May we suggest...

Joel's Posts

6 Suggestions for an Aspiring Startup Founder

I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to jump on board the path of building a startup. Having hit upon a product that solved a key pain for many people, Buffer has grown rather fast. The team is now 25 people and we’ve just crossed $4M ARR.

When I reflect on how quickly things happened and what it has required of me, the first thing that comes to mind is Paul Graham‘s essay entitled How to Make Wealth. In particular, this part resonates with me:

You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years.

There’s a lot to learn if you aspire to build a startup. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and I can only recommend it to others. I can’t think of a better way to lead a fulfilling life. Here are 6 suggestions I have if you happen to be getting started along this road.

1. Experiment (lots)

“If you’re not already doing a side project, I’d recommend starting one. Although they can complicate your schedule and make life busier, they are one of the few consistent keys I’ve observed in almost anyone who has impressive accomplishments.” – Scott Young

I’ve mentioned previously that the Internet is littered with my past attempts to create a successful startup. Even before I knew I truly wanted to build a startup, I played around with countless side projects and they are spread across the web, too.

I think there is often a misconception that to be successful you need to focus and put all your eggs in one basket. That’s not how it happened for me. I tried a ton of different things, and I started Buffer on the side while working full-time as a freelance developer. The key is to focus once you have something that works, that gains traction and people love. Until then, I say experiment away.

2. Stay inspired

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

Looking back to the early days of my first startup attempt, I think something that kept me going was that I continually read books about startups and entrepreneurs and watched as many interviews of founders as I could find. In fact, I was especially humbled to be invited to share my story on Mixergy precisely because I have watched tens of interviews by Andrew Warner and they always inspired me to keep pushing forward.

It’s true that at some point you have to stop soaking up the motivation and actually get to work. However, I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful it can be to be take in the learnings of others. Especially in the early days when you might not necessarily be surrounded by others trying to do startups, I think staying inspired in this way can plant that spark inside to help you make it happen.

3. Travel the world and move

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain

Travel is something that I always thought would be fun, and I never imagined the impact it could have for me. From simply moving a hundred miles from my hometown of Sheffield to Birmingham in the UK, to then traveling several continents and living in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, I’ve been extremely lucky to have experienced completely different cultures and meet great people.

I truly believe that if you choose to travel you’re immediately much more likely to succeed with whatever you are trying to do. Leaving what you know and stepping into uncertainty, you naturally become more open-minded and create new opportunities for yourself.

Interestingly, many have an attachment to their hometown and want to be there in order to help their town and others who live there. My belief is that you can do a lot more to help your hometown if you make the decision to leave. I’ve never once heard someone regretting their decision to travel.

4. Choose your friends wisely

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

One of the most interesting side effects of moving and traveling a lot has been that in every new place I have settled in, I have had the chance to rethink every part of my life. I reflect on what kind of place I want to live, how close I want to be to all amenities, what routine I want to adopt and even who I want to hang out around.

The clear example of the power of adjusting your group of friends is that your friends probably aren’t all entrepreneurs. The thing with doing a startup is that it’s an unusual path and one where there are far more reasons it can go wrong than can go right. If you truly want to succeed, surrounding yourself with other optimists is one sure way to have much better odds. The cool thing is, these are really fun people to be around.

I strive every day to meet (and hire) more people I can learn from.

5. Stay laser-focused on building something people want

“In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn’t want the product.” – Paul Graham

It’s easy to get distracted when you begin your startup endeavors. You might take a look around and assume you need to incorporate, or raise funding, or countless other things that everyone seems to do.

In my experience, all that really matters is to try and find a real problem to solve. What it comes down to is whether you have hit product/market fit. If you have, you’ll know it, and you’ll start to get traction.

If what you’ve built isn’t working, keep experimenting with new ideas.

6. Be open and vocal

“If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we swap, we each still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we swap, we each have two ideas.” – George Bernard Shaw

Before Buffer, I had a few previous startup ideas that weren’t too successful. One of the things that is easier to reflect on in hindsight is that luckily during that time I was Tweeting, blogging, going along to events and generally getting to know a lot of people.

When people ask me what my initial marketing was to get Buffer started, the truth I have to share is that my marketing consisted of sharing the idea with the 1,700 Twitter followers I had at the time. I attribute my previous openness to the fact that I had these followers to help me get Buffer started. As a result, I completely agree with Leah Bursque’s advice:

“Talk to every single person you meet about your idea. Talk until they tell you to shut up. Discover new questions and patterns so you can test and refine your idea. Then find more people to talk to.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring startup founder? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Note: This article was inspired by Startup Edition in response to the question, “What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?” Read more on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs there.

Image Credit: squeezeomatic

  • Didn’t know you where from good old Blighty. The things you learn.

    I agree with point 4. Apart from one friend who runs a garage, and another whole is a very successful businessman in media, most people I know (face to face) are not entrepreneurs, and truly don’t understand what I do.

    Hearing people say, and sometimes even my own relatives, that I don’t do any work just because I don’t have a 9 till 5 is very annoying, even though I’m often up till 4 am plugging away.

    But these are the struggles entrepreneurs face among others, and it is only through determination and a lot of work that you can realise the fruits of your labour, and the sense of achievement from over coming every hurdle.

    • Matt – well said. I have gone through many struggles with friends and family who haven’t felt my endeavours were ‘real jobs’ due the uncoventionality of my working hours and home-based ‘office’.

      I wrote a post about this on Linkedin you might enjoy:

  • Thanks for sharing these advices Joel. This post is very impactful with the quotes in every advice.

  • Graham Thomas

    Great advice and accompanying quotes. A nice piece of pick-me-up for the afternoon.

  • Paulie

    I really love this post and the quotes!
    It talks about many changes i have been going through recently, feeling like wannabeafreelancer and later on wannalaunchmystartup.
    Thanks so much for writing it Joel, it helps on giving shapes to thoughts.

  • Excellent insights. A couple of these (maybe all?) I need to do better.

  • Thanks for the advice, Joel.

  • Great advice Joel.

    It’s good to always be inspired. Without it, whats the point?

  • Great advice Joel. Really enjoy your posts.

  • Leigh-Ann Powell

    Absolutely brilliant.

  • @AntoInt

    A post that manages to motivate without actually promising motivation in the title. Great article, Joel!

  • Ben

    Be unbalanced. Just do what it takes to make it happen. Figure the rest out in the wreckage later. Keep expenses rock bottom. From day one of having a product to sell keep expenses so low your profits exceed them. Then, you’ll have to make some leaps! The hard stuff, that you won’t want to do… well, that is what rhe successful people do and the unsuccessful won’t.

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies