9 Things I Learnt From my First Startup

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I built Skola along with my colleague and friend of 4 years. Something that started as school — parent communication app has evolved into a student management system for schools in primary and day care space. Currently, it’s live in schools in Mexico. [Disclosure: I am in the process of moving out of the team]

I had 9 years of experience in building systems for retailers when I quit to build something on my own. I built the entire Android side of the app from scratch.

We worked remote — my co-founder and designer from Mexico and myself from India.

My learnings — on personal and professional sides, have been enormous, to say the least.

You can learn and build a startup at the same time

Yes, start-ups can be crazy. Yes, it can be really stressful. Yes, you will be out of money. Yes, you can go bankrupt any moment. Yes, you can feel big high and lows on the same day. Yes, it is a roller coaster ride that never stops. Yes, the failure rate is really high.

But you have one thing that many people do not — TIME. You have time that you used to spend hours in traffic and in meetings and on things that made no absolute sense. You can now put all the time into one thing that is important for your startup. You can start coding from scratch. Or marketing. Or sales. Or business development. Where your startup needs you the most and where your current product life cycle is.

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I put it on coding and product development. I had not coded in years [last was on Mainframes 6 years back] when I started from scratch on Android for Skola. For next 6 months, all time I spent is on coding — hours implementing the examples from big ranch guide and stack overflow, connecting the dots, writing thousands of lines of code, building the app one day at a time. My aim was to get the app up and working. The only part of coding I know is the only part that needs to be built. Yes, you can learn and build your startup. I will not have it any other way.

That you can code, write or anything you want

And sell, create videos, do marketing, do the dirty dance, mop your own office floor and what not. The focus is on the startup. On the product. Not on what skills you can learn for your future. It’s not about the coolest thing out there that you can learn and build your resume on. It’s all about the product all the time. What needs to be built, what makes it more useful, what creates more value for the customer, what features customers are using and what they are not? And why?

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When you focus on something that is outside you and you do everything to get it grow every day, bit by bit, you will be astounded by everything that you can find yourself doing at the end. I went selling the product. I started writing. I immersed myself in the product to see what can be changed, what else can be built, how to create more value. I did more things than I have ever done before.

Small action is better than big talk

We focused on things that can be implemented — all the time. The focus was on actions that can be taken today. Features that can be built today. What is something that can be done today to improve the value for our customers? Even if it’s a small increment? Can I remove every bug that is there in the product? Can I make a flow better than its today? Can I reduce the number of clicks it takes to produce an action? Practicality wins imagination every time.

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Uglier MVP is better than beautiful prototype

The initial designs were rudimentary. But the focus was on the functionality. What all features that can be built. Focus was on completion. Focus was on getting the product to the customers for feedback. Executions were based on practicality. What is the best design we can create today? What is the best algorithm or coding pattern I can implement today with my current knowledge? Feasibility trumps elegance all the time. We met customer expectations on product delivery every single time, this way.

Known single customer is better than unknown million customers

A customer with a pain was the only criteria for us to build anything. A customer on hand is always better than million customers you do not have. Reach out to them. Listen to them. See the world the way they see. Understand their world. Live, breathe, eat like they do. That is the only way to build anything of value. Once you make your first few customers happy, then go to the next one and then the next one. There is no shortcut to customer satisfaction. There is no short cut to building a valuable product.

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Give ownership to your earlier customers

Our first few customers drove our requirements, design, our product, everything. They were the product owners. They decided what stays and what goes. Every single feature that went into the product came from them.

A small idea executed is better than a big idea you just dream of

Like anyone else, I had so many crazy ideas, cool products to build. I still do. But a small idea that can be executed is always better than any big vision that will take years to execute. In fact, it’s the smaller ideas that would take you on the path to bigger dreams. It’s the one that keeps you float today while you can still be alive to dream of bigger things.

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What you can do today is always better than what you can plan for tomorrow

We practiced this. All the time. And we kept reinforcing this on each other and on the team. When we started on the app we had a few screens on and a basic feature to be build. We built an entire platform 6 months later. Things done imperfectly today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow, always.

Discuss on every little detail

This is really important, especially if your team is remote. Talk about every aspect of your startup and product. Nothing is too early. Nothing is too late. You are never too small to talk about anything. Or too big to ignore anything. What happens in the case of success? What happens in the case of failure? What to do in 3 months, 6 months or 9 months? A startup can be so flimsy that a lot of discussions will look futile. A lot of things might look too far away than they really are. Some might feel too silly to talk about. Discussions do not eat your money. If you and your team are not on the same page in the early days, you will never get there ever. This makes or breaks your team.

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