Just Start – Go small, quick, iteratively and cheaply

“Just start” is a mantra by all startup gurus. This post uses the example of the Tuts + network to show how working with what you have is crucial to starting quickly.

Of all the entrepreneurial mantras out there, probably the most famous is possibly “Just Start”. It sounds reasonable and even motivational mantra, and gels with our ideas of entrepreneurs as creatures who throw caution to the wind. Yet, when one looks carefully at successful entrepreneurs they are neither risk takers, nor running around aimlessly doing stuff. The risks are smaller, and there is a process of learning.
I have been a customer on Envato for four years. Envato runs a network of sites selling digital files and a set of educational sites, and a couple of other things. It is the biggest marketplace for WordPress themes in the world. It is however a very successful business. From a customer perspective I have some issues with the business, but still regularly purchase from them. In 2010, the CEO/ Founder of Envato gave a five minute talk that helps us understand the “Just Start” philosophy using the Tuts + network as an example.

Three features of the presentation are worth noting:

  1. Start small – In the presentation notice how they started with literally a basic static website, and overtime invested in the development of the
  2. Start quickly –  Everything does not need to be perfect, but having a product or service available provides a
  3. Make changes – These days the concept of a pivot is popular in the startup community. In building the Tuts Plus network the changes the important feature is that they were making changes as they better understood there customers.
  4. Cash flow – In this presentation, Collis Ta’eed notes that it took them 18 months to become profitable. Managing costs and keeping costs down are crucial.

Means in Hand

The story told in the video resonates with one of the principles of effectuation. The principle is called “Bird-In-Hand”, which focusses on the means that are available to entrepreneurs. It is drawn from the idiom “a bird in hand, is worth two in the bush”. The presentation shows this principle. Ta’eed has at his disposal the following:

  • Photoshop skills: Knowing how to use Photoshop is a fairly common skill
  • HTML skills: Again, a resource available to most people, and fairly easy to learn
  • 3 Tutorials: Again, developing a couple of tutorials is not that difficult.

The important lesson is that using these available resources, they were able to get started really quickly and test an idea – with available means.

10 Myths of Entrepreneurship

Amongst the many myths of entrepreneurship, the most jarring is the existential question:

Am I really an entrepreneur? 

This is the self-doubt that almost every entrepreneur faces at some point. The reasons for this self-doubt are many, and include the hero status that some entrepreneurs have. In the face of outstanding success by these entrepreneurs we wonder whether we have the insight, determination, product and skills to build what we dream. The narrative is intended to empower, but may have the opposite result.
The video below dispels several of the myths associated with entrepreneurship, including understand who and what entrepreneurs are. The video draws on the excellent work of Saras Sarasvathy, who has introduced the concept of “effectuation” to the entrepreneurial world. The video starts with super entrepreneurs, and helps us to learn lessons. Most importantly, through understanding the myths, it helps us deal with self-doubt and get started.

 Myths Of Entrepreneurship

The important learning for me from this video are:

Entrepreneurship is Not Extraordinary

At one point for all of us, riding a bike was extraordinary. After a few stumbles and bruised knees we learned to ride a bike. In doing that riding a bike became both enjoyable and ordinary. In the video the same point is argued, entrepreneurship should not be viewed as extraordinary, but that each of us have this capacity.

Start with available means

I have seen business plans that need such huge investment that no bank or investor are likely to finance it. The ideas underlying the business plan are often sound and sometimes inspiring. The problem is that it is just a plan, the company has literally no customers, and they have not taken the time to test their idea. Starting at a different point would help these entrepreneurs. They should instead start with what their available means. Tapping into networks, using money to build a prototype or even getting commitments from potential clients are all within our available means. It may even help getting finance for your business, but more importantly it may allow you to bootstrap your business or in the worst case realise that your idea is not that good.

Multiple Goals

Personally I have many, many ideas. This creates a huge problem of focus for me, and everyone tells me that I need to focus on one idea. Effectuation looks at ideas and actions differently. It encourages having various possible goals and to develop solutions to these specific problems. Importantly, it asks you to reassemble your available means in creative ways to reach a goal. A word of warning though, managing multiple ideas, goals, action plans and customer service is extremely difficult, and not what I am suggesting.

The learning point is rather not to  fixate on one outcome, but rather be open to various endpoints.

This is a lesson we learned at Zapreneur. I started this looking to develop an online publication focussed on economic inclusion and small businesses. My intention was to run this as a paid subscription model. In the process we learned that South African entrepreneurs have a very different set of problems, and that we could develop small and useful online applications that could solve real problems. Proposal Desk is our first attempt.

Affordable Loss

Dreaming of making a million bucks in a year or even a month? Dreaming of buying an island? Stop!
Rather than focus on the upside, focus on the downside potential. Knowing how much you can afford to lose is vitally important. It provides a constraint to your ideas, and as a result brings discipline, effectiveness and reduces financial stress. In fact, go so far as to have a very specific number in mind. You need to know for instance that, I am willing to lose R 10 000-00, and willing to invest six months of time into starting this business. Knowing that allows you to plan your expenses, pay the kids school fees, design a realistic marketing plan and know your breakeven point.  That is an incredibly empowering position to find yourself in.

Create The Future, Do Not Predict It

The exciting part of entrepreneurship is that we have the opportunity to create products and services that make the world a better place. Through using principles like affordable loss and using available means, creating the future becomes more action orientated .  See you at the start line !
(Over the next few weeks, I hope to discuss effectuation in greater detail and with examples. )