1. Assemble a team of makers in the early days
I recently ran across a consumer internet startup with no traction, one part-time developer, and five business development people. Early stage consumer startups typically need teams comprised of people who can make stuff. This means a team should be mostly developers, a designer and someone managing product. The product person can be a founder or a focused product manager. The reason why the early stage team should be focused on makers is that the number one goal in the early days is to create something amazing that customers will be excited to use. This usually requires frequent iteration that can only be done by developers and designers. Plus, with the rise of potential for growth hacks, even scaling usage of consumer products often requires engineering versus traditional marketing techniques.
2. Empower employees
Early on in my recent startup’s development, I was very concerned about efficiently utilizing my startup’s engineering resources. I felt that we had to be extremely focused and could not afford to spend time on projects that were not part of my plan. Over time I learned that my goal should never have been to have people simply execute on my list of projects, but to create a team of entrepreneurs, all motivated to bring forth their full potential to make our company successful. Over time, we transitioned to cross-functional teams, each one focused on a key strategic area. Each team collaborates to generate a plan that includes the metrics they will use to measure success, the goals they intend to achieve during the quarter, as well as the key initiatives to reach those goals. Every member of the team participates, no matter the level of experience. The result is a more autonomous team that is happier, more entrepreneurial, and comes up with better ideas to propel us forward.
3. Interact with customers
I strongly believe that this is the founder’s or CEO’s role as much as anyone’s. This is obviously the case if the founder serves as the initial product manager. Even in startups with community managers, customer service agents, product managers, UX designers and more, it is critical for the founder to deeply understand customer needs. Over the years, I used many methods for understanding customers: approaching random people in coffee shops, users tests in our office, surveys like Foresee, or forums like Uservoice. I also handled all customer service for the first eight months after our launch. It’s great if many early employees are involved, but the founder should not delegate customer interaction away from him/herself.
4. Create the right communication structures
When my company was small, we had a daily standup meeting where each member of the team would explain for one minute about what they accomplished yesterday and one minute about what they were doing today. We operated in a semi-agile way, and individuals would place post-it notes on a board to indicate whether a task was upcoming, in process or complete. Over time, we supplemented the post-it notes with project management solutions including Trac and now Jira. As the team grew, we starting having multiple standup meetings. Eventually we were having six independent meetings, and so we added a weekly lunchtime meeting in which I would make general announcements and each group would give a brief update on their week. This update was usually a reflection on what the team had learned in the last week and what they were working on. We tried to avoid having very many meetings, but at least a few were necessary to keep the company coordinated and motivated.
5. Establish a rhythm of rapid iteration
A startup must move quickly to validate assumptions about how it will create value. And it only has as much time as it has cash. Of course, working hard is part of moving fast. But there’s more to it than that. In order to learn quickly, startups should iterate often. There’s no better way to run of time than by working on a product for 6-12 months and then releasing something no one wants to use. Although it was challenging at first, we ultimately made it to a stage where we were releasing code on a daily basis. Every feature we released was AB tested, and within a week, we normally had enough data to understand whether to keep or kill a particular section of code. The entire company had access to the AB testing data and everyone was involved in this rhythm or progress.
6. Take care of yourself
Eat, sleep, exercise, and find time to relax. For many founders, this is often the hardest responsibility to fulfill!