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John Battelle is an entrepreneur, journalist, professor, and author who has founded or co-founded businesses, magazines and websites. Formerly at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Battelle, is also a founder and Executive Producer of the Web 2.0 conference and “band manager” with BoingBoing.net. Previously, Battelle was founder, Chairman, and CEO of Standard Media International (SMI), publisher of The Industry Standard and TheStandard.com. Prior to founding The Standard, Battelle was a co-founding editor of Wired magazine and Wired Ventures. John is currently the founder and Chairman of Federated Media and blogs at John Battelle’s Searchblog.
- Either keep control, or don’t act like you have it. This was the primary lesson of The Industry Standard. I felt like this was the first large scale business I built on my own, and I acted like it. But majority control was always squarely in the hands of the company who funded it. We fought, and I lost.
- Don’t skimp on hiring. Ever. I’ve hired folks who had the right resume, but I knew in my gut were not right for the culture of the business. I thought the skills/resume overshadowed the ability to work together as a team. They never do.
- Do it for love, not money. This is pretty careworn, but it’s very very true. I’ve never ever started anything for money. Some folks are really good at starting companies to make money, but I’m terrible at it. I suspect most entrepreneurs are like me.
- 3a. But make sure what you are doing makes sense to others. Everything I’ve started or been part of starting, I’ve talked to key folks who would make or break the idea, and gotten their buy in and encouragement/help first. If folks who are critical to the idea are not interested, well….that’s a pretty good sign it isn’t going to fly. Doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, but it probably means you’re not the person to do it.
- Pick one constituency and stick to it. Very early on, we decided that FM would be “author driven”. We could have made the company “advertiser driven” but it struck me the core business had to do with the folks who produce the sites we work with. At Wired, it was all about the ideas. At the Standard, it was all about the journalism. One clear core driving force helps clarify decisions during the tough early years.
- Don’t do something because you can. Do it because it’s good for the folks in #4.
Dick Costolo is CEO and cofounder of Feedburner, the leading provider of media distribution and audience engagement services for blogs and RSS feeds. Previously, he cofounded and was CEO of Spyonit.com. Spyonit was sold to 724 Solutions in September 2000. Prior to Spyonit, Dick cofounded Burning Door Networked Media, a web design and development consulting company. Burning Door was acquired by Digital Knowledge Assets in October 1996. Dick blogs at Ask The Wizard.
- The best decisions I’ve made have all been hiring decisions. When you really are feeling the pain of not having a certain kind of person in the company, it’s easy to hire the first interviewee that walks through the door, but it’s critically important when a company is getting started to make sure you’ve found somebody that everyone on the team thinks is the right person for the role. People always tell you to hire A players, but the person also has to be a great cultural fit with the team you’re assembling and with the kind of company you want to be.
- I’ve made loads of mistakes so I’ll try to think of one with a good lesson for startups - one of the biggest mistakes I made in a previous company was accepting a high dollar contract once for something that wasn’t core to the vision of the business we were running at the time. While the revenue initially feels great, there’s nothing worse than pursuing a piece of business that isn’t core to the startup’s vision. Lesson learned - once you decide what it is you are going to do, don’t pursue efforts that distract from the vision. One of the hardest lessons an entrepreneur has to learn is what revenue to turn down. You can certainly decide to change the vision and zig when the market zags, but in a startup, everybody has to be working toward a very focused vision, and chasing down side projects can be a real distraction (and probably ends up costing a lot more in terms of long-term resources than you’d expect).
Paul Graham is an essayist, programmer, and programming language designer. He is currently a partner in Y Combinator, an innovative venture firm specializing in funding early stage startups. He is also a cofounder of Startup School, which this year is on March 24, 2007 at Stanford. Previously, he co-developed Viaweb, the first web-based application, which was later acquired by Yahoo, and more recently he pioneered the Bayesian spam filter, which inspired most current spam filters.
- The best decision I made was to make Viaweb web-based. There were no web-based applications then, so we weren’t sure such a thing would even be possible. Initially what drove us was our dislike of Windows. Writing a desktop application would have meant learning Windows, which we really didn’t want to do. Whereas servers were the same Unix machines we used every day. To make a web-based application, all we had to do was figure out how to let users drive our software by clicking on links on web pages. That was a lot less work than learning Windows.
Hmm, no, actually the best decision I made was to get two fabulously good programmers, Robert Morris and Trevor Blackwell, to start the company with me.
- The worst mistake I made, probably, was not being strong enough with investors. I now realize that investors like you to be assertive. It reassures them when founders take charge. But because our investors were so much older than us and had given us what seemed then unimaginably large sums of money, I felt I ought to defer to them. And yet I wasn’t prepared to do things their way in anything really important, like what the software should do or what our strategy should be. This inconsistency led to disputes that sucked up a lot of time and energy.
- I realize that’s not really a decision. It was more something I didn’t do than something I did. But I think the worst mistakes startups make are mostly of that kind. Another big mistake I made was not to investigate IP agreements signed by people we hired. That nearly sank us later. But I didn’t decide not to; I just didn’t pay enough attention to it.
Ross Mayfield is the CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, the first wiki company and leading provider of
- Best Decision — To become an entrepreneur in the first place: I started my career in the non-profit sector, and then in the public sector, all in hopes of changing the world. I quickly realized that I could both have an impact and make a living in the private sector. And am lucky to now work on a company that produces social goods. Further, as a startup founder I believe you can quickly have a significant impact, possibly more than any other job. It is a roller coaster of risk. One day you can be beaming with pride to have created jobs and a fun place to work, and another you stress about meeting payroll and having folks be overtly human with one another.
- Best Decision — Picking co-founders you trust: It is not an exaggerated saying, that you marry your business partners, especially co-founders in a startup. Some look to partner with the Geek Girl for her technical whizbangery or Phone Guy for the sweet talk and access to capital. While you want to work with people that are skilled, I’d say the primary qualifier is if you can trust your co-founder. If you have any hesitation, either work it out or walk away, quickly. I’m luck to work with great co-founders I can trust with my life. Beyond trust, I would also put startup experience beyond specific skills. Someone that has rode the roller coaster before is less likely to barf in your lap.
- Biggest Mistake — Not taking bigger risks earlier: Maybe because in hindsight all risks are clear, but I always find myself regretting not taking bigger risks earlier. For example, open sourcing the Socialtext code was something we waited on until the company had strong footing. Partially because we thought there would be cannibalization, partially because we were understaffed to really engage with the community. But I believe if we bought this bullet earlier in the history of the company we would be reaping better rewards. As a planning exercise, now I always try to ask two questions: “How could we take more risk?” and “What risk can we take that creates the greatest amount of options?” I find there is always a way to do a little more, in particular by getting past instinct to control prevalent in so many entrepreneurs.
Geek, Internet Entrepreneur, Hardware Addict, Software Junkie, Book Author, Once TV Show Host, Technology Enthusiast, Shameless Self-Promoter, Tech Conference Coordinator, Early Adopter, Idea Evangelist, Tech Support Blogger, Bootstrapper, Media Personality, Technology Consultant, Thicker Quicker Picker Upper. You can call Chris at 1.888.PIRILLO to leave questions for him to answer on his podcast. Chris blogs at Chris.Pirillo.Com
- Bad Decision: Dealing with salespeople who didn’t have a clue what they were selling. A good salesperson (and there are apparently only two on the planet) will cost you a lot, but a bad salesperson will cost you even more. I loved them dearly, but love doesn’t pay the bills. Moral of the story: be cautious when it comes to yielding control of your business model.
- Good Decision: Finding someone to help me facilitate various functions (keeping us on a publishing schedule, wrangling our content creators, etc.). Robert Glen Fogarty has been a godsend, and I wish I had found him years earlier. He’s talented beyond words, and has successfully alleviated my daily stress. Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to yield control to the right people.