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5 Startup Lessons That Saved Me 5 Years

Starting a business is tough. Everyone knows this. And, I’ve learnt it the hard way. I’ve built a fair number of products and even successfully brought five of them to market. “Five products” might sound like a lot at first, but it’s actually nothing compared to the number of products and ideas I’ve dismissed. Dismissing bad or even “good” ideas is one of the best things you can do as an entrepreneur because the “good” ideas always steal from the best ideas. Start with absolutely the best idea you can.

So, how do you know if you have the right idea or just a “good” one? With these five lessons, I’ll show you how I learned to see the difference. If I had known and truly understood these lessons from the very beginning, it would have given me five more years to work on my best idea.


1. Embrace the startup problem.

I often find myself saying sentences starting with: “I would like to do . . .” This sounds harmless at first, but is actually pretty dangerous because it’s solution-centric. A better way to start a sentence would be: “Isn’t it ridiculous that people are still dealing with X problem in 2017?” That’s problem-centric and has a lot of advantages.

I look at the current AI trend and, as someone that has a lot of experience in this field, I get really excited. People are attempting to work AI into virtually everything, but it would be better to find the few big problems where AI can remove a real pain for people. When I look closely at it, I sometimes find that I could solve a problem and serve customers better without any AI at all.

The best ideas often come when you’re looking to solve a problem you’ve had yourself. It’s how many great companies got started: Airbnb started when a guy slept on the founders air mattress during a conference. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted a better way to search the internet. Kevin Systrom just wanted to make it easy to create and share beautiful pictures (hello, Instagram).

The main difference between these companies and the AI trend is that they were problem-focused from the beginning. If you are following a trend like AI, wearables, IoT etc., you’re probably focusing too much on the solution and not enough on the problem. While it may be great to be able to have a conversation with your refrigerator, do you need to? I’m pretty sure a shopping list taped to the front of it would probably be easier, because who doesn’t have a pen and paper?

As tempting (and adorable) as it may be, creating an app that filters different puppy breeds over your selfies isn’t going to pay the bills. It may go viral for a while, but in the end it’ll likely not have staying power. Plus, Snapchat could erase your market in a heartbeat. There are thousands of apps and websites that fulfil humanity’s seemingly inherent need for cuteness, for fun or for vanity. But, rarely are they the kind of tool that becomes a necessary part of people’s daily lives.


2. Embrace competition.

I can remember my first time finding a competitor. I was three months into a new project and was browsing the web on a late winter’s evening. And, there it was: The exact same idea, the same solution, but years ahead of me. I was shocked. I couldn’t sleep that night. “How can I possibly get ahead? Or should I quit immediately?”

Fast forward: Today, I not only accept the fact that there is always competition, but also know it’s a good sign when there is (and a big red flag when there isn’t). Even more so: I embrace it. I (try to) start to fall in love with the solutions of my competitors. After all, we are working on the same problem, and they are usually passionate about solving it, too! Having competition proves that there’s a market for your idea. You just need to be better than the existing products on the market. When I started thinking about our latest product, Zenkit, we created a list of over 200 competing products. We learned both the good and the bad things from them.

Whenever I talk to other people in the startup community, I ask, “Why do you think it will make money?” The answer is usually some variation of “Because no one else is doing it!” I’ve heard this many times over my 25-plus years in the business. While I would love to believe that brand new ideas that no one has thought of will continue to come our way, I don’t think that’s usually the case. If no one else is doing it, it means one of two things: Either the guy I’m talking to doesn’t have a complete view of the market, or there isn’t a market in the first place. Google wasn’t the first, Amazon wasn’t the first, and neither was Facebook. They each took an idea and made it better. Good artists copy, and great artists steal ideas.

What happened to that first project I mentioned, you may ask? In that particular case, I quit a week later. Today, I know why: I was in love with the solution and not the problem.


3. Tell people about it.

I mentor a lot of startups in my local community here in southern Germany. I can almost instantly tell a founder’s personal process by how open they are in talking about their projects.

If they’re talking about NDAs, I know they need more time. I don’t want to pry into all the inner workings of what they’re trying to do, but I need to understand enough to give usable advice. This is really important. Many entrepreneurs think that they need to keep their idea a secret to keep people from stealing it. So I always ask what the problem is that they’re trying to fix and explain that to me instead. Unfortunately, often times I realize that they don’t have a clue about the problem (see lesson 1) or the competition.

Most ideas have already been thought of, and probably even attempted. The reason you need to tell people about your idea is because you need to validate your idea and make sure it alleviates a real pain for people.

Feedback is absolutely key. It’s all well and good to think that you can develop a product under the radar, and on some magical date in the future, go public and take over the world. The problem is that you’ll have no feedback on whether your final product actually fixes the problem you’re trying to fix. And, you can’t know that until enough people have seen it and told you how, or even if, it helped them. So get your idea out there, get as many people as you can to test it and don’t waste time worrying that someone will copy you. If they do, then they’re further validating your concept — now you just need to work hard to make the best version! Out-performing and executing will almost always win over the first mover in a space.


4. Listen to your customers.

Customers show you the pain and the problem that you’ll need to solve. When I built our first product, Chilibase, it was loved by the press. Everyone was telling me how great it was. I felt great about it, too. Chilibase was built as the first social graph for emails. However, in talking with our customers about it, I got the same feedback nearly every time: “Chilibase is cool, but what I really need is a good way to search through my emails!”

Since Chilibase couldn’t do that, it inspired me to develop Lookeen. Our customers were telling me where it hurt, and it wasn’t where I originally thought it was. At the end of the day, Chilibase was nice to have, but what our customers really needed was a search tool.

The search tool that we built has been successful specifically because we listened to our customers. If you don’t, not only will you miss opportunities, but you might do something much worse: Build a solution without a problem.


5. It gets easier. And it’s worth it.

Using the first four idea filters above, I’m able to zero in on an idea that I’m passionate about, that solves a real problem for people and that has a good chance of making money.

Being passionate about the problem will help you weather the tough times. It’s never easy and there are often hundreds of obstacles, big and small, that you face all the time. Passion not only helps you enjoy the good times, but it encourages you to see the obstacles as opportunities — to learn from your mistakes, accept criticism and maybe change your path when needs be. When you’re able to work through the challenges your business throws at you, the success you gain later on is even sweeter.

This focus on real world issues also helps you stay motivated when facing the tough realities of starting a business. Remember, a single piece of positive feedback from a user can keep you from giving it all up for an easier path. Knowing that you’re making a difference to not just your own life, but potentially the lives of many, is an extremely powerful motivator.

Lastly, finding that pain point and creating the cure will allow you to be more successful. If you’re able to build something that people not only want, but need to use, it will make your push into the market that much easier.


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