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Why starting a business is like solving a Rubik’s cube

Beforehand, I know that there are wizards at solving Rubik’s cube in a record time, but I am not one of them. I also never learnt the tricks to solve a Rubik’s cube, I am a total beginner at it. That said, when starting any new business (or even project), I’ve often felt the same way as when trying to solve a Rubik’s cube for the first time. Here are a few reasons why:

Try & see approach. You know what the goal looks like and empirically try a lot of different techniques to get there. The same way when you first toy with a Rubik’s cube you turn it in any way you can and see how it improves after each move.

When starting a business, you also start with a clear image of where you want to get, you craft a beautiful business plan with lots of guesswork & tons of assumptions.

Then comes the reality check. Usually, you discover that you got everything wrong : you don’t attract the type of customers you hoped for, users don’t pay attention to that killer feature you worked very hard on, people start using your product in a different way, most of feature requests look weird, your AARRR is not like you imagined and so on.

For almost every project / business I was involved in, that was almost always the case. That led me to think that business plans are a waste of time. My sentiment is that most of the time, it is just better to trust your gut instinct and just get going and learn as much as possible from what you see, hear and feel while you iterate. It is in this discipline that I think many businesses will fail as they’re blind to what their customers are trying to tell them or how they actually use the product.

These days the term “pivot” gained popularity with Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Movement, the principle of a pivot in business is a change in strategy but not in vision.

Sometimes, it seems you get close to getting it right but realize you’re in a dead end and actually have to go backward and take a different path.

Mirages are common when starting a project. On your analytics dashboard, sometimes you have this curve that looks like you’re going to the sky, just to discover after a few days that it’s not the hockey stick cross you hoped for but simply a spike. Lots of people subscribed for your free trial, but almost no one converts to paying customers. As a founding member, it is damn easy to get over excited when business starts looking good.

With time, I found out that good results are often the worst enemy of great results. Good results may leave you thinking that you won’t be able to do better, you want to stay where you are.  Going from good results to great results usually require going backward and taking a different path. This can be really painful as the next path might actually lead to worse results, which is what actually happens most of the time. You have to do this process over and over until you get the numbers right.
You have to get all faces right to win.

When I started my first business, I thought getting started would be the hardest part. I was totally wrong and ignorant. For a new service with few users, it’s quite easy to try different business models, different features, different pricing, etc. with a few 100,000s, things get more complicated. What if the new pricing model makes our users quit ? What if the new version we release sucks and users start leaving without giving feedback ?

Technical scaling may sound simple nowadays with services like Amazon EC2 and Heroku, but scaling is not just about computing power. It is also about keeping hiring the right persons, making the right choices, keep innovating without making your current users leave… That’s the miracle that Facebook accomplished : changing jet engines at 30,000 feet.  If technical scaling can be a real challenge, I found business scaling to be usually 10 times harder.

You need to get the business model right, the marketing right, the team right, the right customers, AARRR right. One of my biggest mistake as an engineer was the “I could build Instagram in a week” syndrome. If Instagram took a few weeks to develop, it actually took much more than that to make it a successful project. May sound stupid, but it is only years/failures/lessons later that I really understood the difference between building an app/service/product and building a business.

I still didn’t get my Rubik’s cube right until today. Some manage to get it right after a few months, for me it seems to be a longer training but ironically that’s what makes it so much fun everyday.

I gathered my favorite links here to help you get your Rubik’s cube right :

[Post] Ultimate checklist for Internet startups & online businesses

[Post] How to fund a startup – Paul Graham

[Post] The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing – Joel Spolsky

[Book] Art of the Start – Guy Kawasaki

[Post] Design UX crash course – Paul Stamatiou

[Slides] Startup metrics for pirates – Dave McClure

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