In 2012 I failed to create a successful startup—er, failed to create a successful “startup.” Any reasonable third-party would probably call my company a hobby, or a side project at best. But a startup? C’mon.
This essay is about pumping your own tires, patting yourself on the back, rowing your own boat—however you want to phrase it—in order to avoid the devastating truth that you’re most likely failing.
Why do we pump our own tires? Because making ourselves feel good about the things we create is all too easy. Those retweets, likes and shares all add up to little shots of dopamine in our brain’s reward center, telling us that “Yes, we’ve made it!” But the hard truth is that vanity feedback and useless metrics are only distracting us from the goals ahead. Below are three ways I’ve found myself pumping my own tires, again and again, distracting me from what’s really important. I hope that my mistakes might serve as a lesson to another inspired creator.
Yeah, we’re totally a LLC
For some reason when my co-founder and I were starting our project, one of our gut reactions was to file as a LLC. It costs about $400 to file in the state of Texas, so we sucked up the initial cash and became “an official company.” We did all of this legal work before we had a viable product that was ready to be used by actual customers. This was before we had gotten any initial feedback from our target market. This was before we had seriously thought through the viability of our business model. In my head, the LLC made the project real, like it was something more serious than it actually was. In the end, it was a big waste of time and money. A few months after filing, my partner and I recognized the flaws in our business and decided to close down shop, all without seeing a single paying customer.
Instead of throwing down the money on a piece of paper and calling ourselves a company, we should have used that money to reach potential customers and get feedback about the product we were building.
Whoa, look at all this traffic
When my co-founder and I had built an early landing page for the site, we submitted a “Show HN:” post on Hacker News. We ended up making it midway up the front page of the site, drawing thousands of visitors within just a couple hours. We were really, really excited about this. Thousands of uniques, tens of thousands of pageviews and guess what? All of that amounted to less than 50 signups. Yes, the feedback we got from Hacker News was awesome, but we seriously overvalued the traffic that came from the site. Hackers were not our target audience (the company was in the music space) and the fact that we only got a handful of signups should have raised more red flags. But I pressed forward, impressed with our ability to drive traffic to a landing page, regardless of the results.
Don’t pay attention to pageviews or visitors counts when you’re first starting. The key is conversions and turning potential customers into paying ones.
Hey, check out our merch
They say you’re not a real company until you have t-shirts and stickers. Pfft, right. I fell for that one too. For some reason our brains like to trick us into thinking that just because we have a tangible representation of a digital product, that the product itself has become just as real. We ordered stickers for our product pretty early on, just about the time we were launching our landing page and getting our first few signups. To us, stickers would be a great way to thank early customers and get our brand out into the wild. We never actually considered that we’d never have customers to give them away to in the first place. So here I am, months later with a stack of stickers for a company that no longer exists; they are a constant reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in the things that don’t matter.
So what’s the point?
It’s been said thousands of times online, across forums, blog posts and comments, news articles and essays: at the end of the day, the only thing that matters to a startup is providing a product or service that people need, use and will pay for. But I, like so many others, fell too easily in the trap of pumping your own tires: making yourself feel and look good in the face of an uphill battle to create a meaningful product that people want to buy.