Rules for Entrepreneurs: Do One Thing Well

Photo by bartb_pt on Flickr
I have been an entrepreneur for just shy of 5 years full-time. Before that, I was engaged in entrepreneurial “things” for the previous 6 years. 4 companies. I am not a perfect entrepreneur and some would argue I’m not even a successful entrepreneur since I haven’t had a successful exit yet.

However, the odds on favorite number that people in the startup community like to throw around is that 9 out of every 10 startups fails. So, as I see it, I still have 5 more failures and a win to look forward to (although I think my current startup, WP Engine, is a pretty damn good company that probably is a win).

I can say that in all of my years in this world, I’ve learned a number of things. Many of these things are through trial and error, success and failure, and good old A/B testing.

Today I’m beginning a series (revisiting an old theme from years ago when Steve Fisher wrote the “Venture Files” track on this blog – before I simplified to a single channel site that is updated far less often than it was then) providing some “rules”, as I see them.

As of now, I have six rules to share from my experiences. That may increase over time, but they are slotted and ready to go.

Focus Your Efforts

As an entrepreneur, the carrot on the stick is to provide the best damn {product} that {your target audience} has ever seen. I’ll focus on web tech startups since that’s what I know best, but the principle can cross easily into other industries as well.

Inevitably, being the best damn {product} that your {target audience} has ever seen, involves taking an already existing idea and improving on it. It’s always nice when you can do something new and innovative, but most companies aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be. It’s hard to do something completely new. One quick peruse through Angellist will show you scores of companies who are pitching their products as the {blank} for {blank}.


  • Netflix for Digital Children’s Books
  • Twitter for images
  • Meetup for Professional Events
  • eBay for College Tutoring

While I go into manic twitching mode when I see pitches like this, I have to hand the entrepreneurs and startups credit in that they are able to clearly identify exactly what they are building and why it’s important. Sure, they have to leverage some other known entity to get their point across, but their idea is concise and communicable.

Don’t be Google

To leverage a known entity for the sake of this post, Google is a poster child for leveraging someone else idea in the entirely wrong way. Tell me what all of these products have in common:

  • Google+
  • Google Buzz
  • OpenSocial
  • Orkut

That’s right. Every single one of these products were attempts to be the entirety of something else – to take it to their biggest competition in the space. Google+ is a direct swipe at both Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. Google Buzz was a direct assault on Twitter. OpenSocial existed to provide a social networking framework and was a play to undermine Facebook. Orkut took a swipe at Friendster, both of which are essentially dead today.

In every one of these cases, Google decided to “go big or go home” and ended up going home. The most recent, Google+, is still trying to get some traction but everyone seems to be sitting back and saying, “I’ve got social network exhaustion” and don’t see the big value in Google+ over existing products that do the same thing.

The better approach, if you want to assault Facebook, is a limited, targeted, precision-strike on a single feature and knock it out of the park. Twitter already has the status update. Don’t go there. The concept of +1, is already being done by Facebook with the “Like”. In other ways, Tweetmeme has been doing the same thing by enabling users to share what they like (who’s really gonna share what they don’t like… even if they don’t literally “like” it because it may be controversial, it’s compelling enough for users to share… which is the essence of a “Like” or a “+1”?).

But perhaps Google could really target photo sharing and tagging. Picasa is already there. Make it challenge Facebook’s photo albums and tagging. No one has done social event planning very well. Even Twtvite and Eventbrite are just for event planning, but don’t do social very well.

You Have Finite Resources

As an entrepreneur, you have limited resources. The last thing you need to be doing is getting “squirrel eye” and being distracted by every cool feature you could make. Does it fit within your vision? Does it help extend the main reason for building the product? (A good example of this is Foursquare building an Explore Tab… it extends their business product vision).

Especially at the beginning, you don’t have a lot of resources. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Stay targeted and laser-focused on doing one thing and one thing well. As your company grows, you can start exploring complementary features and products. You just can’t be everything all at once.

Next time, I’ll expound on this concept by talking about competition and collaboration. You’ll want to come back. If you’re not already subscribe to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Gowalla Nothing More than a Shiny object

Location Based Networks have become extremely popular in the last year and a half. I was an early adopter of Foursquare and continue to use it actively. It’s become somewhat mundane to go through the same routine. Check in, get points (that seem largely useless, become mayor if you’re lucky, earn some badges).

Foursquare seems to have stalled a bit on innovation, though there is some rumor of some new ideas that could get traction – MG Siegler of Techcrunch suggests a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style game where your city becomes your adventure quest.

However, that is not here yet and in the meantime, there are fresh challenges coming from Gowalla. I have not liked Gowalla though because they have developed their business in an iPhone-centric way – something which is, in my opinion, short-sighted and disenfranchises non-iPhone users. “You can always use the web interface,” is an insulting position to take with potential customers. It just says, “You’re not good enough for us.”

Gowalla has recently released apps for other platforms, though, so when they released their Blackberry app, I decided to run an experiment and give them the opportunity to win me over as a user. I decided that for a week, I would run Gowalla only and not Foursquare. Give it a fair shake, right?

Now, I realize that I’m pissing in my own back yard here. Gowalla is an Austin company and everyone loves Gowalla in Austin. I, however, am not known for playing nice just for the sake of playing nice. I’m sure the folks at Gowalla are great guys and I look forward to enjoying tasty adult beverages with them one day at some establishment that I check into with Foursquare.

Push Notifications Jump the Shark

My first 24 hours of Gowalla usage involved getting constant push notifications on my Blackberry. I realize the app is in beta but the only options for push notifications are to turn all notices off or turn them all on or select friends to get push notices from. The missing piece and the thing that differentiates Foursquare and makes them better, is push notifications inside a certain radius (I believe it’s 40 miles for Foursquare). So if I fly home to DC, I can start getting Gowalla notices from my friends there automatically.

I do not want to know that Beau Frusetta is at LA Fitness in Phoenix when I’m in Austin – at least not by push notification!

Continuing with this riff, why is Gowalla putting the impetus on their users to perform discovery? Why should I select which users I want top get notices from? How do I know if there are other people I want to get notices on and I just don’t realize it.

I realize I’m an exceptional case with nearly 900 Gowalla friends, but that presents a scaling question of discovery. If I have a list of 50 friends, I can manually curate the list I want notices from. When I have 900, that’s significantly harder. Why not provide a means of discovery? Maybe suggested users? Perhaps most active friends? Or something…

Location Gone Wrong

A second problem is the use of geolocation/GPS. On numerous occasions, I could search for a venue just to be placed several kilometers away from where I actually was. Perhaps I could move 5 feet away and get a better position, but Gowalla’s attempt to thwart people from gaming the system, at some distance they don’t allow a check in. That’s at least 2km away. This is very frustrating for the user and creates a socially awkward situation where, unlike Foursquare that takes 15-20 seconds to perform a check-in, Gowalla check-ins could take a minute or more just as a result of trying to get the service to know where you are.

But There’s Good Stuff…

I will say that I highly appreciate Gowalla’s “Trips” and “Events” functionality. Unlike Foursquare where you can only check in at places, Gowalla does allow for temporary events. USers have “lifehacked” Foursquare by creating venues that are actually events, but Gowalla has this functionality built-in. I like this.

Additionally, they have a Trips feature that allows users to map out places in a related away. Tour of downtown historical spots? There’s a trip for that. Bar crawl route in Tribeca? Got that covered. This is a very nice thing and probably along the lines of what Foursquare may do with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” functionality talked about earlier.

But these positive features were not enough for me to continue the experiment. The experiment is over only four days in. Back to Foursquare. Additionally, until they address the issues above, I can’t recommend anyone actually use the service. It effectively is relegated to a shiny object that looks nice but is effectively broken and unusable.

If you do intend on using Gowalla, I’d use it in parallel with Foursquare.

So let it be written, so let it be done. Ready, aim, fire. I’m ready to be flamed.