important lessons entrepreneurs can learn.
1. Working in stealth mode. It took us many long months to polish our concept, and the entire time we didn’t share it with anyone (including close friends and family!). Back in 2005-2006 there wasn’t much happening in the space we were going after, we lived in fear that someone will launch the same product before we are even ready. Here is the truth – in most cases, no one has the time/energy/passion/ambition/ability to execute your concept except you. The more feedback you get from people (especially your potential audience) the more time (and mistakes) you can save to yourself.
2. Rely on your friends as early adopters. Here is the thing about friends and family – even if they love you deeply, using your buggy new website might not be exactly on their daily agenda. Instead, count on other groups that better fall into your niche and will be genuinely interested in your product, rather than spending energy on nudging your friends. I was truly convinced that all my girlfriends who love fashion will become active users of MyItThings. I mistakenly assumed that all of them can write and love sharing finds online, just because I do.
3. Focusing on your competition. Yes, you do need to know who your competitors are and keep your eye on them, but don’t waste your energy on trying to surpass them. Instead, focus on your differences. For a long time I thought social shopping sites are our competitors, because we had some of the social shopping features on our site. At some point we realized that we can’t beat other guys who have more money/features/users. Instead, we should be focusing on written content, building our community, and providing them enough incentives to participate.
4. Hiring external PR when you can still manage your own PR. Don’t underestimate the power of the founder personally approaching reporters, both traditional and online. Yes, there is certain process you need to be aware of and contacts list which a good PR person will have, but for most early stage startups PR can be easily managed inside. If you can’t afford at least 6 months of continuous PR outreach, the chances aren’t big to see results. Focus on few relevant publications or reporters and reach out directly. It was a successful tactic for me, and there is nothing more I regret than spending so much of our investors money on PR services.
5. Getting mainstream press too early. It is the moment every entrepreneur is dreaming about, but dreams aside – if your product isn’t ready, you will end up with wasted opportunity and an audience that will never come back. We were featured in Seventeen magazine 2 month after the unofficial launch. Under an hour, hundreds of girls signed up for the site and couldn’t figure out what to do, and several more hundreds didn’t know how to sign up. It took many feedbacks to polish our signup process and create users guide for the site. Seventeen mag users never came back…
6. Blame one missing feature for all your problems. As entrepreneurs, we mostly are dangerously optimistic people. We start businesses because we believe in our ideas, and when they don’t work 100% well – we look for excuses. It’s always easier to think that the reason your product isn’t having 200% growth rate because it’s missing feature X. So you put all efforts in developing feature X and it doesn’t change a thing. You might get into the chase after features, which we know never ends. Instead, we should look at all possible reasons honestly and try to define the core problem.
7. Spending time on developing a Facebook App. This is just one example of wasting your time on new technology trend. If you are a lean startup, developing things outside your core product will eventually hurt the product. Even if those apps are the latest craze and promise to bring you ‘millions of users’. We developed our FB app in July 2007, 2 weeks after their first official release. It felt awesome, but when it didn’t go viral (as FB promised) we wanted to improve it and ended up wasting few weeks on development, until finally made the right decision to stop.
8. Let ‘experts’ and ‘advisors’ take you out of focus. Every once in a while there will be some sort of ‘expert’ that will approach you with intentions to help. Some of them will want equity (or promise of it) for their free work In most cases, they will tell your business model has no legs and will try to steer you away from your core. How do you recognize these ‘experts’? The first sign is when they list everything that’s wrong with your business during the first meeting. Critique is great, but at the end of the day you want to work with people that believe in what you do.
9. Adjusting business model according to VCs input. Don’t get me wrong, we received plenty of extremely helpful feedback from investors we met, especially at the early stage. The problem was every single one of them saw our business from a different perspective, had different concerns and suggestions. Many of these suggestions were just another excuse they used when they didn’t understand/ believe in our model. The best approach would be taking the constructive criticism and using it to polish and focus your plan better, not necessarily changing it after every meeting. Otherwise you will end up building something you never meant to build.
10. Thinking you know what you are building. We all start businesses with a clear idea and plan, but in most cases our assumptions have no basis, projections aren’t conservative enough and we build stuff because we think audience needs it. If you look at startups success rates you will find out that in most cases, we are wrong. Whoever wins the game usually either have a really great plan B, or is smart enough to tweak or re-apply the idea into something new. Great post on this here. Example – when we started MyItThings we had bunch of different categories for user-generated content, from home decor to music. At some point we realized that most of our community was interested in fashion. And music/ decor people are completely different audience. We changed the entire front end to reflect on this revelation, leading to significant growth both on the community side and advertisers, since we had now better positioning.
I’m glad to go through the learning curve of all of these mistakes, and just hope this journey called entrepreneurship will continue challenge me and encourage personal growth. At the end of the day, this is the main goal of everything we do, although we never say it on a Power Point slide…