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Navigating the Startup Landscape

Courtland Allen

Indie Hacker, Stripe

MIT 09 ๐Ÿ› YC 11 ๐Ÿš€ developer ๐Ÿ’ป designer ๐ŸŽจ avid reader ๐Ÿ“š casual traveler โœˆ๏ธ StarCraft fan ๐Ÿ‘พย @IndieHackers at @stripe โšก

San Francisco
Courtland Allen

https://twitter.com/mijustin/status/988984477081718784

Indie Hackers is a community for founders.

Courtland has done over 300 interviews with founders. Most of them are success stories, but every one of these founders failed

As founders failed, they learned things.

This talk will help you skip a few steps so you don't have to fail as much. See the world like these experienced founders do.

Four different startup landscapes. Each is a metaphor for a phase of your startup

1. The Startup Runway

The startup runway of almost certain death

Runway is how long you have left until your business is dead. How do you navigate it? Just become cashflow positive before you run out of money.

How? The same way a pilot takes off a plane: know your plane's metrics, have your eyes at the end of the runway, and make sure you're prepared for takeoff.

This isn't how it always works out though.

Exhibit 1: Courtland won a business competition!

Courtland spent his time working on product, refactoring, unit tests, landing pages, new features, design, and then launched. He did everything except charging money to a customer. You should charge money for your product.

When was the last time you calculated your runway? Calculate how much you have left in the bank.

Exhibit 2: Chris Chen of Instapainting (YC company)

"I survived on my various ideas and pivots for about three years. I just spent an absurdly long time pivoting..."

"...but as I ran lower and lower on cash, my ideas would start focusing less and less on building social music apps, and more on how to generate revenue immediately."

"And then I ran out of all my cash. I was $4,000 in debt, so I had to put up the website for my last idea to collect money. I created, tested, and launched it in just a couple days..."

"...I put the page up on Reddit, and in two weeks I'd made over $2,000 in sales."

After three years pivoting, he made a successful product in two weeks!

Exhibit 3: Max Lytvyn of Grammarly

"[It took less than six months to profitability]. It was very quick. It was very quick because we had really solid plan on how to get there."

"We didnโ€™t know who was going to buy... so we tried to sell to institutions, to organizations, and individuals at the same time to see what works better."

"By the time we finished building version one, we had a pipeline of organizational buyers lined up."

How'd Max get there so fast?

"Necessity. We realized that building this product would be really hard and really expensive, so by the time we were done with the MVP, weโ€™d probably be out of money."

Here's a secret, though. You don't have to navigate the runway of certain death! You can use a helicopter! ๐Ÿš

If you don't want to burn through cash on the runway of death, don't quit your job!

"But Courtland - I can't start a startup while running my main job! I need the runway of certain death!" - no

The helicopter pad of certain slow success uses the same skillset as the runway of certain death

Landscape 2: The El Dorado of Ideas

Some of his ideas were bad, and the good ones people were already working on. Too bad you can't force ideas... or can you?

Part of running a business is constantly working on ideas.

https://twitter.com/csallen/status/979860753103507456

The El Dorado of Ideas. What does it mean to come up with ideas that are so obvious someone else has already thought of them?

While you're living your daily life, the chance of stumbling on gold nobody else has stumbled on is very low. It's not a great strategy for ideas.

Don't dig a lot of shallow holes - like making 100 landing pages a year - to find good ideas. Dig deep! Get your hands dirty!

Digging deep means asking questions like:

  • Who are these people?
  • Where do they hang out?
  • What do they complain about?
  • What makes them really excited?
  • What do they buy? What do they never buy?
  • Who do they follow, trust, and respect?
  • What do they fear?
  • What are their goals?
  • Where do they get their product recommendations?
  • What do they read, watch, or listen to?
  • What makes them angry?
  • etc.

You'll start finding ideas nobody else has found.

What if you have a new idea? Dig deep again! Don't build your house over what you think is a goldmine.

Also check out Amy Hoy's Stacking the Bricks, specifically her Sales Safari technique.

What if you have a new idea? Dig deep again! Don't build your house over what you _think_ is a goldmine without proof

  • How much money is changing hands here? Are the customers reachable?
  • How long would it take to launch a product? What are your weaknesses?
  • What's your runway like?
  • Would you like your customers?
  • What are your personal goals?
  • What industry would make you happy? etc.

Landscape 3: The Climbing Wall of Growth

Most beginner founders think growth happens explosively, then it's smooth sailing to the top.

There's a lot of corroborating evidence for a single event triggering smooth sailing of exponential growth, but it's not true

Maybe one out of a million company has a growth hack, but it won't be your company.

There is no magical viral growth step at the bottom of the climbing wall that launches you to the top. It's hard. Every step takes effort and attention. If you stop climbing, you stop progressing.

Growth is a slog, like climbing a wall

Behind graphs up and to the right are a lot of hidden forces

IndieHacker readers complained that Jason had it too easy because he already had a successful blog

This growth wasn't as easy as it looked. It was a long hard slow slog:

"I hand tailored more than 1,000 emails to blogs. It took me five months of doing it every day. They didn't respond, so I would tweet them, I would Facebook message them, I'd send SoundCloud messages, I'd send another email. Then I'd try and find another contact. And we're still sort of doing this today. Those 250 blogs and labels didn't come overnight."

The first step is the simplest. You don't need a brilliant strategy early on.

It's okay that you started small. Now there are new steps that are easier to reach.

Keep climbing! Nobody else jumped straight to the top. You'll never find new steps unless you try.

Plan your route. See what paths others took. Look multiple steps ahead. Steps like starting a mailing list make it much easier later on.

Stay on track to your destination. The higher you climb, the more distracting options. Having a clear vision makes it easy to say "no" to things that don't get you closer.

Landscape 4: Vision

"Create a vision" probably makes you think of cheesy corporate stock photos

Avoid quitting with confidence.

If you knew Courtland lost a multimillion dollar diamond in his apartment, how long would you spend looking for it?

If Courtland said there may or may not be a multimillion dollar diamond in his apartment, you'd probably give up a lot easier. You're much less confident in the outcome, so of course you'll give up when the going gets tough.

Questions

Apart from content marketing, are there others ways to get early traction?

It depends a lot on your target customers. Everyone knows about the default places to launch (HN, product hunt).

Is your audience indie game developers? Spend a lot of time with them. Learn what influencers they care about, where they hang out online (watering holes), and where they get their news.

Free "Microconf 2018" eBook

I'm sending out a beautiful PDF eBook of notes from every MicroConf 2018 Starter and Growth talk โ€“ both Speaker and Attendee. Want a copy?

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