First-Time Startup Entrepreneurs: Stop Fucking Around

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Editor’s note: Paul Stamatiou is Co-founder of Picplum, a Y Combinator-backed photo printing service, where he obsesses over both design and development. He also co-founded Notifo (YC W10) and Skribit. Follow him on his blog, PaulStamatiou.com, and on Twitter: @Stammy.

Reminisce with me for a bit. Do you remember the first time you got an Internet connection? Before your computer was always connected and when going online was a thing you had to plan. The joys of seeing new browsers like Phoenix emerge. Your excitement when you first experienced the Web with your new high-speed connection. It was a time when sites rarely had any JavaScript and DHTML was the buzzword of the year. Now it’s hard to believe that Chrome is just a few years old.

When I first visited California for my Yahoo! internship (news of which immediately hit Valleywag, remember that site?) I knew I had to move out here eventually. I came back every year visiting friends and checking out startups.

Every time I drive into San Francisco and see the skyline, it’s a strong reminder that I’m fortunate to be in a time and place where I have wanted to be for so long, with such a vibrant and strong tech community. And that Ibetter not fuck it up wasting time and being unproductive. I’m not here to talk about your startup idea, offer Backbone.js tips, discuss how to find your first customers or offer tips to pimp out your AngelList profile. I just want to say a few words on how to work. This is a post to new entrepreneurs about getting shit done.

This is all started with a tweet of mine. I was annoyed some friends that just began working on a startup were slacking off. Over 150 retweets later, I decided to elaborate on my thoughts here.

i’m going to teach a course for first-time startup entrepreneurs called stop fucking around and get back to work.

— Paul Stamatiou (@Stammy) April 23, 2012

We are in an amazing time right now — perhaps the perfect time to build companies. And it pains me to see first-time entrepreneurs flush away this huge opportunity getting caught in the hype of how cool it is to do a startup, going to endless meetups and spending entirely too much time on Maserati problems when they’re not busy cargo cult coding. Startups are a grind. It may end with having to get a job, or it may end with a big smile and a Section 280G, but either way you’ll have learned a ton.

Your workdays are sacred

Think about the opportunity cost here. You could be off making six figures but you decided to swing for the fences with your startup. That takes guts. So why would you slack off and waste time? This is not a 9-5 job. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t suck it up and work your ass off. So please avoid all those endless meetups you go to for the sake of meeting up. Like Michael Arrington says, “use all that free time to start spending time with the serious people, doing serious things.”

Someone wants to meet during the week? Unless its actually business-related, turn it down or move it to the weekend. If they really want to meet, they will sacrifice some of their weekend too.

I will make one exception though. I’m a big believer in paying it forward. If someone needs genuine help I’m always down to lend a hand. It’s my way of returning the favor that people like George Zachary, Dan Martell, Hiten Shah and Noah Kagan that have spent countless hours helping entrepreneurs like me for as long as I can remember.

Get ready for ups and downs

You will have days that suck. Getting accustomed to this will be a challenge for any new entrepreneur. I once tracked my mood everyday for a few months while I was working on my last startup (this was when we were fundraising).

Find Your Thing

This is one of the things Marissa Mayer has mentioned for how to prevent burnout and I have found it to ring exceptionally true. What do you need to do for yourself every week to keep your sanity? For me that’s running a few hours per week and seeing the occasional electronic dance music show with my cofounder. These things leave me feeling more energized and happier, something you can’t often say about attending lots of tech meetups and conferences.

What’s your plan?

Picplum is my third startup and if there’s one main difference between my last startups, it’s definitely our planning. I’ll be the first to say that I have a bad habit of always wanting to build first. New idea? Start with javascript. Wrong! Fortunately I have a great cofounder that keeps me in check and reminds me to spec things out first. Unless you are blessed with building a product that is solving your own problem and you are your target user, chances are you need to take a step back to throw away all of your assumptions.

Pick some sort of task/project management tool and use it. Whether it’s Trello, Hackpad, Asana, Flow, Sprintly or what have you — just pick one. Keep track of every idea, feature request or bug but rigorously prioritize. Do not allow anyone else to use their own system, because they’ll never check the company Asana and always be one step behind.

Not sure if it’s worth your time to fix something right now? Hiten Shah of KISSmetrics once told me something a few years ago that stuck:

For those customers that email about small feature requests or tweaks: Don’t fix it until you get one passionate user complaining about it/emailing you an essay.

One thing I learned about myself is that if we set an amount of time a new feature or update should take, I’m more likely to think through everything involved and spec out all the steps. This applies for at least anything that touches the UI. For example, we recently designed and built a new share page for the new Picplum. When I first started working on it, I was in the mindset that this was going to be a simple afternoon project that I would just hook up with current layouts and maybe extending one Backbone view. Easy.

While that could have been the route we took, we decided to take a step back and define the goal of this page. What was the first thing we wanted the user to do? Did it need to use the same layout as other pages? What followed was a productive 30 minute product chat with some sketches that resulted in a much better idea of what we wanted the user to experience. I mocked up 5 variations in Photoshop, had quick back & forths on the designs then built the one we decided on.

By mentally setting the length of this task from a hasty “I need to push this tonight” to a more effective “lets plan this out and take more time if necessary” the end result was much more robust. A better product and better code that you won’t have to end up rewriting twice later on.

The opposite of this is spending days or weeks “planning” a single feature and feeling like that is actual work. Thinking about how to do something won’t actually get it built. I’ve seen one too many startups that are way too happy about all the notes they’ve scribbled down over the last week about what they want to do. Just go do them, and surprise me when you’re making real progress.

Get more feedback

I used to do this all the time: I’d spend hours or days building what I thought was the perfect feature only to realize my cofounder and I had different thoughts on how it should all piece together.

Get more feedback, more often.

But how do you get quick feedback without sounding condescending and nagging for status updates from your cofounders? Just make it a habit. Anytime one of us asks “What are you working on?” or “How is X going?” it’s not a translation for “WTF is he doing” but rather just some friendly accountability and an offer to help. Make sure you and your cofounders keep each other in check with this simple habit.

The best part about these tiny status updates here and there? Less meetings.

Keep it light and iterative. For me this is often sharing a screenshot in Campfire with Akshay or flipping my monitor around to talk through something. One thing that stuck with me is Jeffrey Veen’s talk Designing for Disaster. He talked about how to conduct product reviews and keep them constructive:

The review is not a forum for expressing opinions. It is a forum for solving problems.

Instead of I don’t like blue, ask “what is the reason this is blue?”. Ask if this is a convergent discussion or a divergent discussion. If you need a decision made, make it. If you need ideas make that clear, and have a divergent conversation.

Be Decisive

There’s nothing worse than trying to spec out that new feature or product and ending up with more questions. “Yeah we could do that” is not an acceptable answer. Entrepreneurs need to be able to make quick decisions and move forward with them. Delaying will not make the decision any easier (unless of course you’re waiting a few days for more data on that A/B test or more visitor metrics for your data-driven decision). Make a decision, put it in your Asana, assign people to it and get back to work.

When you get stuck

If you can’t figure something out in 20 minutes, move on if it’s not blocking or ask your cofounders. My cofounder Akshay is big on this “20 minute rule” of his. If you’re spending 2 hours trying to properly bind events on a collection or figure out why your RequireJS optimized build isn’t working on production, you are both wasting time and not putting your resources to good use. By resources I mean your smart cofounders. A pair of fresh eyes always helps.

Respect the Zone

Find out how you work best. It may be a bit eccentric but when I really want to get work done I do things like hide the clock in OS X, close anything that can make sound (except Spotify of course), close all unrelated browser tabs, and make sure nothing else is cluttering my mind, like any small nagging tasks that I should probably finish first. Perhaps you need to perfect your coding cave.

Picplum office

Make sure you know what you and your cofounders need to be productive. If that means designating a specific “wired in” work period every day when there are no distractions, then so be it.

Good luck!

You can be so bad at so many things… and as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users and customers, and you have something that is unique and valuable… you get through all that stuff.

Mark Zuckerberg