How do you actually DO a startup?

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This weekend there was a flurry of discussion about how to run a start-up company, prompted by Jason Calacanis who more or less suggested that startups needed people who would dedicate every waking hour to the business (pictured pictured are some people in Europe who’ve done it including Tariq Krim, Marc Samwer, Loic Le Meur, Niklas Zennström, Martin Varsavsky and Brent Hoberman).

. Calacanis got into specifics – like buying cheap tables and expensive chairs, buying staff free coffee, etc. Here’s a brief breakdown with some interesting points (I’ve edited them for space):

• Buy Macintosh computers, save money on an IT department
• Buy second monitors for everyone, they will save at least 30 minutes a day, which is 100 hours a year… which is at least $2,000 a year…. which is $6,000 over three years.
• Buy everyone lunch four days a week and establish a no-meetings policy.
• Buy cheap tables and expensive chairs. Tables are a complete rip off.
• Don’t buy a phone system. No one will use it. Everyone else is on IRC, chat, and their cell phone.
• Outsource accounting and HR—such a no brainer.
• Don’t buy everyone Microsoft Office–it’s too much money. Put Office on three or four common computers and use Google Docs.
• Use Google hosted email. $50 or free per user…. how can you beat that?!?!
• Buy your hardest working folks computers for home.
• (Most controversially) Fire people who are not workaholics. don’t love their work… come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. don’t work at a startup if you’re not into it–go work at the post office or stabucks if you’re not into it you want balance in your life. For realz.
• Get an expensive, automatic espresso machine at the office. Stock the fridge with sodas—same drill as above.
• Allow folks to work off hours. Commuting sucks and is a waste of time for everyone.
• Go to each of your vendors every 6-9 months and ask for 10-30% off.
• Don’t waste money on recruiters. Get inside of linkedin and Facebook and start looking for people.
• Really think about if you need that $15,000 a month PR firm.

Robert Scoble largely agreed with Calacanis. But Calacanis was then criticised by TechCrunch’s Duncan Riley for being too harsh, pointing out people also need to have a life and that this is healthy, and ultimately good for the company. A follow-up article by Michael Arrington at TechCrunch balanced both of these with an over-arching view that hiring the right people was ultimately the most important thing.

Perhaps the funniest was the post by Tony Wright entitled “Every Piece of Startup Advice is a Lie (including mine)”. His advice boiled down to: “Build something people want… 2. Don’t stop. Persist. Keep going.” VC Fred Wilson added his thoughts here and here.

Various bloggers this side of the pond have also weighed in on this whole issue.

Jens Lapinski – currently creating a startup in stealth mode – has a thoughtful post outlining three fundamental aspects that will determine the success of a company. They are what the company does, how it does it, and who actually does the work. Breaking that down, it’s about seeing the next opportunity and getting the right people: “the ones you would have wanted to have next to you in the trenches in Word War I.”

MaxRoam’s Pat Phelan gives more advice including:

• No company cars
• Put your HQ in the suburbs to save 50% on rent
• Blog instead of hiring a PR firm [I have to say, I now subscribe to startup RSS feeds to check on what they are doing – Ed]
• Keep conference calls to a minimum [Amen to that!]

Paul Sweeney of VoiceSage chimed-in with some suggestions (again, I’ve edited this down a bit):

• Not all your hardware has to be new
• Put the money into making the product great;
• Every meeting has to have a purpose
• No company credit cards;
• Build Social Capital with everyone in the company
• Conferences are for customers, not ego.
• A two hour lunch can be the best executive meeting you’ll have if you run it the right way.
• You are a start up, de facto everybody works flexi-time, early late, weekends. But let people do things during the day as well such as pick the kids up.
• Bad customers close companies.
• Don’t pay anyone to do YOUR killer business plan.

And there are plenty more tips where that came from around the blogosphere right now.

The while discussion is highly relevant to the UK and Ireland because right now lots of startups are figuring out HOW to startup. Last weekend about 100 startups went to the Sun Microsystems organised Startup Camp London (an unconference) to figure all this out. TechWeb sent a camera to the event (video below) and I’m sure you’ll find the themes mentioned familiar.

Meanwhile, feel free to add your thoughts to this debate in the comments below, especially regarding the particular issues you face with starting-up in the UK, Ireland or Europe.

For my part I can only add that – talking to a lot of startups – people are the most important thing, after that it’s strategy, and the other stuff, like free coffee, you figure out as you go along.

(NB. Congrats to for winning the startupcamp competition, and runners up WebCanvas and Mapness))

UPDATE: I’m going to continue adding some more interesting links on this subject, e.g Mark Cuban‘s rules for startups…

  • Jof Arnold

    Buy a Mac to save money? LMAO. In a similar spirit I’d suggest also buying a Ferrari and a chauffeur so you could save on train fares.

  • David Petherick

    But a Mac and a Ferrari. That will keep your people happy – and the rest, as you say, follows, and you figure it out as you go.

    Steve Garnett of salesforce did have ten top tips that he shared with everyone at StartupCamp – and they will be featuring soon at

    I’d say that reading Michael E Gerber’s E-Myth revisited is sensible, and I’d also point you to “Sh*t Every Web 2.0 Guy or Girl needs to know” by Callum Garvey and David Petherick, currently in production.

  • Jof Arnold

    Actually, that wasn’t perhaps the most useful comment from me. What I will add is that my granny runs Linux on a £89 computer she bought second-hand from a school. Now *that* is saving money. And if my granny has no probs learning Linux in order to save a few quid, I’d seriously have questions about hiring someone who couldn’t learn it.

    It’s a great computer too: it’s more than adequate for dev’ing on. Ok, so I can’t run too many Firefox tabs on it, but then it’s probably best not to be twittering when writing code, right?

    Oh… and congrats to Nick (1st) and Antonio (2nd – graffywall/webcanvas)

  • Mike Butcher

    I’d agree on the not spending too much cash on hardware. But no-one said you had to buy brand new Macs! I think Jason’s point is that Macs are generally easier to fix if they go wrong (says he, standing back, about to take storm of protest…).

  • LocalHand

    My rule #1: don’t spend too much time building your application:

    build quickly -> test with your customers -> LISTEN to feedback -> implement customers’ suggestions.

    Repeat again and again.

  • Jof Arnold

    @mike – I think I’d better continue this conversation offline in order to avoid starting a flame war!

    @LocalHand – totally agree. No matter how much polish you put into it prior to showing it to your customers, you can pretty much guarantee your customers will cause you to rip up some of your code. However, it is sometimes valuable to lead customers otherwise they’ll “design by committee” for you.

  • Manoj Ranaweera

    As a startup, you also need to know when to give up or hand over. This is not something that anyone can prescribe, you, yourself will know that you have reached the end. I am yet to attend a session where someone has the balls to say this! All I keep hearing is “never give up”.

    My second point is about getting your product out to market as quickly as possible. As we heard at StartUp Camp, according to Steve Garnett of quoting Larry Ellison, “if it compiles, get it out!”. I demonstrated this with and have since influenced other startups to do the same.

    The second point applies mostly to startups with limited or almost no funding. If you are well funded, my advice would be to make sure it works before letting others play. Most startups do not have this luxury.

  • Hash

    I think some decent 130 bpm minimal techno BGM should probably help too… but watch out for people with crap taste in music :0

  • Jo Potts

    @LocalHand – totally agree too. The secret to a good startup is the idea. The implementation has to be fast and light. Get it out there ASAP then build on it whilst using it and listening to feedback.

    Some of the startups I hear about that have millions funding and take months to get out the door would have benefited from no funding and a one week deadline!

  • baah-baah-the-black-sheep

    Get them all to work from home. Get together few times a week in a shared office. That will save you heaps of time and money.
    Gotta be double careful with choosing the right people, tho. Self-discipline is hard.

  • David Petherick

    Good point @Jof.

    My 7-year old bought an iMac for £16 with money she made at a car boot sale – and she sold old toys and then bought that the Apple at the same sale – and paid her share of the pot to get the car in. She’s a happenpreneur.

    There were some great startups pitching at startupcamp – impossible to choose, but Nik’s managed to get RSS to working so that his Mum can use it – literally. That’s why he won the startup contest.

  • Michele

    While one or two of the suggestions may make sense a lot of them strike me as incredibly dumb and more likely to cost you money and staff in the long run.

  • james

    Jason’s right on the money when he talks about getting an espresso machine for your office. Fiat thought of it first though; they commissioned Achille Gaggia to install his spring system espresso machines into their fabulous new factory in Turin – you know, the one with a racing track on the roof. They wanted to reduce the amount of time their workforce spend having coffee breaks while still packing them full of caffeine to increase productivity.

    Massively caffeinated beverages and a racing circuit on the roof, now that’s what I call a work/life balance!

  • Alan

    We have a list of some cash saving tools and services at –

    Boot strapping is definitely an important element to starting up – lots of certain costs matched with uncertain income is a recipe for disaster if cash flow is not managed carefully.

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