API First

If you’re building a digital product or have built one, you’ve most likely heard of the debate between web first and mobile first. In short, the debate is about choosing which platform to focus on first when building a MVP (minimum viable product). Fred Wilson wrote a good piece about it here when mobile was quickly gaining a lot of attention from product teams.

Mobile has since lost its edge as the platform of focus for a lot of product teams because it has gotten crowded and there are a lot of new platforms bursting on the scene (AI, chatbots, VR/AR, etc.). Google even recently called itself an AI first company. But I think there’s another way of thinking about building a digital product, and that is API first.

What I mean by API first is focusing on building your core API as a product before focusing on another platform. The great thing about focusing on the API first is that it makes it easier to tackle building your product for other platforms and interfaces. Once your team has built an API, you can focus on building your product for whatever other platform potential customers may be using, or whatever the next big thing is. In a sense, it “future proofs” your product because no matter what the next big thing is, your product will be ready for it. You won’t have to rewrite everything in order to support the new platform.

Now, I know there are probably a lot of engineers reading this and rolling their eyes saying you should be building products like this anyway! And you’re right, a smart product team will do this anyway when they build their product for one of the other platforms. However, often these APIs are kept private and not thought of as products themselves, but rather as a component of another product.

All of that is starting to change. Amazon recently announced a way to make it super simple to monetize an API built with their API Gateway product. In addition, 21.co is enabling bitcoin-payable APIs. This means your API can now be a product itself. You make money by charging others who consume your API.

The API as a product isn’t an entirely new idea, some examples include Cloudinary, AWS itself, and Api.ai. But what these new developments do is make it really easy for any product team to monetize their APIs.

I think this could have been an interesting route for Twitter to go in its early days. You could even make the argument this is what they did unintentionally. When Twitter first burst on the scene, there were lots of clients built on top of the Twitter API. But instead of thinking of their product as their API, they thought of their product as their own mobile and desktop clients where they could serve ads and make money that way. In an effort to channel more eyeballs to these products, they cut off a lot of the third-party developers that were consuming their API, and were left with arguably mixed results as a business.

Various Twitter clients (photo cred: Trusted Reviews)

So if you’re on a product team, in the midst of building a new product, or are thinking about building a new product, I encourage you to give the API first approach a consideration. Afterall, having another way to make money can’t be a bad thing for a startup.

How to use the Gig Economy to your advantage

One of the great promises of the gig economy is freedom. In the gig economy, it goes, you are your own boss. You can work according to your own schedule. You have access to a number of different sources of income on-demand. But as with any great promise, sometimes it really is too good to be true.

The gig economy has faced its challenges. From the lack of benefits like healthcare to the growing concern many gigs will disappear because of automation, there is a lot to be desired. If you’re on the internet long enough, you’ll probably come across various articles pointing out the flaws of the gig economy.

But it’s not all despair and broken promises. The gig economy, viewed in the right way, can be a huge advantage. When you have lots of different options to choose from and the freedom to pick and choose from those options at a moments notice, you have an advantage.

While most current solutions to the issues of the gig economy focus on reclassification of workers, few focus on the potential that’s already there: choice.

The growing popularity of on-demand services for consumers is driving more and more new companies to join the gig economy. And each new company needs a fleet of workers who can fulfill their customers’ demand. So not only are there more opportunities now but they are also easier to get because each new company is desperate for workers. Which means one thing to the gig economy worker: more choice.

For a person looking for extra work, you couldn’t ask for a better situation. You can use each gig against the others to maximize your income. Drive for Lyft but haven’t received that high of a wage in recent weeks? Drive for Uber. Uber not paying that high either? Drive for Fasten. Fasten’s wages low? Deliver for Postmates. And on and on.

The beauty of the gig economy is you can do this every day. Heck, you can do it every hour. Most on-demand services now have some sort of surge pricing or higher pay rates during peak customer demand times. That means you could just work for whatever gig currently is paying peak wages. And when they switch off, you move on to the next one.

It’s easy to think having a full-time job is better than having to jump from one gig to another. Full-time jobs can offer stability and benefits. But having lots of choices and the freedom to quickly and easily move between those choices can often bring the best results.

The only way to keep increasing your income in a competitive working world is to be in high demand. This can be achieved when you have a particular set of skills that are highly sought after. Unfortunately, not everyone can be so lucky. But another way to be in high demand is to work in a field where workers have lots of choices. When workers have lots of choices of where they can work, the employers fight for the workers, not the other way around.

A lot of people think the gig economy isn’t for them or they think Uber is their only option. But there are lots of on-demand service companies now and more and more are being started every day. Most don’t require much more than a smartphone. So if you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve got a connection to a lot of potential sources of income. Use it to your advantage.

Interested in the gig economy? Want to find out what potential gigs might be out there for you? Check out my new app called The Gig Saloon. It allows anyone, if you work gigs or not, to find new opportunities.

You can filter by your location, requirements met, and types of gigs you’d like to work. You might be surprised what’s out there. It also has helpful features like news filtered specifically for the gig economy, the ability to review gigs you’ve worked, and a forum to discuss your experience with other gig workers.

And as I’ve said, the more opportunities presented to you the more of an advantage you have. So check it out and let me know what you think.

Announcing The Gig Saloon

A platform for the gig economy

The gig economy is transforming society. Not only are the services provided by gig economy companies making people’s lives better and more efficient, but millions of people are now able to work on their own schedule, be their own boss, and have access to many more sources of income.

But like any transformation, it comes with some bumps along the way. For the gig economy, this has mostly been around the relationship between the gig workers and the gig companies. While gig workers have new freedom and flexibility like never before, they also feel used and ignored.

So far the majority of the response has been to demand a reclassification of workers from independent contractors to part-time or full-time employees. In some instances this makes sense and can be mutually beneficial to both parties. Many gig companies only hire part-time or full-time employees. But this also takes away one of the very promises the gig economy created, the freedom to be your own boss and work your own hours.

That’s why I am excited to announce a new app called The Gig Saloon!

The motivation for The Gig Saloon is to create a platform where gig economy workers can go to find new jobs, stay up to date on gigs, and share their experience. It puts the power into the hands of the worker, while still keeping the benefits of freedom and flexibility.

Find new gigs

The easiest way to keep flexibility, yet maximize income is to have optionality. The more options you have, the more bargaining power you have and the easier it is to choose the an option that benefits you the most at any given time.

The Gig Saloon makes finding new gigs and applying for them easier and faster than ever before. You can filter gigs by location, requirements met, roles you’re interested in, and type of gig. Whenever you feel like you’ve found something you’re interested in, simply apply from the app and have your information pre-filled in the application form.

Stay up to date

Another important part of maximizing income is knowing what gig to work and when. Because the pay for each gig varies greatly depending on current demand, it can get overwhelming trying to keep track of many different gigs. That’s why with The Gig Saloon you can keep track of all of your current gigs and register to receive their specific notifications.

News articles are also a great way to stay current with what’s happening around the gig economy. The Gig Saloon shows gig economy specific news articles for you so you know what’s the latest without having to leave the app.

Share your experience

Finally, the most powerful thing gig workers can do is exchange information with each other. Although there are many forums out there already that have brought gig workers together, most notably Facebook Groups and Reddit, they remain fragmented. Some forums are private and need an invite to get in, which blocks any potentially interested workers from access. And some have lots of great content but because the platforms weren’t built specifically for gig workers, lots of information gets lost or is irrelevant quickly.

In The Gig Saloon, workers will have one place to find any and all information shared by others. For now, it’s simply two lists, Latest and Most Popular. As more and more people contribute content the app will get better and better at surfacing the information you care about most.

Where does it go from here

At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you enough to give The Gig Saloon a try. But I also want to show you where it goes from here. Right now, the app addresses a number of different pain points for gig workers but there is still so much more to be done.

One of the features that will be built in the near-term is the ability to review gigs you’ve worked. One annoying problem is that it’s really hard to gauge what the actual earnings will be from any given gig. Sure, companies publish this information on their websites (and for the ones that do, we include that in the app now) but let’s be honest, those are usually best-case scenarios that don’t apply to the majority of workers and are there for the benefit of the companies in order to attract new workers promising unrealistic rates. Adding in reviews of gigs, including your average pay rate for that gig, will help shine a light on what you can actually expect to earn from any given gig. And just like how workers are constantly being reviewed on a 5 star basis, what about reviewing the companies? What would you give Uber on a scale of 1–5 stars as place to work? Lyft? DoorDash? etc. Gig workers should have this information in an easily to understand format and that’s what gig reviews will bring.

Another feature that I am really excited about is better filtering of content. There are millions of posts, tweets, images, articles, etc. out there that can help gig workers. But right now, they are on many different sites/apps and are really hard to find (especially if you don’t know what to ask!). By using machine learning, we can come up with a smarter tagging system that automatically tags content with relevant topics. That means you will no longer have to do the manual process of searching for the information you need. Instead the relevant information that you care about will come to you.

It’s about time more power was put in the hands of the gig workers and that’s exactly what The Gig Saloon aims to do.

Interested in giving it a try? Download the app on iOS or Android now!

Why Airbnb can be the one to finally disrupt the broker business model

For anyone who has searched for an apartment to live in, you know one of the biggest frustrations with the process is dealing with a broker.[1] No matter where you live in the US it seems that if you are looking for a new place to live, you have to go through a broker.

This process is stuck in the past. Don’t get me wrong, real estate brokers used to serve an important role. When the internet wasn’t around and everyone didn’t have a super computer stuck in their pockets, brokers were there to keep you informed about what was available in the market. They helped sellers reach more buyers and buyers know about more listings. It was a win-win for both sides and served an important role in the market.

But we’ve moved on. In the time it takes you to read this article, you could have found out about all the potential places you could rent. Anywhere in the US[2]. From a number of different (and dare I say free) sources. We are living in the information age, yet when it comes to finding a place to live, we still have gatekeepers.

This is an obvious frustration that many of us have, particularly the younger generations. Just doing a quick search on AngelList, there are 405 startups that come up when you do a search in the Rental Housing market.

I have personally tried building something to address this issue. Long story short,[3] the project didn’t work out, a similar result to everyone else who has tried in this space. But it gave me some key insights about how the broker model works. Before going through this experience, I had generally always thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to go around brokers. It seemed simple enough, the internet gave us a way to connect anyone in the world. You just needed to build a site that could connect landlords looking to rent out properties with tenants looking to rent properties. How naïve of me to think this.

What I didn’t realize was that there were many different incentive structures set up along the way that helped entrench the vested interests in the market. For instance, I learned that landlords have incentive to use brokers instead of going directly to the consumer. The fee that brokers charge tenants is sometimes split with landlords to make sure that the brokers keep their positions solidified as the middlemen of this market.

So that brings us to Airbnb. Where do they fit in all of this? And why do I think they will succeed where so many others have failed? Airbnb is in a unique position because of the platform they have built. Just like it wasn’t just a website for sleeping on someone else’s couch, it’s not just a website for booking vacation rentals. The key component is that they have been building a platform of trust between people. We all use Airbnb today to sleep in a stranger’s home! Think about how amazing that is for a second. Before Airbnb, the only homes most of us ever stepped foot in were either our own home, a close friend’s home, or a relative’s home.

The possibilities that a platform of trust unlocks are enormous. It opens the door for a variety of transactions. On a platform you don’t have to predict how users are going to use it. A platform is flexible, it allows users to use it in new and creative ways. And one of those ways is long-term stays.

I think this is even catching Airbnb off guard. Take a look at a recent tweet from Brian Chesky their CEO:

I think even Brian was surprised by this and was one of the reasons he chose to share the data. This should make brokers start to worry. You can see the similarities between how major hotel chains used to look at Airbnb in the beginning and how brokers look at them today. 20% of their business is a huge number. I don’t know what the actual size of their business is but just about 17 million people alone booked a place in the summer of this year.[4] So it is not a small number. And I would put money on it that the rate of long-term stays is only growing. And like the rest of the Airbnb business, it’s growing fast.

Take a look at the chart showing their growth below. That’s only up to 2012. And the rapid rise of nights booked? The longer people stay, the more nights are booked. The point of all this is to show the huge potential for Airbnb to take over a large chunk of the rental market.


We live in a world now that is much more transient. We are increasingly living in more places for shorter periods of time. Not everyone plans their life according to 12 month increments. We should have the flexibility to choose how long we want to live somewhere, not be forced by some arbitrary schedule. Airbnb is perfectly set up for this changing world. Their mission statement is Belong Anywhere and there is no better place to belong then home.

Since I believe Airbnb will become the place to go for both short and long-term rentals over time, I wanted to test it out. I needed to rent out my apartment for 6 months so instead of going the usual route and using something like Craigslist, Lovely, or one of the other options, I used Airbnb.

What the long-term price and stay requirement sections look like for a host on Airbnb

The basic setup for hosting long-term rentals is basically the same as the setup for short-term rentals. This hasn’t always been the case and a nice new set of tools for a host have been added. The new tools include long-term pricing, minimum and maximum stay lengths, and stay requirements. When setting up a long-term rental, you need to make sure you set the minimum stay to whatever it is you’re looking for as well as the particular time frame you are looking to rent your place.

Another nice part about the Airbnb platform for long-term rentals is payments. It was easy to add a security deposit (a must for long-term rentals) as well as receive payments. Receiving payments is often an under recognized burden for a landlord. Collecting payments from renters can be difficult. There is also the issue of credibility (will this person be able to pay this rent in 6 months time?). Landlords spend both time and money ensuring that payments will be collected but Airbnb makes it easy by taking the brunt of this work. Each month on the 28th, I received payment that was electronically deposited into a bank account. They even handle the taxes with W9 forms which can get tricky for landlords come April.

While a lot of features do now exist with long-term renting in mind, there are still some remaining challenges. Hopefully, as Airbnb realizes the potential for long-term rentals, they will start to address these issues. One feature that would help both renters and hosts alike would be a dedicated section for long-term rentals. It would be helpful to search for a place to rent without having to specify exact dates and instead use ranges for the length of stay. If I am going on vacation, I know when I will be somewhere and for how long. But if I am looking for a place to live, I might not know exactly when I want to move. I also might be somewhat flexible with the length of stay. Maybe I am a student and only need a place for one semester or maybe if I find a great place, I’ll want it for the whole year.

Another part of the experience that could prove to be a challenge is reviews. At the time of looking for our renter, our place had other roommates already living there. I wasn’t sure how this dynamic would impact the review I would get. And on a platform where trust is an important feature, reviews hold a lot of weight. Granted, ultimately I would be responsible for knowing the situation and for choosing who lived in the house. But as we all know when you live with other people for more than a week or two, you might find you don’t get along. Should roommate relationships effect the review of a host? Is it the host’s responsibility to make sure the interaction between roommates goes well, even if they are not the other roommate? If I use Airbnb to rent out multiple rooms at varying lengths of time, the interaction between renters might cause issues, but should that reflect poorly on the review of the host? Maybe there needs to be a way to review other roommates or renters (if they were also booked through Airbnb) as well as hosts? These are particularly challenging questions but ones that need to be addressed by Airbnb if it is going to be a force in the long-term rental market.

All that said, I really enjoyed the experience of using Airbnb for long-term rentals. It ended up working out really well. After the initial trepidation that comes any time you are letting another person stay in your home for an extended period of time, it really was a breeze. I’m glad I tried it and can report back that others should try it too!

So where do we go from here? I hope that I have left you with the impression that the rental broker business model is broken, but it may finally be up against its best challenger yet. And I hope I also left you with the idea that technology platforms can be amazingly powerful. The successful ones usually end up accomplishing a lot more then even the original team first thought they could.

Next time you’re looking for a place to live or need new tenants, give Airbnb a shot! I know of at least one great long-term rental that’s on there! 🙂

Update: So this made it to the front page of Hacker News (which is awesome :). There’s a pretty good conversation going on there if you wanted to weigh in. Thanks for reading!

 [1] The focus for this post is on the apartment rental market in major US cities. Although many of the points from this article can probably be extracted to other parts of the real estate market as well. Also, I have now learned this isn’t true everywhere but it has been my experience in Boston and NYC.

[2] And if you can’t, it’s most likely because brokers prevent you from accessing them.

[3] If you want to find out more about this story, email me!

What does the future of the sharing economy look like?

The sharing economy is a fascinating and powerful movement. It has unlocked new sources of income and new jobs for millions of people. We are still at the very beginning of what’s possible. The opportunities for entrepreneurs are obvious. One of the most interesting parts of this change to think about is the dynamics that may come as more and more of daily life is shared between ourselves.

What will happen when everyone shares resources?

If services like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, etc. keep growing, there will be less of a need to own stuff.[1] Analyses have already been done showing the cost of using Uber/Lyft can be cheaper than the cost of owning a car. I believe this will only continue to grow, to the point where owning a car will be considered foolish. This case gets stronger with more and more people moving into cities and the imminent move to self-driving cars.

This presents some intriguing economics. In a world where there are fewer people buying possessions, supply will exceed demand at first. This is especially true early on in the shift as companies will be slow to change their original businesses. This will cause prices to fall drastically. Just look to the solar panel market as a recent example of what happens when supply heavily outweighs demand.

The companies that are currently making money by selling these products will suffer greatly with this change. Many solar panel manufacturers ended up going out of business after the price drop. In contrast, this is great for consumers. With fewer things you need to buy and falling prices, your purchasing power rises. See Benedict Evans’ blog post on Ways to think about cars for more details on how the car industry will be changing.

What impact will this have between those who possess things and those who do not?

The sharing economy has been great for providing people with jobs. Whether you are driving for Lyft or renting out a spare room in your house on Airbnb, people have been given a new source of income. This provides opportunities for those who have the resources (car, house, etc.) but what about the people who don’t? This is one aspect of the sharing economy that few seem to talk about.

On the one hand, the sharing economy helps bring the costs to use something down. As I discussed above, this gives more people access to more things. On the other hand, it puts the power in the laps of those who own the resources. If you have a car or house you have a source of income. If you don’t you have to look elsewhere or depend on the people who do own resources for your income.[2]

Let’s unpack this a little bit further. If owning a resource is where the money is, companies will want to control the possessions. It’s not a huge leap to make to think that in 3–5 years, Uber not only controls the platform but also owns its own fleet of self-driving cars. It’s also not crazy to think companies will form to own houses whose sole purpose is to rent out on Airbnb.[3] Or going even further, companies may soon develop that own the labor for these on-demand services.[4]

Does that mean companies begin to own everything in the future? If so, instead of placing the power and control in the hands of everyday people, the sharing economy could end up putting the power back into the hands of large companies. That would destroy one of the great benefits of the sharing economy, being able to work for yourself.

What role does government end up serving in the sharing economy? Much of this begins to sound like current public services. You can imagine that if Uber has a fleet of self-driving cars, eventually your city will have a fleet of self-driving buses. An interesting look at what the future might hold would be current bike sharing programs. They are approved and planned by cities but run by companies.


This post wasn’t meant to make any predictions about the future but instead be a thought experiment for what might happen. I am very bullish on the future of the sharing economy but there are some legitimate concerns about what it might be like in the future. We live in an interesting time where the middle class is starting to disappear and we need to fix it. The sharing economy looks like a potential solution but should be examined thoughtfully.

[1] Paul Graham has a great essay on the benefits of not owning stuff.

[2] This isn’t entirely true. For the purpose of this blog post I wanted to focus on the sharing economy and physical possessions. Within the sharing economy, services like TaskRabbit, Instacart, etc. give the ability to share skills and time as a means to earn income. I might dedicate another blog post to discuss how these two parts interact to form the whole sharing economy.

[3] This is actually already happening. I have stayed at multiple Airbnb’s where the host was actually paid by the person I interacted with on the Airbnb site. Their job was to keep up the house and be the point of contact for the travelers.

[4] I am a little surprised this hasn’t happened already. With disputes between the services and whether on-demand workers are employees or not, it would seem there is an opportunity for a company to come in and act as a ‘modern union’. At some point I might write another article on this potential.

What it’s like being an engineer at a startup

This post was originally seen on Tech In Boston, a community about sharing learnings on building a company, product, sales, marketing and more in the Boston area.

Tech startups and engineers go hand-in-hand. At the core of any tech startup is a group of engineers. Engineers are the ones that put the ‘tech’ in tech startup. You don’t have to look very far for the mystique of the coder type. Even Hollywood is starting to get in on the action. But what is it actually like to be an engineer at a startup?

Three Qualities of An Effective Startup Engineer

1. They need to be involved in more than just writing code.

One major difference between being an engineer at a startup vs being an engineer at a large established company is the opportunity to do more than just write code. Startup engineers have many different tasks and half of them do not involve code. For example, depending on the size of the company, there might not be a dedicated designer. That means, as a programmer, you will have to do everything from creating mock-ups, to designing prototypes all the way down to the colors of the buttons.

Before we had a full-time designer at Privy, I designed and implemented each part of the product that I worked on. That was true for every engineer. We had to figure out not only how something was going to work, but how it was going to look.

This is accurate outside of product as well. When a company is small, developers are involved in all parts of the business. Your skills will be required for marketing, sales, and customer support. There are no walls between departments at a startup, both literally and figuratively. Startup engineers have to dig in and help out in every way they can.

2. They need to adapt quickly.

Everything moves fast at a startup. That means an engineer has to be capable of adapting to changes quickly. Sometimes there will be new customers in the pipeline that require a particular feature and it gets bumped to the top of the list. Engineers need to be able to realize the impact it has on the business and drop everything to implement the feature quickly.

New people join and leave your team. When you are at a startup that is growing fast some employees will be joining the team and others will be leaving. You need to be able to get your job done with 2 people or with 10 people. Wherever gaps occur, you need to be prepared to fill them quickly. Sometimes that means doing backend work even though you are a frontend developer. Other times it will mean you have to learn new processes in order to be on the same page with a larger team.

Sometimes customers come across bugs that prevent them from getting their job done. These are the type of fixes that require programmers to drop everything they are doing and get a fix out asap. Fire drills happen and you need to be ready for them at the drop of a hat.

3. They need to get shit done.

It might be a little cliche but it holds a lot of truth. When all said and done, the most important quality of a startup engineer is to get your work done. Startups do not have long timelines. Most startups live and die every few months. Whether it is implementing new features in order to close a round of funding or fixing a bug that could cause customers to lose money, engineers at startups need to get shit done.

At tech startups this is especially true because the company depends on your work. You do not have time to sit around all day debating ideas when your business is hanging on by a thread. New features need to go out, bugs need to be fixed, and marketing needs help building that landing page. There is always something that needs to be done.

To be clear this doesn’t mean do crap work just to get something out the door. Instead, I mean that you have to do great work at 5x the speed. Sometimes compromises will have to be made but the effort you put in will be noticed and appreciated by the rest of the team.

Being an engineer at a startup is exciting. Few other positions offer the combination of the ability to influence multiple departments, learn at an accelerated pace, and have direct customer impact.

Why it’s probably a good thing to have a stupid or small idea

There’s been a lot of responses lately in the tech community to the popular sentiment that people aren’t working on challenging enough ideas. Marc Andressen had a tweetstorm on the subject which spurred a conversation on the topic. Instead of regurgitating his argument in this post, I want to dive into why it’s probably a good thing if people tell you your idea is stupid or small.

Lately, I have been reading Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, which is a book about how to market and sell disruptive technology to mainstream customers. It’s a great book to read for anyone in the industry but the main takeaway is the way to capture mass adoption is to start small and focused. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Clayton Christensen’s best seller Innovator’s Dilemma. The Innovator’s Dilemma was about the exact same theme: disruptive companies almost always start in a small, niche market.

What does this have to do with stupid and small ideas? Many ideas seem stupid to you because they’re not meant for you. When eBay first started out it was a website to auction off Pez dispensers. If you weren’t selling Pez dispensers at the time, you would’ve thought this was a stupid idea. Who would ever want to buy a Pez dispenser? Not only would you have thought the idea stupid but you might naturally think the founders had small ambitions, “Okay cool, you made an auction website but you’re only selling Pez dispensers and that will hardly change the world”.

This is a common theme amongst some of the most successful and disruptive technology companies in the last few decades. A website that helps Harvard students share class schedules? Could you think of a less important idea? Online bookstore site? There are libraries and bookstores, who would want to buy books online? That’s stupid and small thinking.

Do you see the pattern here? So the next time anyone tells you your idea is stupid, you should feel really encouraged. You’re probably onto something.

The two books mentioned above explain the reason for the high correlation of success and stupid ideas. By going after niche and small markets, potential competitors often feel the same way as the media. They think the ideas are too stupid or small and therefore don’t pursue them. What they aren’t aware of is all the while your learning invaluable lessons that will help take you beyond the small, niche markets to much larger ones. Often the momentum alone will catapult a company to other larger markets. It’s difficult to compete with a company when they have momentum going their way.

I have also seen and felt this in my own startups. It’s often tempting to go after everyone. You think, “who cares about who we sell to, we just need to make sales”. This couldn’t be further from the truth and many times has the opposite effect. By pursuing everyone, you end up losing focus and selling to no one. Paul Graham offers another way of thinking about this, concentrate on making a select few customers love you. If you do this, it’s surprising how easy it will be to get another group of customers to love you.

Moral of the story: never be discouraged if someone tells you your idea is stupid, and instead of looking for the next big idea, look for a small idea that you can solve.

It takes more than just an idea

Recently, I met with someone interested in creating an app. He reached out to me because he did not have any technical skills and wanted to know what it would take to build one. I gave him some advice that I think is helpful for lots of people who want to do something similar, especially those who don’t have technical skills: test your ideas before you think about making an app.

The words ‘I have an idea for an app’ get thrown around a lot nowadays. They are most often used by non-technical people who want to create an app but do not know how. They use it as a way to try and get technical people to help them out.

The problem is that most developers are not sitting around waiting for someone non-technical to give them an idea to go build. This is why this tactic has never worked. No one has ever built a company or made lots of money by just having an idea. It takes a lot of work, whether you are technical or not.

Instead of just saying you have an idea, go and test your ideas first. My advice was to use email since everyone knows how to use email and it doesn’t take any technical chops to send or receive emails. By testing the ideas through email, he can hash out his ideas better and better understand what his customers want.

You can waste a lot of time and money when you just have an idea for an app. Creating the app after you have gotten customer feedback and better insight will help you avoid this waste. This will also help you when looking for development help. Developers will be much more receptive to your ideas when you can show them what you have learned with real users.

I hope non-technical people interested in building apps find this post helpful. This is not meant to discourage people from having ideas and trying to see them through, quite the opposite. I hope everyone with an idea can see it through, I just also hope you realize it takes a lot of work to get there.

Learning at a Startup

Often when I tell people I work at a startup, the topic of perks comes up. The perks they usually note are not having to wear a suit to work, working in a fun environment, having unlimited vacation, etc.

These are definitely nice things to have but I think by far my favorite perk of working for a startup is the learning. When you’re at a small company you have this unique position where you can interact with all aspects of the business.

Sometimes this is in the form of taking on a task in a particular domain. Problems that crop up when starting a company are often cross discipline. This means people from all departments have to get involved to figure out a solution. In a small company, this sometimes means almost everyone.

Getting your hands dirty when solving problems is great but only lasts so long. As your company gets bigger, specialization inevitably happens. One of my favorite ways to learn in this situation is by talking with people on the other teams.

When you’re in a smaller company, the other teams are a lot more accessible. You can go to lunch everyday with someone from sales, marketing, account management, design, engineering, or HR. I find this is a great opportunity to pick someone’s brain.

Startups have this amazing ability to attract smart and motivated people. So the people you go to lunch with everyday are usually the best to learn from. They often are also learning things themselves, which makes for an interesting conversation. Another advantage is they are trying to solve the same problems for the company as you are but in how it relates to their position. This can give you an interesting perspective on how the company as a whole operates without having to be the CEO.

It’s often the least talked about perk of working at a startup but the amount of learning is my favorite.

A Business is not a Hack

I am getting sick of people in startups trying to look for a hack for everything.  Today, Naval of Angellist took the time to come to 500 Startups and talk about lots of different things, from Angellist to fundraising to investors.  A few of the questions that came from the audience were focused around “hacking” Angellist, or basically they were asking: “Naval what are the best ways to raise money without actually having to build a successful business?”
These are the kinds of questions and things that I have actually heard a lot being around startups.  Everyone wants to find a “hack” for this or that.  Arguably, you could say that being in the startup culture, people hear the word hack and associated it with being scrappy and building something out of nothing.  That’s all well and good and there is definitely value in doing this but it seems instead of meaning to put something together, people are using it to mean finding a shortcut.

There are certainly plenty of times you would want to take a shortcut in building a company.  Like when trying to find cheaper solutions to your problems or using some clever marketing tool. But when it comes to actually building a business, at one point or another, you’re going to have to actually build something real and valuable.

Naval was repeatedly asked what was the best way to use Angellist to get funding, and he gave the best answer: have traction and revenue and show it.  That’s it.  May seem like a shocker to many startups out there looking to find some magical way of getting lots of money without having a sustainable business, but at the end of the day, having a great business is what will get you the things you need.  So stop looking for tricks and “hacks” for everything and go out there and build a great business. Period.