Startup School 2012 Summary: My Takeaways and Interpretations

I attended the 2012 Startup School at Stanford this past weekend. The event is geared towards encouraging, preparing and teaching engineers/entrepreneurs/designers/anyone about startups. I highly recommend anyone interested in the startup world to attend if they have the chance next year.

Below are some of my notes, takeaways and interpretations.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook

Paul Graham interviewed Mark Zuckerberg, ceo of Facebook.

You can get away with the 80/20 rule with a lot of things but there should be a few things where you need to be the best and invest in the quality time. It’s your job to find what you can 80/20 and what is your primary feature.

Around the time Facebook was starting, the idea of identity on the Internet was in its infancy. Zuck wanted to create a site where people are real. He used university emails as a means of controling registration and identity.

It’s a clever hack: you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can use existing systems to accomplish your goals.

He also said he cared more about the product than his competitors. Instead of going after schools with no competitors, he choose to go against competition right away and launched against Stanford, Colombia because these colleges had active competitors. If students were willing to pick his product over another, he knew he had the best product.

Zuck mentioned every year, people are sharing more and more. Facebook was a manifestion of this principle.

See how your customers are using your product.

Zuck and his team noticed early on that students would keep changing their profile photos because they could only have one profile photo at a time. From this, Facebook would then later build out a photo albums feature.

He started Facebook as a hobby. He explored his options before fully committing. It was not until Facebook got over 1 million users that he left Harvard.

People see faces. People dream of social interactions. Facebook expands the human capacity for sharing. Before Facebook, people could only share private things to a very limited amount of friends and family.

Facebook was never a place to meet new people.

Zuck solved something that was fundamental to humans(sharing) for a small market(universities) and expanded the market(the world).

Zuck built lots of little ‘hack’ projects. Instead of studying for an Art History class, he built an online crowdsourced study tool and forwarded to his class.

Little projects are a great way to keep your mind sharp in solving problems. Keep building them even if they seem trivial and are throwaways.

Travis of Uber

Travis likes numbers. His presentation showed Uber tracks and analyze their data very well. It could be their upper hand against the competitors. They have a strong operations and optimization team.

If you want to make something simple for the user, it requires a non-trivial implementation.

He solved his own problem: he wanted to be a baller in San Francisco by getting rides in town cars.

They have a heatmap density of the riders. If they just show this heatmap to the drivers, all the drivers will stay in these dense areas and the other areas become underserved. Instead they give drivers a predicted density of the underserved riders.

Don’t just show the data. Show a version of the data to encourage the right behaviors.

Uber was founded for solving a simple problem but they encountered larger world problems: corrupt cities and legacy laws.

Jessica Livingston

Only a few startups actually make it, what goes wrong?

Startups are a very slow process.

There is no playbook. You have to improvise. Stripe had to make deals with a bank so they made phone calls instead of meeting in person because they looked young.

Cofounders breakups is a big factor in startups failing. Choose very wisely. Work with the person before hand.

“fundraising a bitch”

Investors only like to invest if others have invested so this makes the first investment very hard.

There are a lot of distractions. Try to focus on:

  • code
  • talk to users
  • exercise

One distraction is talking to corporate development of a large company. Large companies will typically just want to acquire you as a resource, not the business. Often the bonus is not that much. Talking to them will be demoralizing and put you off from working on the product.

Make something people want by talking to users!

Patrick Collison of Stripe

Stripe was originally named /dev/payments

Startups are unpredictable.

During the year, there were lots of debate and doubts about the product due to slow growth.

Technology can have a huge impact on the world. Patrick noted that before shipping containers, shipping costs accounted for up to 20% of costs. Now, goods can transfer almost “free”.

Ben Silbermann of Pinterest

Being in a startup is like a road trip.

You don’t know which route you are going to take to get to your destination. Are you going to run out of gas? Would you need to get gas from somewhere else?

Commitment matters.

They originally started with tote, a shopping app for the iPhone. They didn’t like depending on the slow Apple approval.

Don’t take things in faith: investor opinions, anything. Analyze it.

After a year in product development, they released their product. In 4 months, they only had 3,000 users.

But they did notice the people who were using it had high retention. This was a sign that the product was good and useful for some people.

They decided to improve marketing as oppposed to add features. They held pinterest community meetups. He noticed that pinterest helped people on their interests. During the meetups, people who ask about posts on users’ profile pages. They decide to find the right audience to jumpstart their growth instead of adding more product features.

They had a useful product but it was against the “fads” of the time. pinterest was a low-tech product in comparison. It was not real-time, it was not mobile. Ben ignored adding these features and focused on the core pinboard idea.

There are different ways of succeeding. Trust the data you see. When you see high retention in your product, it is useful.

Ben Horowitz

He quoted Michael Jackson saying that “it’s harder than it looks” as an analogy for startups.

If you are building something that already exists, you have to build a product that improves it by 10x.

Anything else will not convince people to switch.

Google Search was 10x better than altavista.

Dropbox was 10x better than any other file sharing software.

Tom-Preston-Werner of Github

Everything you add to a product will removes something else.

Github was started as a way to make git hosting not suck. Then it grew to helping people build software together. Your mission will change but start small.

Tom said with the $100 million in investment, github is planning to expand beyond programmers and fix collaboration.

During his talk, he often asked rhetorically what is the single thing that matters?

He went on to say people was the only thing, then product was the only thing and then philospohy.

Ask yourself if you are asking the right question.

Ron Conway

He invests in people not companies.

Web products are still in infancy. Lots of new products can still be made.

Joel Spolsky of Stackexchange

Decide if your business is big land grab or slow organic growth.

Big land grab companies include Facebook, Airbnb, Stackexchange. Slow organic growth include Fog Creek.

“failure to decide is what kills you”

David Rusenko of Weebly

In 8 months, they only had 30 signups daily.

In 11 months, they only had 100 signups daily.

Finally after 20 months, they had consistent growth.

Know what you are building is useful by measuring your retention. If it’s useful, stay in the game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s