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Ten rules for web startups : Evan Williams

November 29, 2005

Evan Williams, co-founder and CEO of Pyra Labs, makers of Blogger, now part of Google and now CEO of Odeo, Inc., a podcast software startup, shares his ‘Ten Rules for Web Startups.’

May not apply to law firms and professional service businesses looking for information on using blogs to market their business, but maybe it should. Does provide some key principals the employees of LexBlog and I should be guided by.

Here’s a bulleted summary, borrowing liberally from Evan’s copy.

  1. Be Narrow. Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve. There’s a resistance to focusing from a fear of being trivial. If you get to be #1 in your category, but your category is too small, then you can broaden your scope. Focusing on a small niche has many advantages.
  • With much less work, you can be the best.
  • Small things, like a microscopic world, almost always turn out to be bigger than you think when you zoom in.
  • You can much more easily position and market yourself.
  • When it comes to partnering, or being acquired, there’s less chance for conflict.
  • Be Different. There are lots of people thinking about—and probably working on—the same thing you are. Deal with it. No sufficiently interesting space will be limited to one player.
    • Competition to legitimize new markets is good.
    • See #1—the specialist will almost always kick the generalist’s ass.
    • Do something not so cutting edge. Many successful companies, including Google, have thrived by taking on areas that everyone thought were done and redoing them right.
    • Get a good, non-generic name. The most common mistake in naming is trying to be too descriptive, which leads to lots of hard-to-distinguish names.
  • Be Casual. We’re moving into the era of the ‘Casual Web’ (and casual content creation). This is much bigger than the hobbyist web or the professional web. If you want to hit the really big home runs, create services that fit in with—and, indeed, help—people’s everyday lives without requiring lots of commitment or identity change.
  • Be Picky. Startups are often too eager to accept people or ideas into their world. You can almost always afford to wait if something doesn’t feel just right, and false negatives are usually better than false positives.
  • Be User-Centric. User experience is everything. If you don’t know user-centered design, study it. Hire people who know it. Obsess over it. Live and breathe it. Get your whole company on board.
  • Be Self-Centered. Create something you want to exist in the world. Be a user of your own product. Hire people who are users of your product. Make it better based on your own desires. (But don’t trick yourself into thinking you are your user, when it comes to usability.) Do not get seduced into doing deals with big companies at the expense or your users or at the expense of making your product better. When you’re small and they’re big, it’s hard to say no, but see #4.
  • Be Greedy. Design something to charge for into your product and start taking money within 6 months (and do it with PayPal).While it’s true that traffic is now again actually worth something, the give-everything-away-and-make-it-up-on-volume strategy stamps an expiration date on your company’s ass.
    • Charging money can actually accelerate growth, not impede it, because then you have something to fuel marketing costs with.
    • Puts you in a much more powerful position when it comes to your next round of funding or acquisition talks.
    • Consider whether you need to have a free version at all. The TypePad approach—taking the high-end position in the market—makes for a great business model in the right market. Less support. Less scalability concerns. Less abuse. And much higher margins.
  • Be Tiny.With the substantially lower costs to starting something on the web, the difficulty of IPOs, and the willingness of the big guys to shell out for small teams doing innovative stuff, the most likely end game if you’re successful is acquisition. Acquisitions are much easier if they’re small.
  • Be Agile.You know that old saw about a plane flying from California to Hawaii being off course 99% of the time—but constantly correcting? The same is true of successful startups—except they may start out heading toward Alaska. Many dot-com bubble companies that died could have eventually been successful had they been able to adjust and change their plans instead of running as fast as they could until they burned out, based on their initial assumptions.
  • Be Balanced.What is a startup without bleary-eyed, junk-food-fueled, balls-to-the-wall days and sleepless, caffeine-fueled, relationship-stressing nights? Answer?: A lot more enjoyable place to work. Nature requires balance for health—as do the bodies and minds who work for you and, without which, your company will be worthless. David Allen’s GTD process is an excellent way to maintain balance and lower your stress. Learn it. Live it. Make it a part of your company, and you’ll have a secret weapon.
  • (bonus!): Be Wary.Overgeneralized lists of business “rules” are not to be taken too literally. There are exceptions to everything.
  • Good stuff. But remember #11.

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