A bit over four years, I decided to quit my cushy job leading a team at a Canadian bank and dive head first into the deep end of the start-up world. I knew that there was a lot to learn: Ruby-on-Rails, Javascript, and pushing the limits of web development. It sounded ambitious but doable. The plan was to build a great product, and the world will come knocking. right? wrong!

As many first-time founders (hopefully) discover, the amount of work and learning a start-up needs dwarfs anything else they have done. What's even more challenging, you have to fill many different roles at different times and constantly step outside your comfort zone. I not only learned an insane amount about development, product design, marketing, SEO, team building and hiring, I learned even more on a personal level. I learned how to be productive without getting stressed and how to balance the life of an entrepreneur with all my other interests. This post distills some of my learnings from my journey in the startup world.

Build it and they won't come: Product Lessons


Think small incremental improvements

Ship early and ship often, but don't ship crap. The core problem you are solving for your customer needs to be well executed and polished. To ship early, cut features not corners. These small daily and weekly changes amount to huge improvements when summed over a year.

Keep it simple

Before working on anything, think hard about what is the intended outcome, then find the simplest way of achieving that outcome. By simplest I mean as simple as possible but no more. Don't cut corners.

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler —Albert Einstein

Complex solutions to a problem are almost never right. They confuse your team, they confuse your customer, heck they confuse the future you. This applies to the user interface of your product, the algorithm you use to implement it, the business processes to support it, etc. When looking for a solution to a problem, find the most general and elegant solution. Solving a problem is the easy part, finding a simple solution to a problem is the hard part.

You'll also know when you've found an elegant solution, you'll end up eliminating a bunch of edge cases from your code, your product will be easier to explain and understand, and you'll be very proud of it!

We keep our product, code, and processes simple at Sandglaz because we know from experience that building on top complex solutions results in more complexity. This complexity inevitably results in slowing us down. Embracing quality and simplicity allows us to do more faster everyday, to make better decisions, and to be responsive to change.

Have the courage to throw away work

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito - Flickr Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito - Flickr

What's worse than having to throw three weeks of work on a feature? Working a few more weeks on it to find out that no one cares about it, or that it is confusing your customers. So how do you avoid doing that? Well, you can't completely eliminate it, but you can reduce how much it stings. Build the risky part of your work first and assess before continuing. You'll be a lot more responsive to change and able to throw away work that doesn't measure up

It will take a lot more than a beautiful product to succeed

There is no such thing as an overnight success, it takes a lot—and I mean A LOT—of hard work to be successful as a start-up. Building a killer product that is easy to use is only a baby step towards success.

A startup's success is dependent on having a well executed product that solves a pain for a set of customers.

Notice the bolded part. The beautiful product is only part of the equation. Find and refine who your customer is before spending too much time building that beautiful product. Don't solve a problem no one cares about.

Others can't educate you on why your product is great

Be confident


As a first time founder, it is easy to think that an adviser or expert can provide you with definitive judgement on what will work and won't work for your business. The reality? Entrepreneurs and investors are a confident and egotistical bunch. Most will tell you their opinion as fact. It is your job to learn how to distill the feedback and advice to something useful to you.

You (should) know your business and customer better than most, so you should be able to explain your product benefits and the problem(s) it solves better than most. Do it confidently, and others will also be confident in you.

Be Boring

Being overly creative in explaining your product to customers or pitching it to investors will only confuse and distract them. Explain your product in a boring way: no need to talk about everything that's different immediately. Just say enough to get people curious to explore, then allow them to peel more and more layers of awesomeness.

Be Humble

Being confident doesn't mean being arrogant and thinking you are the only one that gets it. Listen to feedback from you customers and learn from the experience of others.

Don't do investor development

Unless investors are your customers, the only person you should be getting product feedback from is your customer.

Promote from day one, and never stop

If you have the world's best product, no one will buy it unless they know about it. Don't wait for the perfect moment, or the perfect strategy. You need the enough people using your perfect product to provide actual feedback you can start iterating from.


The customer is (almost) right


Listen to feedback and iterate

Customer feedback is what takes your product from good to great and helps you solve more of their problems better. Make it easy for customers to provide feedback and ask for their feedback regularly. At Sandglaz, we know many of our customers by name and talk to them regularly. We have pictures and descriptions of our customers hanging on the wall in the office. The intimate understanding of our customers and their needs guides every decision we make.

Don't follow the feedback

When a customer is asking you for feature x, or an option to toggle on/off a part of your interface, do not go and implement it. Ask more questions and understand very well what is the actual problem they are facing. A feature request is a problem under disguise.

Define your customer

Define your customer carefully. Everyone cannot be a customer—at least not early on. It is next to impossible to build a great product for everyone on the first try. Build a product that a small group of people love, and then slowly generalize it to more markets. Why? If your product is targeting lawyers, you have to speak their languages to show them that you understand their problems and that your product is solving their problems. Trying to please everyone at the same time results in no-one being happy.

A tired mind doesn't make (good) decisions


Your startup ≠ you life

In my first year at Sandglaz, my co-founder and I worked all the time. Day, night, weekend. It didn't matter. The rush and excitement of the startup kept us working. However, I started noticing that I was making more mistakes. And that it was taking me longer to notice when I'm stuck in a dead end. So some changes were needed to be more efficient with my time.

Burst the startup bubble


This is probably the most enlightening change. Hang out with people who don't understand the startup world. It will force you to talk about other interests (if you don't have other interests, it will encourage you to develop some). You will avoid seeing the world only through the point of view of your startup.

Recharge your mind

Your mind and body need sleep to recharge, and all you're doing by cutting on sleep is making yourself inefficient. So sleep whenever you feel sleepy (even at work), and work more efficiently when you are awake.

Make sure you get quality sleep as well. Institute time away from electronics, email etc. (especially before bedtime), and get regular exposure to daylight to have a well rested productive mind.

Stay healthy

healthy habits

There is a stereotype of startup founders living of instant noodles and beer. While that makes great articles and movies, it is the worst thing you can do to your productivity: your energy levels will plummet, and you won't produce nearly as much.

Eat well, exercise regularly and sleep well to operate at peak efficiency.

Design your life processes

Create a routine

Every decision you make in day reduces your cognitive stamina for the day. So be merciless in eliminating the unimportant decisions you have to make in a day (e.g. What to wear? When to start work? Where to work today?).

Hack your environment

no car

When you are tired (from making too many decisions in your day), you default to easy choices. So eliminate unhealthy choices or make healthy choices the ONLY choice available.

For example, I no longer have a car, so I don't have to actively make the decision to walk or take the subway somewhere. Both are healthier decisions than driving. We also only stock the office with healthy snacks. This way if you are looking for a quick snack, the easy choice is the healthy snack.

Pay for services not things

I look for ways to give me more time to spend on the important things in my life. For example, at home I pay for house cleaning, Amazon family subscription and grocery delivery in order to automate parts of my personal life that can be automated.

Same thing applies at Sandglaz. We pay for Heroku and Buffer to save time and resources on DevOps and social media management.

Step away

airbaloonTake time away from work. It will allow you to see the big picture better. You'll return with a fresh perspective and you'll be able to improve how you and your company works.

What is your favorite learning from your business? Share with us in the comments below.