In early September 2015, a good friend asked if I’d be willing to sit down for lunch to talk startups, projects, and life with a guy we’ll call “Mike.” Full disclosure: If there are two things I love dearly, it’s lunch and problem solving.
Prior to then, I had never met Mike. After introductions and necessary comments on the weather, I asked Mike how I could help. He began by sharing how he moved to New York to build a passion project. He was quick to mention he had only taken his day job (a lucrative job, I might add) to pay the bills while he built this idea.
He had taken that job two years ago. Since then, he had not done anything aside from booking several meetings exactly like this one. Four meetings over the past year, to be exact. Meetings he hoped could offer the morsel of magical advice which would solve his quandaries and kickstart his venture.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said. “I’ve never built a project or a company from scratch. I feel like every first step is going to be wrong first step.”
That’s a wildly valid and popular reason to stall out on your dreams, plans, hopes.
Then he asked, “So how did you know what to do when you started any one of your companies or ideas?”
First (and before I get busy on the soapbox), I was curious why no advice before had helped him get going. So I asked. I did not ask who gave him the advice, but simply what was one thing he took away from each conversation. They were, in no certain order:
* Find a mentor
* Bring in a business partner
* Start now. Quit waiting. Make it up if you have to.
Each of these ideas hold merit and are, at times, necessary to start or grow a business. But should they be the first elements we focus on?
Listen. Take notes as fast as you can. Most importantly, keep your mouth shut. Ears open, mouth shut. Trust me.
Bring in a mentor? Dammit Jim, yes! I agree with this wise individual 1000%, so much so that I want to be his/her friend. If you have someone in reach that is wiser and can offer you good advice or leadership (being a little older doesn’t hurt, either), then cling to them for dear life. Hold tight. Don’t let go. Listen. Take notes as fast as you can. Most importantly, keep your mouth shut. Ears open, mouth shut. Trust me.
If your entrepreneurial Yoda does not have the time to check in weekly or monthly, then simply make them your surrogate mentor. Watch them. Study their decisions. You will begin to see that their business decisions and directions are exactly what they will eventually tell you in your meetings. Sure, it may not be as easy as having a free nugget of golden advice dropped in your lap, but sometimes it’s your only option.
Bring in a business partner? Sure, if the time is right. If you require a skillset you do not have (and you have no money to pay someone for this skillset), bringing in a business partner (and giving them a piece of ownership in your idea) is certainly a good option. This option may make your life a tad more difficult down the road (as some relationships do), but that’s not to say that good business relationships aren’t worth that little bit of extra effort and headache.
Now for that final piece of advice given to Mike. The one which said to quit waiting and, most importantly, to make it up if necessary.
I don’t know who gave him that advice. While I’d like to believe the advice-giver was me in a parallel universe, that probably isn’t the case. This was the exact advice I was going to give Mike, the same advice I’ve handed out dozens of times throughout my career. My career of making it up.
This is not to say at one point or another I haven’t had business partners, angel investors, or venture capital. Some times there were, other times it was just me, my team, and the belief that failure was not an option.
There’s a stigma around saying “we made it up.” If you say you are “experimenting”, the crowd applauses, but “making it up”? That’s almost like admitting you don’t know what to do next. The reality, though: Come on, it’s the same thing.
Take a look around at any large, successful company, in technology or otherwise. Why does a company release an app or a project to only pull it a year later? Why do certain features come and go? Remember that Steve Jobs guy? Remember when he said Apple would not focus on an API for third parties to develop iPhone apps? If you wanted to develop a third-party app, you had to make it work inside of Safari. Womp womp womp. Skip ahead a few years. Apple saw $1.7 billion in app store billings in one single month. I’d be bold enough to say Apple’s App Store was a worthwhile experiment.
The Instagram we all know and love was originally called Burbn, an app which let users check in at particular locations, make plans for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups. The pictures became king, the rest was stripped away, and Instagram was born.
Ladies and gentlemen, to some extent everyone is making a little something up. If they tell you otherwise, this person likely believes glitter is made from unicorn tears.
Ladies and gentlemen, to some extent everyone is making a little something up. If they tell you otherwise, this person likely believes glitter is made from unicorn tears. We’d like to sit and think these ginormous brands knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t. Not fully. They were also experimenting. They were making it up as they go. They were, and they still are.
The story of “making it up” that I tell most is a story of my previous company, Virb. We launched in 2006 as a social network, as a better MySpace, with a heavy focus on design. Back then, there wasn’t a single good looking social network, and we wanted to fix this problem. Skip ahead to 2009. Despite a wonderful first 18 months as a social network, Virb was losing to sites like Facebook and Tumblr. And we were losing fast. So we shuttered the social network, rebranded the company, and released a brand new product – Virb, the DIY website builder that still operates today.
I am often asked about how we knew to pivot from a dying project to a successful brand. We didn’t. We knew what our users liked about our product and how they were using it. We had only a hunch that we could successfully retool Virb and turn it into an easy-to-use website builder for the same creative community that used Virb as a social network.
Beyond that, it was all a gamble. A big gamble. We had no empirical data on what was going to work and what was going to flop. As a company, we had only two options: Adapt or die.
We did our best to gather good data, look at competitors, inspect the DIY website builder market, and fill the gaps that these other services had missed. Everything else, everything in between those details, we made up as we went. We believed we had a good idea on our hands, but not one of us knew for certain.
The art of making it up doesn’t only apply to starting a company or a project. Not in the least. It can be easily be applied to your day job, your relationships, your hobbies, or your evening freelance projects.
Have more confidence in experimenting and making things up. Let it wrap you up like a warm blanket, especially since everyone else is doing it too. It liberated me, and I hope it can do the same for you.