It’s end of the year, again. Feels like yesterday we’ve published the beta version of Dockbit on ProductHunt. There were so many expectations. And what turned out to be is quite different, somewhat unexpected.
Interesting, whatever you do, everything goes by its own rules and definitely not as you plan. And how you can possibly plan for anything, if it’s all about human beings. You meet new people, these people connect you to other people, and from all these numerous connections, you define your own path. The pathway that’s composed of all the people you’ve met, their personalities, values, and experiences.
You know, during the year of 2016 I learned a bunch. Perhaps, more than I learned during many years of wearing all sorts of hats, be it a developer, consultant, manager, or a CTO. I remember, just before quitting the startup I worked for at a time, I seriously thought of getting into one of the top MBA programs. I went through a round of interviews, started collecting documents and realized something: I had no desire working for a “big corp” and my biggest ambition was to build a meaningful product, together with a great team. That was the Aha moment for me. It became apparent that to learn building a startup, I just have to start building it.
So, there were many learnings in my first year of running Dockbit, and I wanted to share the most important ones with you.
Emotional roller coaster
I’ve heard of this beast before and I can assure you that people didn’t lie when they said running a startup is an emotional roller coaster. Sure, there are bright days when you feel like at the top of the mountain, but mostly dark ones when you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. I think the main reason for having such mixed feelings is the uncertainty.
In startups, you have free hands to do anything you want. There is no track record of what worked and what not, no silver bullet, no plan, no boss, and no idea how big it can get. I understand, that’s what actually enables startups to flourish. But this precise freedom is what makes it hard to take decisions and see the direction. The decisions take some time to bring results, so we feel things don’t work, and hence experience such an emotional drain. And you know what?! It’s normal! Things take the time to evolve, so we gotta trust our inner voice.
As a startup CEO I slept like a baby. I woke up every 2 hours and cried. — Ben Horowitz
Power of making connections
This one might sound obvious to a lot of people, especially with strong social skills. For me, though, and maybe for many other introverted tech people, I never thought how powerful it could be to make connections with people I’ve never met before.
Startups are all about making connections, storytelling, getting feedback and looking out for opportunities. Here is a real life example from Dockbit. When we just started, I reached out to an investor. I knew Dockbit wouldn’t be appealing to him yet and I literally forced myself to spend some time to get that meeting. Our conversation didn’t turn out to be an immediate deal, but he connected me to another person, who connected me to one of our current investors and also to one of our early customers. I think that single conversation eventually turned out into a dozen of valuable contacts that helped our startup in one way or another.
What I found out is that when you’re building something meaningful and truly excited about it, this excitement moves other people, many of whom are willing to help you. That worked for me connecting with top-tier investors, entrepreneurs, and influencers, some of them are thousands of miles away from me.
I learned that we can get connected with pretty much anybody we want, as long as we know what we’re after, remain candid and enthusiastic.
Solving own problem is not enough
Dockbit was born out of our own necessity to solve the problems of deploying software today. We also consulted companies on how to ship software more efficiently and learned a lot from successful startups in the space. Having all this experience and understanding of the pain points, helped us to build the first version of the product. But it also had a side effect.
The problem of having an in-depth domain knowledge is that we keep forgetting that a lot of people do not understand the field well enough. They simply do not possess all that information we’ve accumulated during the time of building our product. Hence, we tend to ignore the basics and stop asking ourselves simple questions. We assume we know the customer, failing to validate our assumptions.
I found out that a lot of people have hard times understanding what we’re building, but they do care why we’re building it. Thus, everything around the product has to be focused on telling the story of why we’re building what we’re building. I think a lot of startups are struggling to acquire early customers, raise money, and get enough traction just due to the “lack of why”.
Quality over quantity
During the past year, I had a chance to meet dozens of founders. I’ve listened to their stories on how they operate their companies. It’s great to learn from each other and share experiences.
What struck me most, though, was that many of the founders I talked to were so obsessed with quantity. They looked for interns to double their number of followers, they hired developers from low-wage countries to double the number of their features, and they attracted people just to make their investor decks look solid.
I learned that aiming for quality over quantity is far more important — it sets your startup for a better future. By quality, I mean finding the best people you possibly can, who not only have excellent skills, self-aware and independent, but more importantly, people that share your mindset and excitement about your product. These people will be the foundation of your company, they will help you build your culture.
And by finding the best people, I don’t necessarily mean to look for ex-Googlers or Standford grads. Nowadays, when people have access to the same resources on the Internet, you are able to find great talent from almost anywhere in the world. Aim for the best talent you can possibly find, because even if you fail in attracting them, you’ll still be in a much better state than when starting off with a lower expectation bar.
Being able to disconnect
This one is really difficult and frankly, I am still learning how to disconnect from the company sometimes. The burning runway, day-to-day challenges, and the amount of simultaneous things founders have to do to keep their startups running is just insane. Even while we’re away from work, we still keep thinking, planning, and worrying. Not being able to disconnect from our startups is a guaranteed path to burnout, mediocre ideas and bad decisions — that I know for sure.
What works for me is staying healthy. I pay close attention to what I am eating, trying to exercise regularly and jog in the mornings. On the weekends, I do my best not to work and take the time for a family. I know, I still suck at it, so the work-life balance is one of my goals for 2017, FTW.