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8 Things I Learned From Working at Startups

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Taken by Justin Merriman, Tribune-Review

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to speak at the Build18 hackathon at my Alma Mater, Carnegie Mellon University. Unlike many of the hackathons I’ve seen in the “real world”, most projects here were not “business ideas”. They were true “hacks” - ideas created by the intellectual exhaust, experiments that exists for no purpose other than existance itself. I was super impressed by the technical depth of the projects.

At the awards dinner, standing in front of a room full of sleep-deprived college engineering students, I couldn’t help but to think back to 4 years ago. We were sitting in the same seats, filled with gumption and no particular direction, hoping to make a dent in the world. We wanted to be important, special, even rich, because we have earned the rights through the endless pencil-smeared pages of equations and the caffine-buzzed lab hours. “My heart is in the work”, says Andrew Carnegie. All you have to do is to keep your head straight, work hard, and eventually the dent will be made. Right?

As it turns out, direction and course correction is more important than hard work. Just as a car with a powerful engine but no steering wheel has very little chance of getting to its destination, effort is the pre-requisite for doing anything significant.

I had planned to share a slice of the startup life, maybe even inspire some of them to start or join a startup. But given the particular setting and timing (they were probably all cracked out from a week-long hacking session), the most efficient way to get my points across was to be succinct. I compiled everything I wanted to say into the following 8 bullet points.

  • If you haven’t read PG’s essays or don’t already read hacker news, just do it.
  • Iterate - It’s quite a remarkable concept. I alaways get a feeling of comfort when I know that I can just keep doing the same things over and over again, and my product will magically become better and better.
  • Launch early, launch often - Be lean. It’s something to strive for, but don’t kill yourself over it. It’s much more important to know why you should be lean than how to be lean.
  • Over-share your idea - Don’t be afraid that other people will steal your startup idea. The risk of hiding your idea and no learning from other people is much greater than the risk of some douche stealing your idea. Ask people who have done this before, ask people who you really respect, ask random people in coffee shops.
  • Always find ways to validate your idea - Think of your startup idea as the hypothesis, and your goal is to test your hypothesis through as many lenses as possible. The power of statistical approaches is much greater than statistics itself.
  • Define some metrics - Metrics are great. They keep you focused on the most important things. Find the thing that will kill you and do that first.
  • Avoid going to networking events - Also don’t think about raising money too soon. Both are HUGE distractions from building your product. If you are trying to be “one of the cool kids”, you are doing it wrong.
  • Don’t be a dick - The people you work with are your greatest assets, so be very careful of choosing who you want to work with. Once you’ve made that decision, treat them like a brother (or sister).

Startup is definitely a learn-by-doing experience, which means the students probably won’t do any of the above 8 things. But hopefully these tips will guilde them back towards the right path when they make a mistake.

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