Contradictory Startup Advice

There isn’t any established science that categorically nails the process of creating a startup (I have used “startup” to refer an Internet business of any scale). However, there are pointers from founders who did it successfully and cautious lessons from those who failed. Be it marketing, sales, hiring, or making business decisions, every area pertaining to startups has been meticulously covered in books, podcasts, courses, and articles.

One would think that the vastly accessible material has helped the likelihood of startup success. Maybe it has but there is hardly any evidence to corroborate that claim. Most Internet ventures still fail; most before getting any significant traction. What do we make of that? Why following the footsteps of successful founders remains failure-prone?

Maybe because building a startup is not as straightforward. It’s an antithesis of Anna Karenina Principle which suggests that the reasons behind unhappy families are numerous, whereas happy families have predictable things working for them. Obversely, successful startups succeed in their own way, while failed ventures are almost alike. It would be a glaring oversimplification but we can reduce startup failures to two reasons —

  • The product is something no one wants.
  • The business ran out of money either because of lack of funds to handle expenses or an unsustainable business model.

Success, on the other hand, is relatively obscure. There are multiple ways people succeed at creating businesses; unsurprisingly, each sounds apparent in hindsight. As successful founders tend to advocate their own findings on creating a business, it leads to some interesting contradictions —

  • Paul Graham advises that founders, particularly young ones, should focus on “scratching their own itch”. Rob Walling, bootstrapper and author of Start Small, Stay Small, posits that the strategy works “a lot less than it used to”. An HBR article even called it a “dangerous advice”.
  • In the book Rework, the authors outline that hiring decision should be taken when it becomes an inescapable need. Josh Pigford, on the other hand, in the early periods of Baremetrics, wrote how hiring earlier could have made his job significantly easier.
  • Mitchell Harper advocates that audience building efforts that start six months before the product launch. Jessica Livingston advised against marketing efforts for early stage startups as the initial focus should be on getting a few customers who love the product.
  • Dan Shipper noted in his blog that building a product should involve getting customer interviews and asking people about their problems. Amy Hoy, however, found the process to be fallible because customers usually don’t have a good idea about their problems.
  • That also goes against John O’Nolan, co-founder of Ghost, beef with the over-analysis, who asks aspiring founders to just build it.

I don’t doubt that these suggestions are well-intended and legitimate in their own context. But as entrepreneurship is largely human-centric, their efficacy tends to be varying. Some founders might simply suck at early marketing efforts. Some might find it more motivating to solve their own problems. The contradictions only emphasise different methods that worked for different people.

Of course, if you can get thousands of dollars in commitments even before you start, you have drastically reduced the odds of failure. But it’s easy to disregard the elusiveness of such salesmanship. Although, some founders have a knack to tackle similar business problems well, but I doubt if it’s the norm (it’s highly contingent on the kind of company you want to create, to say the least).

Looking at IndieHackers interviews gives a differing perspective on how people can create a business. Who would have imagined plausibility of a single person creating a formidable $80K / month business by selling commercial software licenses?

The majority of business advice that sounds overwhelmingly right can, unknowingly, be too vague, too idealistic, or even too specific. It’s hard to ascertain the right recipe that makes things tick, but there are a few guiding principles that have recurringly helped startups —

  • Shipping as early as possible.
  • Charging right from the start.
  • Gathering feedback from customers and understanding them.
  • Being patient and not expecting magical growth hacks.
  • Focusing less on building; more on acquiring users.

The crucial part of a startup is to solve a problem around which a business can be built. It’s almost impossible to carry every lesson in your own context. That can often be demoralising when things don’t work the way you expected. The right way isn’t rooted in a specific approach, but in the relentless spirit to continue and learn.


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