5 counter-intuitive lessons I’ve learned by building startups

5 counter-intuitive lessons I’ve learned by building startups

Building a startup is anything but intuitive. There’s a good reason startups are all about trying new things, testing them, and re-doing it all over again – there is no one right way, and what works isn’t always what’s logical.

When starting a company standard advice like, “work hard,” and, “you have to wear a lot of hats” will inevitably come your way. It’s relevant, but it’s simplistic when you begin to face the challenges and uncertainties that define early-stage organizations.

I have worked at a multinational consultancy, been a director for a portfolio of startups, and am now a founder myself. Startups are unique journeys that often defy the logic that works well in much larger organizations.

Much of the best advice I’ve received over the course of my career so far has been completely counter-intuitive. Here are five such lessons from my experience starting out with Locent  –  advice that I hope founders just getting off the ground will take to heart.

Operate below scale

When you first start building a product, you’ll face many difficult decisions about which features to prioritize. Especially if you have prior experience in large companies, it’s tempting to get ahead of yourself building features that will only matter when you have millions of users.

For example, starting work on an automated email drip campaign to re-engage users after their first visit. Or automating your entire payments system, complete with recurring billing and upgrade tiers. These are second order functions that only matter if your core product is the right one. In the beginning, it’s unlikely that yours will be.

Instead of spending valuable time building these features, put your efforts towards creating a highly-personalized first experience. Your much larger competitors have every second order feature imaginable, but they don’t have your capacity for attentiveness.

By doing things that don’t scale, you’ll make your early users feel like stakeholders in your product and win their loyalty.

Things that don’t scale:

  • Email every signup personally
  • Ask friends and family for leads
  • Do every sales call yourself
  • Respond to customers in <10min

Don’t go with your gut

No matter what your background is, assumptions about what your customers want are likely to be off-the-mark. You must find ways to validate your assumptions against the needs of customers. Customer feedback is essential to product development and you should get it before committing to expensive software development.

You may think that you can’t have users without a product, rendering this advice meaningless. But this thinking belies a larger truth about early stage product development: in the very beginning, you are the product. Your earliest users take a leap of faith based on the story you tell of how you’re going to solve a meaningful problem for them, not the mockups you create.

Talk to your audience. You can easily find out how compelling your story is without building software, so save yourself time and money by simply testing the story on target users. If it works on a good sample size, then build it.

Money is time, not the other way around

Founders face many forms of financial pressure. There’s pressure to fund-raise, pressure to charge customers, pressure to pay employees, pressure to hire service providers; the list goes on.

When combined with the attention that large rounds of funding garner, it can lead many founders to believe that fundraising is the ultimate marker of success. With funding, they reason, all of the other financial pressures are manageable.

That mentality is dangerous because money is actually merely a stand-in for a more important metric: time. In fact, every financial pressure that founders face are actually rooted in allocations of time.

Think about it. You pay employees and service providers to spend their time in a particular way, and your customers pay you for time spent using your product.


By controlling for time instead of money, you’ll actually spend and earn money far more efficiently. This means saying no to things that aren’t a valuable use of your time. There’s a reason Steve Jobs asked Jony Ive everyday what he said “no” to.

Revenue growth and profitability are the most important markers of business success. They are only attainable when founders stay focused on putting time into the right tasks, completing them as quickly as humanly possible.

Startups die by suicide, not homicide

A lesson I learned from Sam Altman at Y Combinator. The mortality rate for startups is bleak. Out of every 10 that are born, 9 will die a young, tragic death. The cause of death, however, is often misunderstood or missattributed.

Founders will often blame their failures on external variables, like lack of funding or abundance of competition. While a lack of capital and a saturated market can make success harder to obtain, examples abound of startups that overcame these challenges to become outsized successes.

If you fail, it will be because you decided to stop working. Don’t let startup obituaries blind you to this simple reality.

what really happened

Choose mission over market

Everyone knows the old adage; ‘if you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ For entrepreneurs this is mandatory, not optional.

Your chances of having even limited financial success are almost zero, so don’t use compensation as your justification for pursuing your venture. Do it because of your passion for the customers and the problems they face day-to-day.

I chose to focus on the improving administrative pains faced by healthcare providers because it hit close to home. I grew up in a family of doctors and I cared about the problems my relatives dealt with on a daily basis.

Pick a business that allows you to apply your unique experiences, and piques your passion, and the money you make will only be a footnote to your impact on the world around you.

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