Make something people want
There are many ways to make your start-up fail, and probably the most common is not to follow this advice: make simply useful things. Paul Graham, an interesting guy I had the pleasure to meet in Berkeley at the University of California, founder of YCombinator, loves to put it in a similar way: “make something people want”. This is probably the best advice that someone can give you before you decide to bet your future and your youth on a start-up.
Paul created a really interesting model giving young entrepreneurs an opportunity to make a difference. In short he selects among many potential start-ups the ones with the best ideas and with the most committed team of founders, and gives them a chance to create a first working prototype, something they can show to attract the big guys – business angels and VCs. Each funded team typically have three months and a really small amount of money – more or less $6,000 for each founder. They can work anywhere they wish, at the company office, at home or at Peet’s coffee shop – they have free Internet access and better coffee than Starbucks.
They can use the money to rent an apartment, buy PCs or to get fresh organic food. The only thing that really matters is to be ready for the demo-day, nothing else. You have the money to focus for 90 days on build your product. Having only a few thousand dollars in your pocket of course only lets you spend it on the essentials. Every hour of work on your project must be valuable, because you can’t waste a single minute on anything that is not vital.
Doing things this way is something really good for a young 20 something entrepreneur (even for the over 40 actually). It’s the school of life: if you want to make your mark, don’t waste time, don’t waste money and start designing, coding and releasing as soon as you can. Don’t be scared of publishing your product while you are in the beta (or alpha) stage. Many people say :”if after releasing your product everything works fine, then you released too late”. Having a short time to test your idea means you cannot start scaling from the beginning: “… but what if 1 million of users decide to access my site at the same time?”. Believe me, you will solve that problem at the right time, because you will be happy to solve it – if you have to. That obviously doesn’t mean you have to make crappy code or build an unstable application, but simply do your best to make things work the first time. The second one could be simply too late.
But, how can you be sure that your new application is actually useful for someone?
That’s a tough question, and in this case there aren’t real good answers to be suggested. In my personal experience I learned that if something you created couldn’t be useful to you (at least), then is very unlikely the same stuff will be useful to other people. So try to solve a problem you have is a good beginning, and be sure that what you did is helping you to make life simpler is another good check.
In Silicon Valley, I met a smart entrepreneur named Gianluca Rattazzi, an Italian guy that has been living there for the last 30 years, where he created many successful companies (Maxiscale is his last baby). One of the most important lessons I learned from him during a lunch is that having a mentor could be really important. I really believe this. Sometimes having someone more experienced than you can make the difference between success and failure. Your mentor won’t solve any problems for you, but he can help to avoid you wasting precious time on unessential tasks.