Birthdays are a great time for reflection. The startup that I co-founded in 2012 turns 4 this month, and I've decided to look back on the past four years and ask myself: If I could do it all again, what would I do differently?
What decisions would I make? What would I spend my time focusing on? After mulling over some of the big decisions, here's my list of do-overs.
1. Start globally from the beginning.
In the first year, we launched Blinkist -- an app that helps people read faster -- only in Germany. It seemed easier to launch with one language (German) and start in our home market. We also absorbed the intel that it’s important to have proof of concept in a small market before going global so that you don’t experience an epic fail of global proportions that could potentially damage your brand or reputation.
Hence, our launch in just one country. But this was the wrong thinking. Had we opted for English as our first language and launched globally from the start, it would have been easier for us to obtain a customer base to learn from. Further, had we had failed, it wouldn’t have been on a global scale. It would have been a failure with a small group of early adopters and wouldn’t have done any damage.
I think it was our sensible, too-cautious German hearts that stopped us. Looking back, going global with English would have been the best way to start.
2. Remember the 'M' in 'MVP.'
It’s great to start a company with a gut feeling, but it’s really, really important to develop that feeling while getting to know your potential customers. So, get out into the market as quickly as you possibly can by starting with a real MVP, or "minimum viable product" i.e., as minimal as possible.
We secured funding with an idea and then spent five months developing the Blinkist app before we put it into the market. In those five months, we weren’t learning as much as we could have. Looking back, I think that the real MVP for Blinkist would have been a newsletter. This would have been a simple, subscription-based email list where people receive one book-in-blinks per day or week.
Then we would have been able to learn things like: What people are interested in our concept? How much are they willing to pay? What formats do they like? How do we reach them? Today, whenever I’m building something, I always take two steps back and ask if there’s an easier way to do it.
On a related note, if I were back in 2012 and setting up the newsletter MVP, I would have made tracking a priority from day one. Data needs to be a first thought, not an afterthought. It’s invaluable to start with a data-driven, “build-measure-learn” mindset from the get-go.
Data needs to be a first thought, not an afterthought.
3. Don’t raise money before you understand venture capital.
Funding is great, but before you jump into venture capital, make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Once you’re in the VC world and you close a round of funding, the clock starts ticking.
So, you should start hiring people and spending more money, because investors expect you to grow aggressively and move fast -- after all, that's why you've raised funds. From day one, you have to have the next funding round in mind, which usually comes sooner than you think.
Experts say you should raise enough money to last for 18 months, but it’s difficult to raise that much in the early phases, so you'll typically find yourself fund-raising for 12 months. This doesn’t mean you have 12 months to sit back and work on your product. It can take up to six months to raise money; and that means six months to build, measure and learn enough to be able to tell a new story and start raising funds again after six months.
Getting this six-month period right -- i.e,. knowing what to spend your money on and what to focus on and having the guts to take a step back and buy more time by lowering costs at the right time -- is quite challenging.
If I could do it again, I would bootstrap a little bit more at the beginning. Set up that mailing list, learn about the market and work on building the product before going all-in with VCs.
4. Be conscious about values and culture.
When we started Blinkist, we didn't think too much about how we wanted to structure our organization or what kind of culture we wanted to promote. We just wanted to get started.
We ran things as though we had experienced them in our previous corporate and consulting jobs and ended up with a classic command-and-control structure with different leadership approaches. This felt a little chaotic.
A company culture started to appear, but it was haphazard. As founders, we didn’t align on what values we wanted; and, as a result, we had difficulty aligning on decisions because we didn’t have a common understanding to guide us. I’m glad we realized this early enough and managed to smoothly adopt a light version of Holacracy in 2014 that helped us transform our company’s organization and align along a culture of transparency and self-organization.
As we all know, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I certainly see things that I would have done differently. Having said that, I know that sometimes a bad decision is better than no decision. Trying and failing is the best way to learn.
I’m really lucky to work with a super-sharp team of people that keep me challenged and on my toes everyday. Here’s to the next four years!