Business Technology

Sunday 18 February 2018

The unvarnished truth of my startup journey from day one

Metsitaba founder Richard Rodger says many startup founders’ accounts of their success suffer from ‘survivorship bias’
Metsitaba founder Richard Rodger says many startup founders’ accounts of their success suffer from ‘survivorship bias’
Richard Rodger

Richard Rodger

I’m going to write about building my startup. I’m going to write about it every week, in real time. If you are thinking of doing a startup, or are in the process of building one, I want to share my decisions and their consequences, as they happen.

Startups decisions are not easy because you don’t know what you’re doing. Hire a new software developer or use an outsourcer? Save money by doing your own graphics but lose sales because you look amateur? Work from home and go crazy or rent an office and go broke? I’ll explain my decisions and thinking to you before I know what the outcomes will be.

Why do this? Because so much that is written about startups, and so much of the advice, is given by people who have not actually done it, or worse, by successful founders.

You would think that getting advice from successful people is a good idea. It’s not. It’s a really bad idea, because the advice suffers from survivorship bias. By definition, if you are successful, everything you did was the right thing to do – you survived. But why was it right? I grew my last business, a software consultancy, nearForm, to over 100 people. Was it genius, luck or the right co-founders? It can be hard to tell.

You’re about to find out if I can do it again. I’ve read many autobiographies of founders who made it and they do contain good advice, but they are also self-serving, and self-deluding, and worse for being unintentionally so.

No, the only way to get the unvarnished truth is to record history as it happens. That removes the ability to sugarcoat. So I will write about my startup each week, recording my decisions as I make them.

This is mostly for my own benefit, not yours – by opening my mouth I prove myself foolish, so I’m going to have to try extra hard to make smart decisions.

And because I’m going to have to put my reasoning on paper, I won’t be able to hide from my own delusions. Hopefully we’ll both learn something.

My startup is a social network for conference speakers. I speak at technology conferences and there’s pretty much nothing out there to let me plan my speaking calendar or handle interactions with conference organisers.

The conference industry as a whole is growing each year, particularly in Europe. A growing market is a good market. Conference speakers tend to be educated professionals and tend to have disposable income, so can afford to subscribe to a website and app that helps them organise their thinking.

I’m going to take a lean startup approach. This is the Silicon Valley way. You build an MVP first (a minimum viable product). You take it to market and you measure the reaction. And then you modify and enhance, letting the market tell you what it wants. This avoids mad-inventor-in-bedroom syndrome – something that killed my very first startup 15 years ago.

The lean startup approach is very scientific. You have a hypothesis. In my case, it’s this: conference speakers need an app just for them and will pay for it.

And then you test this hypothesis to see if reality will cooperate with your dreams. The MVP is not necessarily a working piece of software, or a physical prototype, or indeed something that people will pay for. Going to that much effort is a common mistake.

I often see founders spending far too much money on an MVP that is neither minimum nor viable. As Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn says, if you’re not embarrassed  by your first release, you’re doing it wrong. Remember that you’re trying to validate the hypothesis, not grow a business. Not yet.

In that spirit, my first decision is to start a weekly newsletter for conference speakers. I’m further refining this decision by narrowing the target market to technology conference speakers.

I am one, so I should know what they want, at least, and if I can’t get anybody to read my newsletter, the business hypothesis is falsified. That’s the scientific method.

A weekly newsletter gives me some numbers to measure. How many subscribers do I have? How are they growing week-on-week? How many people actually read the thing? You’ll get those numbers too – I’ll report them on a regular basis. We’ll see if this decision plays out. I have no idea if it will.

And that’s the point. I can’t pretend to be a genius after the fact.

Perhaps the newsletter takes off and that’s the business. I can charge a subscription just for the newsletter. Don’t laugh – it’s more common than you think. Ben Thompson of stratechery.com makes a living doing exactly this, giving daily commentary on the machinations of Amazon, Google, Facebook and the rest.

But what I want is to demonstrate that it is worth building a small web application for this market. If there are enough readers of the newsletter, then the decision is justified. I don’t know what “enough” is by the way – that’s a to-do for next week.

You can take a look at my version 1.0 website here: metsitaba.com. (And, of course, feel free to subscribe to the newsletter.)

Next week I’ll write about naming your startup and walk you through my decision-making process.

Yes, metsitaba is an odd name. So was Google.

I’m going to end with a confession. I have enough seed capital to get the business going myself. This is not the case for most founders, who need to find investors and need to keep those investors happy. Investors are not happy when you reveal your business strategies, or talk about how badly things are going. So I’m going to use my freedom from early-stage investors to share far more than I should and do so even when I look foolish.

I hope I can walk down this road honestly and I hope you’ll join me.

Richard Rodger is the founder of metsitaba. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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