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Paul Graham on Start-ups: quotes

I had a very enjoyable 4-hour train journey from Cornwall to London yesterday.

On the train I found myself reading through Paul Graham’s collection of essays.

Every other sentence has a really interesting insight / lesson – even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything he says – it’s thought-provoking stuff. And it definitely doesn’t just apply to tech start-ups.

Having saved a whole load of quotes it seemed stupid not to do something with them. So here you go…

Paul Graham on Start-ups: quotes

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

the situation with time is much the same as with money. The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work.

the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types. And the worst thing is, they’re not even fun.

The best way to come up with startup ideas is to ask yourself the question: what do you wish someone would make for you?

So if you want to start a startup and don’t know yet what you’re going to do, I’d encourage you to focus initially on organic ideas. What’s missing or broken in your daily life? Sometimes if you just ask that question you’ll get immediate answers.

There are ideas that obvious lying around now. The reason you’re overlooking them is the same reason you’d have overlooked the idea of building Facebook in 2004: organic startup ideas usually don’t seem like startup ideas at first. We know now that Facebook was very successful, but put yourself back in 2004. Putting undergraduates’ profiles online wouldn’t have seemed like much of a startup idea. And in fact, it wasn’t initially a startup idea. When Mark spoke at a YC dinner this winter he said he wasn’t trying to start a company when he wrote the first version of Facebook. It was just a project. So was the Apple I when Woz first started working on it. He didn’t think he was starting a company. If these guys had thought they were starting companies, they might have been tempted to do something more “serious,” and that would have been a mistake.

So if you want to come up with organic startup ideas, I’d encourage you to focus more on the idea part and less on the startup part. Just fix things that seem broken, regardless of whether it seems like the problem is important enough to build a company on. If you keep pursuing such threads it would be hard not to end up making something of value to a lot of people, and when you do, surprise, you’ve got a company.

Don’t be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that’s a good sign. That’s probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea.

I think the thing that’s been most surprising to me is how one’s perspective on time shifts. Working on our startup, I remember time seeming to stretch out, so that a month was a huge interval.

It’s surprising how much you become consumed by your startup, in that you think about it day and night, but never once does it feel like “work.”

In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later.

I’m surprised by how much better it feels to be working on something that is challenging and creative, something I believe in, as opposed to the hired-gun stuff I was doing before. I knew it would feel better; what’s surprising is how much better.

Several founders mentioned specifically how much more important persistence was than intelligence.

I’ve been surprised again and again by just how much more important persistence is than raw intelligence.

This applies not just to intelligence but to ability in general, and that’s why so many people said character was more important in choosing cofounders.

The top thing I didn’t understand before going into it is that persistence is the name of the game. For the vast majority of startups that become successful, it’s going to be a really long journey, at least 3 years and probably 5+.

Because we’re relaxed, it’s so much easier to have fun doing what we do. Gone is the awkward nervous energy fueled by the desperate need to not fail guiding our actions. We can concentrate on doing what’s best for our company, product, employees and customers.

That’s why things get so much better when you hit ramen profitability. You can shift into a different mode of working.

Do Lots of little things: It’s much more of a grind than glamorous.

Lots of founders mentioned how important it was to launch with the simplest possible thing. By this point everyone knows you should release fast and iterate.

When you let customers tell you what they’re after, they will often reveal amazing details about what they find valuable as well what they’re willing to pay for.

To benefit from engaging with users you have to be willing to change your idea. We’ve always encouraged founders to see a startup idea as a hypothesis rather than a blueprint. And yet they’re still surprised how well it works to change the idea.

One reason people overreact to competitors is that they overvalue ideas. If ideas really were the key, a competitor with the same idea would be a real threat. But it’s usually execution that matters:

All the scares induced by seeing a new competitor pop up are forgotten weeks later. It always comes down to your own product and approach to the market.

This is generally true even if competitors get lots of attention.

Competitors riding on lots of good blogger perception aren’t really the winners and can disappear from the map quickly. You need consumers after all.

Hype doesn’t make satisfied users, at least not for something as complicated as technology.

There is an irrational fear that no one will buy your product. But if you work hard and incrementally make it better, there is no need to worry.

Getting people to use a new service is incredibly difficult

A lot of what startup founders do is just posturing. It works.

If you pitch your idea to a random person, 95% of the time you’ll find the person instinctively thinks the idea will be a flop and you’re wasting your time (although they probably won’t say this directly).

There was one surprise founders mentioned that I’d forgotten about: that outside the startup world, startup founders get no respect.

It surprised me that being a startup founder does not get you more admiration from women.

Things Change as You Grow

When I look at the responses, the common theme is that starting a startup was like I said, but way more so. People just don’t seem to get how different it is till they do it. Why? The key to that mystery is to ask, how different from what? Once you phrase it that way, the answer is obvious: from a job. Everyone’s model of work is a job. It’s completely pervasive. Even if you’ve never had a job, your parents probably did, along with practically every other adult you’ve met.

I think the goal of an essay should be to discover surprising things.

We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.

Starting a startup is like science in that you have to follow the truth wherever it leads.

the way to succeed was to launch something fast, listen to users, and then iterate; that startups required resilience because they were always an emotional rollercoaster

How important it is for founders to have people to ask for advice.

What a solitary task startups are. Architects are constantly interacting face to face with other people, whereas doing a technology startup, at least, tends to require long stretches of uninterrupted time to work. “You could do it in a box.”

People are dramatically more productive as founders or early employees of startups

A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.

This is particularly true of young people who have till now always been under the thumb of some kind of authority. Being relentlessly resourceful is definitely not the recipe for success in big companies, or in most schools. I don’t even want to think what the recipe is in big companies, but it is certainly longer and messier, involving some combination of resourcefulness, obedience, and building alliances.

If I were running a startup, this would be the phrase I’d tape to the mirror. “Make something people want” is the destination, but “Be relentlessly resourceful” is how you get there.

So the most important thing a community site can do is attract the kind of people it wants. A site trying to be as big as possible wants to attract everyone. But a site aiming at a particular subset of users has to attract just those—and just as importantly, repel everyone else.

it’s better to make a few people really happy than to make a lot of people semi-happy.

Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus. Either the company is run by stupid people (which can’t be fixed with advice) or the people are smart but got demoralized. Starting a startup is a huge moral weight. Understand this and make a conscious effort not to be ground down by it, just as you’d be careful to bend at the knees when picking up a heavy box.

Having gotten it down to 13 sentences, I asked myself which I’d choose if I could only keep one.

Understand your users. That’s the key. The essential task in a startup is to create wealth; the dimension of wealth you have most control over is how much you improve users’ lives; and the hardest part of that is knowing what to make for them. Once you know what to make, it’s mere effort to make it, and most decent hackers are capable of that.

Understanding your users is part of half the principles in this list. That’s the reason to launch early, to understand your users. Evolving your idea is the embodiment of understanding your users. Understanding your users well will tend to push you toward making something that makes a few people deeply happy. The most important reason for having surprisingly good customer service is that it helps you understand your users. And understanding your users will even ensure your morale, because when everything else is collapsing around you, having just ten users who love you will keep you going.

Fortunately the way to make a startup recession-proof is to do exactly what you should do anyway: run it as cheaply as possible. For years I’ve been telling founders that the surest route to success is to be the cockroaches of the corporate world. The immediate cause of death in a startup is always running out of money. So the cheaper your company is to operate, the harder it is to kill. And fortunately it has gotten very cheap to run a startup. A recession will if anything make it cheaper still.