There are countless books, articles, and podcasts that cover helpful advice for startup founders. However, some insights are far more valuable and essential than others. So, I’d like to share 5 of the best startup tips and advice from 281 business books that I’ve read over the last 22 years as an entrepreneur.
Let’s dive right into it.
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1. The Right Way To Get Early Feedback About An Idea
One of the fastest ways to validate and improve your startup idea is by talking with potential customers. Unfortunately, these conversations often backfire because people want to be supportive and socially polite rather than blunt and honest. As a result, it’s easy to misinterpret their encouragement as genuine interest.
A better approach is to talk to people about their lives within the context of the problem you are trying to solve, as explained in The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. That way, rather than setting people up to offer passive encouragement, you can gather much-needed information about their interests, problems, and challenges.
For example, let’s say you plan to build an app to help people learn to play the guitar. Instead of mentioning your project, you can simply ask things like:
- What has it been like learning to play the guitar?
- What kinds of lessons have you tried in the past?
- Did that approach work for you? Why or why not?
- What issues or challenges did you encounter?
Ideally, you want to have a predetermined list of questions that are relevant for a few types of potential customers. For example, when building a guitar app, you might be interested in talking with beginner students, seasoned players, and aspirational players (that haven’t yet taken the leap). For the latter category, you might ask things like:
- What inspires you to want to play the guitar?
- What has kept you from learning to play guitar?
- What kind of lessons have you considered?
As you gather information, focus on concrete actions they have taken in the past or things they are doing today. Ignore hypotheticals of what they plan to do in the future. It’s far more valuable to gather insights about steps they’ve taken because people are often optimistic and unreliable when predicting future actions.
To learn far more about conducting effective customer conversations, I highly recommend that you read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.
2. Focus On Identifying And Validating Critical Assumptions
Every new startup is built on a series of assumptions. Two common examples include the value assumption and the growth assumption. Virtually every startup assumes that customers will value their product enough to sign-up or pay for it. Likewise, most have a belief around how they will profitably attract new customers.
To turn a startup idea into a sustainable business, it’s critical to identify these kinds of make-or-break assumptions and turn them into testable hypotheses. That way, you can find ways to validate them as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.
For example, Zappos began with the assumption that people would be interested in buying shoes online. They converted this assumption into the hypothesis that: if they created a website where people could browse a range of shoe options online, enough people would order shoes to sustain and grow the business. Then they set out to test that hypothesis with minimal wasted time or energy.
Instead of investing heavily in inventory, logistics, and complex e-commerce software, they built a minimum viable product or MVP. First, they visited local shoe stores and asked to take photos of the inventory, promising to return and buy the shoes at full price if they sold. Second, they listed the shoes on a simple e-commerce website. Third, they promoted the site to see if they could attract enough customers.
Was this approach designed to be profitable? No, but it allowed them to validate key assumptions without taking on massive risk. If the hypothesis failed, they could adjust their strategy or pivot to a new idea with minimal waste. Fortunately for Zappos, their test worked, and they could confidently invest further into the business.
To learn more about validating early assumptions and turning a startup idea into a sustainable business, I recommend that you read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
3. Spend At Least Half Your Time On Attracting Customers
Most startups fail. Not because they don’t have a product to sell, but rather because they cannot attract enough customers to generate a profit. More often than not, this results from a heavy focus on product development with little attention paid to customer development or marketing.
It’s very common to see founders focus all of their early time and energy on building something. And then, only after it is complete and ready for release do they start to think about marketing. In some cases, they don’t even have a clear sense of who might be interested in buying it or how to go about reaching them.
With this in mind, it’s best to split your time evenly between product development and customer development, as explained in Traction by Gabriel Weinberg. While doing so will slow down product development, it will accelerate successfully bringing a product to market. That’s because you’ll be able to improve the product faster by developing a deeper understanding of your customers and their needs.
To learn more about attracting customers, including a framework for selecting the best marketing channel for your business, read Traction by Gabriel Weinberg.
4. The Original Idea Isn’t The Most Important Breakthrough
As entrepreneurs, we often put a lot of weight into the original idea behind a new product or service. The moment of discovery often feels like an essential creative breakthrough. As a result, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to execute flawlessly on the idea to guarantee its success.
However, the original release is not the make-or-break phase that many founders believe it to be. The odds are that customers will not greet your new product or service with great fanfare. Instead, their reactions will likely be mixed at best, as described in The Start-Up J Curve by Howard Love.
While you may have felt that you had an epiphany with your original idea, the most critical breakthrough occurs after you release the product. That’s because by testing the first version with customers, you’ll gather essential feedback and information that is needed to rethink your idea and make much-needed changes.
The key lesson here is to avoid the trap of perfectionism. Instead, focus on releasing the first version quickly to test it in the real world. Then, leverage what you learn from early customers to uncover a superior approach. Potential adjustments include: changing the product, targeting a different market, or rethinking the business model.
To learn more about the startup journey, I recommend reading The Start-Up J Curve by Howard Love.
5. Don’t Aim To Be Better, Aim To Be Different
A typical startup mistake is setting out to make a better version of an existing product or service. Rather than pursuing something new or seeking to make a paradigm shift, they simply aim to create an improved version of an existing solution. For example, one that includes additional features, increased convenience, or a reduced price.
On the surface, this might seem like a great opportunity, a classic example of business disruption or “making a better mousetrap.” Unfortunately, this approach rarely leads to a highly profitable business. More often than not, it leads to escalating competition, reduced profits, and an unattractive business.
The lesson here is simple: if you want to build a valuable business, don’t focus on being a better version of an existing company; focus on being different. Look for ways to separate yourself from established brands by offering solutions that their business model, cost structure, or customer base prevents them from emulating.
To learn more about differentiating a business, read Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne. For tips & inspiration around building a valuable business, read Zero To One by Peter Thiel. And finally, to position your brand to stand out in the marketplace, read The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Reis and Jack Trout.
Beyond The 5 Best Startup Tips & Strategies
This list focused on tips for building a startup, but it’s just as important to understand the fundamentals of marketing to attract customers. So, I recommend that you check out my 10 best marketing tips from 281 books.
You may also be interested in the best startup books, the best marketing books, and the best business strategy books. I encourage you to subscribe to the Rick Kettner YouTube channel or the Rick Kettner podcast so you don’t miss future content.
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