Are You Killing Your Startup Before It’s Even Born? [Interview]

Are you finding it difficult to launch your startup? The good news is that you’re not alone. The even better news – there’s a cure.

Knowing code and design is only a very small part of building working products. The way we think about development makes all the difference between products that get launched, and those that fail.

I recently spoke with Mike and Fred, the two guys behind FoundersKit – an upcoming vendor site offering all sorts of exclusive discount deals and coupons for new entrepreneurs and starting designers.

What’s more exciting is that FoundersKit is the fourth product to be launched in a series Mike and Fred call SixBySix – an ambitious project to launch six startups in six months. The goal of this project is, according to its founders, to learn how to launch products.

Up until SixBySix, Mike and Fred hadn’t been very successful in following through with their ideas. Before embarking on the rapid launch challenge, they had only one very small completed project under their belt.

It was a website called “Are the NSA Watching Me”, and it exists solely to give you the obvious answer.

The Project Cycle of Doom

The reason Mike and Fred haven’t had a lot of success in finishing their projects isn’t because they’re lazy or lacking in ability – rather, it’s been an organisational failure.

As Mike explains:

We get caught up in what I call the “shiny thing syndrome” – which is that we come up with this idea that we think is awesome. We would be really enthusiastic and we’d steam head first into it. We’d start building things, we’d start planning and then we’d start throwing new features into the mix.

So it’s kinda like “ooh, let’s build this one page website that just has the text “Hello World!” on it.”  And we’d get really enthusiastic and be like “what if there was pictures of cats on it as well?”  and if it could make you coffee and it would be so good if it could fly into the moon as well. So all of a sudden, after a couple of weeks, we’ve gotten to “build the new large hadron collider!”

We’re always expanding these ideas so much that they become just so unachievable, and then we would lose enthusiasm for them and eventually the project would die.

I suspect many of you have experienced this at some point in your life. Mike and Fred call this the “Project Cycle of Doom”. What it means, essentially, is that a project with no clear goals or deadlines will inevitably spiral out of control.

It looks something like this:

Project Cycle of Doom - by WeAreContrast


Mike tells me he knew they had the technical skills to build things, but they just didn’t know how to build these things.

“Does that make sense?” He asks me. It does.

The technical ability to build a startup alone is not enough to get a project off the ground. You will also need to be organised, and have tons of discipline to avoid crashing your startup into any of the millions of erratic ideas that pop up during the chase.

Learning to launch

Mike and Fred desperately needed to fix their inability to launch, and that is what ultimately led them to do SixBySix.

The concept they came up with is this – at the start of every month, the two would come up with an idea for a product. They would then have to build and launch that product within that month – come hell or high water. Repeat until six are done.

To strip it down to the core function – the idea was to force themselves to launch on time, no matter what.

But almost immediately, Mike and Fred hit a roadblock:

Mike: initially we thought we were gonna spend anywhere between four and eight hours on the project each per week. With “How’s It Going”, we spent 250 hours on it over the course of about six weeks. So we were massively over our launch estimate. I think that was kind of the first eye opener for us.

So what was the eye opener? What did you realize?

Mike: That it’s really difficult to stop the race, when you can see the finish line.

Fred: the eye opener in the first project was that how long it took to get something out the door. We came up with a scope that we thought was quite small. We tried to go really as small as we could, we used a frontend framework, a backend framework – and what we were doing wasn’t really that complicated.

The problem was that we added this one feature – which was the ability to delete a question – which then ruined everything. That one feature kinda probably added like a hundred hours to the project – which basically meant we missed our deadline.

Unexpected stuff happens, and Mike admits it’s difficult to see the unforeseeable. On the upside, things get better with practice. When HowsItGoing took 250 hours, Mike and Fred’s second project Flashtabs only took 77 hours. The third one – Outstanding Bar, came in at just under sixty.

The lesson? Start small.

The reason? Time.

Value your time

If you don’t value your time, you’ll never make anything valuable.

The underlying philosophy for the Contrast projects is treating time as a proper investment. Mike and Fred track everything they do. In their blog, they add Toggl data about how much time they’ve put into their projects, and even how long their posts took to write.

Mike and Fred are happy to invest in their projects financially (let’s not forget the spend money to make money principle), but so far their biggest investment has been time. And you should never invest blindly.

Yes, it’s that old “time is money” thing. You would think people have learned this by now:

Fred: Seeing time as a cost is huge, and I don’t think enough people put enough value on their time. It obviously is the biggest currency you have. Time as a cost is something that we have made one of the central pillars of what we do at Contrast.

“I don’t think enough people put enough value on their time. It obviously is the biggest currency you have.”

Mike: We wanted to monitor how much time we were investing, as you would if you were putting your own money in a startup. I think that was quite important, and I think going forward, we’ll continue doing that, and weigh that up against it. So we’ll look at how much time we’re investing in a certain product, and how much money that product is making us back.

But also there is a balancing act there – just because something is taking a lot of time and isn’t making any money now, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the potential to make you money in the future.

Lessons for future founders

In many ways, our minds are our biggest enemy. If you trust yourself to figure things out on the go (the dangerous art of “winging it”), you’ll be lost in the woods in no time.

The obvious solution is to have a plan, and to set clear goals. And goals should always have deadlines:

Fred: We used to never set deadlines – we used to say “oh, we’ll just work on it”.

Mike: I think we had some deadlines, but they were so…. distant. It was like, oh, we’ll get this done in six months But I think setting a deadline six months away is…

Fred: It’s not even worth having.

Mike: Yeah, because it’s so bad because you don’t think about the deadline. You need that pressure.

Lack of pressure is one thing, but short term plans are also easier to manage. At Toggl, for example, we operate on 3-month plans. For us at least, three months is long enough to set serious goals, but also short enough to allow for flexibility.

But most importantly, these short term plans are tangible.

Fred: The first thing is to set short term goals. That’s the big one for us. You don’t necessarily have to keep religiously to them, but they should be like a stake in the ground that you aim for.

“Have long term goals in mind, and short term goals in focus.”

The overall lesson is – have long term goals in mind, and short term goals in focus. You should have in the back of your mind an idea of where you wanna go, but that shouldn’t be what you’re thinking about now, that should be something you carry around with you. Like subconscious stuff, really. If we didn’t have long term goals, we wouldn’t know why we were doing these short term goals.

Keeping deadlines short isn’t the only way to keep pressure on. Mike and Fred insist on building their projects publicly.

Fred: Building in public is another one for us. We made a decision to be open and honest about everything we’re doing, and we try to share as much as we can. We export our Toggl reports for each project, so people can see exactly what the breakdowns are. We also share exactly how long each blog post took – which is very embarrassing sometimes.

What’s the benefit of being public like that?

Fred: There’s a few benefits. One benefit is – for me anyway – it makes me want to get things done. Building in public puts external pressure on me to get things done. If you’re just building something on your own, and when you get to the point where you’re struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the easiest thing is just to quit – you need a bit of external pressure to go on.

“When the easiest thing to do is to quit, you’ll need a bit of external pressure to go on.”

But it’s not just about external pressure or accountability. When you look at why the open source culture is commonplace now, is that it helps everybody. It’s all about giving back.

Mike: Another benefit of building in public is that you’re not just benefitting yourself, but you’re benefitting other people as well.

Part of the reason we like sharing how long things take for us, is if they can see that we built this product with only a little bit of experience in that in so long, then it’ll give people an idea on how long it might take them to be able to do it. Its that kind of sharing of knowledge – I think that’s one of the things we like about transparency, is that you help other people too.

We follow some of the industry leaders in the startup community, and we’re learning a lot from the blog posts they’re writing and all of the useful information that they’re sharing. And we feel like we want to be part of it, and help other people get off the ground, in the same way that we’ve been helped.

* * *

“Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

– Alain de Botton

I love this quote. To me, it echoes Fred’s point on how SixBySix has taught them to respect deadlines and to focus on starting out with a minimum viable product. This is allowing them to finally start hitting the marks, and working through ideas at a much quicker pace.

Chances are, you’re not going to build the perfect app, or the perfect website in your first launch. Inevitably, you’ll be doing tweaks and improvements down the road. It sounds obvious enough, but until you actually force yourself to take a more disciplined approach to project development, the finish line will always be around the next corner.

If you want more lessons on how to build a startup, you can follow Mike and Fred on their blog and on their Twitter page. More recently, they’ve been working on automated user feedback software.

You can also help others by sharing this story on Twitter.

By On May 28, 2015

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