Less is More Part II: Startups

A few days ago I read a post by Jason Rushin that made me think about the importance of quality of quantity.  Jason talks about how at his last company he actively sought ways to get people to unsubscribe from their newsletter.  The logic being that they want to cull the best leads so that their sales force can maximize their time spent on follow ups.  Most web marketers I know try to do the opposite – gather as many leads as possible in the hopes of selling them something they may or may not want.

My second job out of college was in real estate.  I was doing rentals in Boston.  My initial approach was to get as many leads as I could and deliver average (or mediocre) service to each of them.  That didn’t take me very far.  Out of frustration, I installed some CRM software on my computer (does anyone still use ACT?) and focused on quality over quantity.  I put an almost inordinate amount of time in individual high quality leads.  I went from worst performing agent to best performing agent within the month.

That lesson has stuck with me and I think about it every time I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.  I find focusing on quality over quantity is particularly relevant in almost all walks of start up life.

The first thing every start up is looking for is usually money.  Ironically, I think less money can actually increase your chances of success.  Less money means you have to think much more carefully about how you use your resources.  It forces you to focus in on doing one thing really well.  When you get to the point of actually doing something really well, it forces you to maximize your time and money by picking the most effective channels for marketing.  Ultimately, less money forces clarity.  That kind of clarity can be lost when you’ve got 24 months of runway in the bank.

Where you get your money from is equally important.  Being selective about your investors can be very difficult.  Your responsibility is split between making sure that your company has the resources to survive _and_ making sure that you have the best resources to thrive.  Not all money is created equal.  Some investors may try to exert influence on your decisions that you don’t agree with.  Some may not be experienced investors and you’ll have to shoulder the burden of potentially losing their life savings.  On the other hand, some investors will open doors and give you invaluable sage advice.  I like to think of early stage investors as partners that have skin in the game.  You don’t want to be at odds with them.  Olympic teams don’t have room for any less than A plus players.  Start ups are an olympic sport.  Having a few high quality investors will take you a lot further than a lot of investors that provide money without adding value.

Building a product from scratch is hard work.  If you make it past assembling the right team members, selecting the right technology, and acquiring the resources to get started (funding and equipment), the real fun starts when you actually start building your product.

To start, less people is more.  Having less cooks in the kitchen that agree on a unified product scope will take you a lot further than a big team of coders with their own ideas about how the product should be built.  At my last company we never had a clear product definition but we had 15 people gently pulling the product in different directions.  It seemed cool because we would have all these features that would satisfy everyone.  The problem was that it took us two years to get the features completed and poorly integrated.  In the process we didn’t take the time to build the company culture right and had a whole bunch of conflicting egos on the team.  I cannot stress how important it is to focus on having as few high quality people as possible.  Whenever I add a person to my team, I ask myself, how much value does this person add?  If the person isn’t adding value, they’re taking it away.

Every hour spent developing a feature costs money.  That might not seem like much if you’re two guys living off $3k a month (that’s $14 per hour each based on a 50 hour work week in case you were wondering).  However, it costs you something much more valuable than money: precious time you could spend building a feature that really matters.  Each feature will undoubtably take three times longer to complete than you project.  You’re probably right in that it will take one unit of time to build.  But you need to factor in one unit of time to debug, and one unit of time to integrate.  The bigger your project and team, the more challenging the debugging and integration will be.

My approach has become to realistically storyboard the entire product before any development.  “Realistically,” as in people I show the wireframes to ask if they’re screenshots of a real website.  I show the storyboards to our target users and get feedback on the product before it’s built.  For the current version of Find Me Fit, I met with 20 people I didn’t know before hand and got their feedback on what we wanted to build.

In the process I’m looking for things we can cut out.  I’m not trying to build more, I’m trying to build less.  Up until I heard the term “minimum viable product,” I was using the term “minimum success solution.”  I like minimum viable product more.

If a feature is taking too long to build as we’re developing, Jason and I will talk about whether or not we can “save” it for later.  The key question we try to answer is, are people more likely to use this service because of this feature?  Sometimes this question can be hard to answer because the feature is somewhat intangible.  For example, when we started developing the user interface for Find Me Fit, Jason and I spent some time debating whether or not to AJAXify the search page.  In the end we decided that the improvement in usability would be worth the extra programming time.  That decision has probably cost us about 3 weeks of additional development time to get it right, but I think it’s been worth it.

The flip side of quality vs quantity in product development is when you have to decide how far to take quality.  You want to release a usable product as quickly as possible.  Sometimes that means taking shortcuts.  Bad code tends to haunt you for a long time, so deciding when to take those shortcuts requires some good judgement.  Generally, Jason and I take the approach that if it’s worth building, it’s worth building right.

As mindful of feature creep as we are, it’s still taken us 4 months to get to closed beta.  Along the way we’ve probably spent two or three weeks building unplanned features or code we’ve thrown away, but for the most part what we’ve delivered is identical to the storyboards I created before we started.  That’s a lot of time for two self funded guys to work on one product without a public release.

If there’s one thing you can guarantee with startups, it’s that every startup experience is different.  Some companies, like Demand Media, seem to be incredibly successful focusing on quantity over quality.  I like to think that a healthy obsession with quality over quantity has increased our chances of success and resulted in an amazing product.

I can honestly say that I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve produced.

Return from the Burn

This year I decided to give up on saying that each Burn is even better than the last.  Each Burn is perfect, exactly what it needs to be.

Burning Man isn’t for everybody and I’m sure that every person that does find religion there, finds it in their own way.  I’ve never really thought about what Burning Man means to me until this year.  I met a girl named Justine (from Quebec) who asked me why I go to Burning Man.  It’s one of those questions that seems like it would have an obvious answer but makes you stop and think on closer inspection (kind of like “who are you?”).

I go to Burning Man to share my energy.  To share the beauty inside.  At Burning Man I am reminded how beautiful each person around me is.  I find it within myself to love every person I interact with.  I carry that with me after I leave the desert and it enables me to find positivity in even the most negative situations.  It enables me to see the best in every person I meet.

The desert takes away all distractions.  No cell phones, no computers, no money, no business.  Just you and 50,000 other people in a completely unrestrained creative environment.  It lets you connect with people in a way that can be very difficult in the always on hyper connected real world.  In fact, there’s a difference between “getting to” Burning Man and “arriving at” Burning Man.  You get there whenever your RV lands.  You arrive, usually a few days later, when you finally let go of the outside world and truly tune into the environment around you.

Every person contributes in their own way.  Some give their energy, others create some of the most amazing art on earth.  This year the quality of the art was particularly high.  There was more art than I remember in previous years and each piece was exceptionally good.  Lots of great fire sculpture too.

What a great burn.  Thank you.

Less is More Part I: Lifestyle

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Last December I became a nomad in the interest of maximizing the amount of personal money I had to invest in my start up.  I packed up all my stuff, put it in storage, and relied on the benevolence of good friends and their spare couches and guest rooms.  It’s been quite an adventure.  Ten months in, I’ve stayed at seven different places and I have to say that the experience has changed my life for the better.

I’ve come up with my own living philosophy called “zero footprint.”  It means that unless the person I’m staying with actively looks for signs of a guest, they can’t tell anyone is staying with them.  That means always washing every dish, wiping down every surface I use every time (sinks, counters, tables, etc), putting my shoes away, never leaving an item of clothing lying around, keeping all my food neatly stored in a cupboard, packing up all my things after working in the living room, drying and folding my laundry right away, and generally being obsessed with neatness.  If it wasn’t there when I entered the space, it won’t be there when I leave.  It’s become like a game to me and I hear echos of my parents telling me to clean up when I was a kid.  They’ll be happy to know that I’ve become the neatest person I know.

In the process I’ve found that less is more.  Living out of a suitcase and trying to take up no space in someone else’s apartment forces you to think about every item that you carry.

I love fashion.  I generally have a much bigger wardrobe than most men I know and I have the largest collection of pink shoes you’ve ever seen (pink is my favorite color).  Living yout of one suitcase forced me to carefully think about the clothes I do and don’t wear.  Over the months, I’ve been able to fine tune my clothing so that I only carry clothes that I actually wear on a regular basis.  I buy less clothing and what I do buy is high quality.  I’m down to 3 pairs of shoes – a pair of sneakers for the gym, a pair of sneakers for daily wear, and a pair of dress shoes for when I go to networking functions where casual attire is frowned upon (lots of events like that in Hawaii).  I have just enough gym gear, underwear, and socks to last me a week before I have to wash them.

I never have to unpack my suitcase because I know the location of every neatly folded piece of clothing in there.  A year ago, I was not this way.  I couldn’t go on a week long business trip without packing for 5 hours just to turn my suitcase upside down as soon as I got to the hotel.  Now, I can literally pack up and be ready to live in a different location within 30 minutes.

Food wise is probably where I’ve had to adjust the most.  I don’t like eating out.  I’m very conscious of what I put in my body and I like to cook.  In the past, I’ve spent $160 at Whole Foods to cook one meal for two people.  Needless to say, I don’t do that anymore.  The first person I stayed with in San Francisco had never used her stove before.  I cooked every day and I’m pretty sure that drove her crazy.  I’ve strained pasta with a bowl and used aluminum foil to cover a frying pan for lack of lids.  I’ve developed a new appreciation for the versatility of zip locks bags since most places I stay don’t have any tupperware or storage containers for left overs.

Since I have to leave no trace, I clean while I cook.  I’ve found this to be an incredibly efficient way of maximizing my time in the kitchen.  In fact, I derive an almost zen like enjoyment out of doing the dishes – something I used to hate in the past.  Doing the dishes is one of the few experiences in your life where you start with chaos and end with a clean stack of orderliness.  Money can’t buy therapy like that.

I go to Costco every two weeks to buy meats and a few select bulk items.  I know exactly how much I’ll eat in two weeks, so I only buy what I need.  I go to Safeway every couple days to buy fresh vegetables and other perishables.  I cook every two days, carefully portioning and saving my leftovers in ziplocks bags that I can take with me where ever I go to work.  I’m a health nut, so I cook a lot of quinoa, vegetables, and chicken.  Because I try to keep it easy, I switch up the marinade and meat type, but everything else pretty much stays the same.

In the process of simplifying my life I’ve become extremely organized.  I’ve taken the time to look at everything I do and pair down what I don’t need.  I no longer try to buy every business book that comes out that looks interesting.  Instead I focus on quality and spend a lot more time researching what’s going to give me the highest return for my time investment.  The books I do read I savor and often highlight extensively.

Since I no longer have my Mac Mini media center with a quarter terabyte of music, I realized that I don’t want a quarter terabyte of music because I never know what to listen to.  Instead I’ve focused on organizing and carrying a small selection of really good music.  This is actually pretty easy, just sort your iTunes by plays.  I bet you regularly listen to only a small fraction of your music.

I went to the trouble of organizing my Google reader account so that now I only read a handful of blogs  (I still subscribe to hundreds of blogs, I just don’t read them too often).  I unfollowed the 5000 people I was following on Twitter and only follow the people I’m actually interested in.

I’ve found that quality over quantity applies in almost every aspect of my life.  At the gym, I focus on the quality of each movement, trying to get the most out of each repetition.  I don’t try to power my way through ten reps just because ten is a round number.  I listen to my body and carefully push it as far as it will go, maximizing my strength and muscle gains.  By focusing on the quality of my workouts instead of the quantity, I’ve gotten into the best shape of my life and feel more in tune with my body than ever before.  I used to hurt myself two to three times a year.  I haven’t sustained a gym injury in over a year.

Being a permanent guest forces you to be extremely mindful.  It takes a lot of effort to remain welcome in someone’s household rent free for months at a time.  I take the time to think about every action I take and listen to every word spoken to me.  In the process I’ve become very aware of my environment and the people in it.  I’ve come to really appreciate the editorial output of my close friends.  Because I activity seek less, I listen more so that I can learn from other people’s experiences.

I’ve come to really appreciate every single thing in my life.  I take time every day to be grateful for the things I have.  I’ve never genuinely felt this way before.  I honestly step back on a daily basis and just feel joyful inside.  Part of this is due to a change in perspective, but I think a big part of it is due to the fact that I’ve paired down so much stuff in my life that everything has a place.  Without so much junk cluttering my life, I truly appreciate everything I have.

I’ve never felt more alive.

[ photo: kevinbluer ]