Accelerated lessons

Dan Khan
Dan Khan

I find it ironic that after 15 years' mentoring and building startups, it would be difficult for me to hold myself accountable to the same level of critique, advice, and intellectual honesty that I expect of teams in the Lightning Lab.

I've learned best-practice, methodology, and lessons from some of the best entrepreneurs in the world, bridging domains such as leadership and culture, design and user experience, pricing, distribution, metrics, and building world-class teams. So how would I do things differently in my next venture? 

Recent speaker Jason Cohen said 'you can only do two of these three things well: work full time, run a startup, and raise a family'. That's why acceleration environments work, giving you undivided time to focus on your startup without having to worry about juggling 'real' work and your family.

I'm a product guy first and foremost, so I love diving headlong into code on new startup ideas - it's hard to resist when you've been coding since 10! But next time, I wouldn't write a single line of code until I had the product-market fit on paper - meaning that I'd have found a compelling need, validated that need with customer interviews, and found a product that customers love purely through paper prototypes, graphical mockups, and landing pages before anything else.

I'd go one step further these days: if no one gets excited enough about that paper product to the point they'd be willing to pay for it right now, then I haven't found a big enough problem or stumbled onto the right product yet.

Once at 'paper-fit', I'd waste as little time as possible and do things way more minimally than I used to. Usually I'd spend a few weeks building a simple but polished product only to find there's a difference between what people say they want and what they actually do want.

Now I'd keep a veil over the complex product and do everything manually, even algorithmic processing, until usage and customer desire tell me I'm on the right track and it's worth automating.

Controversially, and counter to much startup advice, I would not hustle family, friends, and first degree networks to be my early users.  I'd want real feedback from real customers seeing the product through fresh eyes.

I'd want to be sure I'm being intellectually honest.  No matter how virtuous your values, surety and honesty are two thing many entrepreneurs find hard to do well.  So, I'd seek mentors, lots of them, and have them hold my feet to the fire for the assumptions and mistakes I'll inevitably make.

And finally, I'd make sure that if I didn't know the domain or industry I was going into like the back of my hand, I'd find that person to co-found the venture with me - even if it meant I had to hold back my enthusiasm for starting up sooner. Almost never do solo entrepreneurs build high-growth ventures successfully, and rarely do people without intimate knowledge about their domain win.

Reflecting upon my own and others' lessons learned in building fast, high growth, early stage ventures, it's amazing just how hard it is to hold oneself accountable to those lessons and to become the signal over the noise.