4 Things I Wish I Knew When Cofounding My Startup

Sharing what I wish I knew when cofounding my startup, Dribble



When you're in the (startup) trenches its pretty difficult to see over the banks. Not only is there a wall of dirt in front of you, but you are also victim to tunnel-vision. You're working on that integral campaign, feature or creative that NEEDS IMPLEMENTING ASAP, no matter how small it is. In fact, there's so much tunnel vision that the size of said feature or campaign doesn't even register. To you, it's the be-all and end-all. The only thing that matters.

This has happened to me. A lot. Trying to keep an eye on the big picture while getting down and dirty with growth is no easy feat, and I'll be honest, it's still an ongoing battle. 

But, now I'm here writing this essay roughly 2 years after those trenches with the luxury of being able to reflect on what I wish I knew. And oh how it looks so easy from here. How simple, how rudimentary. I have no idea why I struggled so much. 

And that my friends, is why hindsight is 2 things:

  1. 20/20 and,
  2. a b***h

So here's what my passed self would have loved to know before getting in those trenches. 

1. Your product is a leaky bucket.

No shame in knowing that's what your product looks like. It was the same for me

No shame in knowing that's what your product looks like. It was the same for me

Plug those holes before you start trying to fill it

Get those rose tinted glasses off and be real. Your product is a leaky bucket when you start off. Before starting to really implement any robust growth strategies, start from the bottom of the funnel - your product. 

Only once in a blue eon does a product overflow with growth because it's bullet proof right off the bat. Snapchat is a prime example of attracting growth and being pretty darn close to bullet proof since launch. However, it wasn't perfect - they still had a lot of work to do. Even if you make the holy grail that shows early signs of no holes and you think will never sink, I'll just say one word, Titanic. 

We thought we had great product at launch, because our beta testers had very healthy behaviour playing multiple games per match-day and creating a small buzz through WOM. But in actual fact, when we formally opened up the doors and turned on a growth tap we saw holes appear. 

On-boarding flow had holes as we asked for people email and phone number (chose this due to other similar product types doing the same), the KYC verification page was a very tough cookie to crack in terms of placement and provider, the journey from registration to game played needing optimizing and finally how users could invite friends to challenge needed addressing. So we had our work cut out for us.

The hard thing was the air of investor pressure - to show signs of early growth and healthy product behavior - was around so I really tried to keep the growth tap on without a whole company effort to optimize the user journeys as quickly as possible. 

What would have helped us is if we segmented our company wide goals to focus on customer journey first (customer surveys/focus groups / analytics etc), prove healthy behaviour and market product fit, then focus on growth. 

It's a constant process and a company-wide objective to get your bucket fixed. Really dig deep into your analytics platform (Amplitude/Mixpanel/Metabase) to find where the holes are and fix them. To help flush out these holes you can run a few growth experiments, such as, controlled Facebook ad testing to pump a few 100-1,000 targeted people into the product to study behaviours. Doing this will:

  1. flush out holes in controlled experiment (understand onboarding flows, registration flows, app store conversion, finding the a-ha moment and overall retention)
  2. practice your paid advertising techniques
  3. help you hypothesize and test new user groups to target

All of the above will set great groundwork for the future growth strategy you will implement.

2. To become the master, you must master the basics

Master the basics you must

Master the basics you must

It goes without saying, if you want to become a master, you should master the basics. From a growth perspective, the basics aren't growth related. Think Karate Kid and the wax on wax off scene. He's not training to wax a car, he's just practicing his movements which will mimic the way he moves when whooping butts.

With this in mind, the basics of growth are all pillars that intersect with product, data and marketing, namely, behavioural pyschology, branding, storytelling, positioning, design, UX principles, programming, statistics and data analytics.  

Brian Balfour is a G and has great advice in shaping yourself like a T. It is frustratingly true, and I say this because I didn't know this when I started.

Source: Brian Balfour, Coelevate

Source: Brian Balfour, Coelevate

I, like many people out there, jumped into the channels before truly mastering the basics (similar to how I approached growth before optimsing the user journeys in the product). I started to "master" channels before mastering the driving forces (user behaviours and storytelling behind this). And in using this approach you can never truly master anything. 

So. since I have an honours degree in mathematics, I have a good understanding of statistics and data analysis, so personally, my focus has been on customer behaviours, storytelling, psychologies and design principles. It's been a very enriching experience learning these basics and building on them. I wish I had started learning and mastering these base layers before I cofounded Dribble because I'd be much more advanced in my experience than I am now. 

So, to my past self: "start now because no one ever said "I wish I mastered those skills later"Idiot."

3. Don't try to look for those Quick tricks, hacks or bullets

Hockey stick, not "hacky" stick

Hockey stick, not "hacky" stick

Everyone loves a success story. Especially the ones where a startup/founder is praised for using one trick or hack that resulted hyper growth and were shortly after unicornified (is that going to stick...?). They tried things like leveraging Craiglist for growth (Airbnb), integrating contacts and referrals in onboarding (Whatsapp), viral loops (pick one), Facebook Open Graph (one of the early adopters like IamPlyr), or added one feature that started the hockey stick.

I think an inherent reason why we love that concept so much is because you risk a limited amount (time) for maximum gains. Of course I fell victim to this, where I was hell bent on trying to figure out our one trick, or hack that would provide similar growth. 

But growth doesn't work like that. It's a consistent process of experimentation. You need to straddle two mindsets, creative and methodical. Creative in your process of choosing which channels to experiment first (using deductive reasoning and brainstorming) and methodical in how you execute it. An awesome growth process is the G.R.O.W.S process from Growth Tribe. Don't fall into a traditional trap of trying every channel once over a period of time until you find it, as that wastes vital time. 

You need to go through these creative and methodical motions, experiments, and theories to find the 1-2 channels that provide most growth, since it follows the power law. Meaning, only 1-2 channels will provide all of your growth. Could be WOM, SEO, paid ads, sales, content marketing etc. It follows this law because your business should find product-channel fit (more on this in follow up essays) where your product or business integrates intuitively into a specific channel, effectively built for the channel, rather than having the channel built for the product (impossible to do the latter). 

Way's in which I'd deduce channels to try: look at the competitive landscape, what are similar products doing to grow, what works well for them, what doesn't? What are new technologies or platforms that you can leverage for growth? Any blue ocean channels?

4. Keep one foot in the known and one in the unknown

If only learning would be that simple

If only learning would be that simple

I have come to understand that learning isn't linear. If you start on date A you are not on an even gradient of learning Y-amount every X-time-frame until you leave on date B. In truth, I see it as being more of a normal distribution, not over time, but rather between areas of known and unknowns, depicted below. 

The learning play ground. Inspired by Brian Balfour

The learning play ground. Inspired by Brian Balfour

To maximise learning, you need to make a conscience effort where you would like to be on the above graph.

When cofounding Dribble, I made sure to live in the unknown area, because "that's where I'll learn the most". In theory, this is true, because if it is unknown then it can only be known (very profound, I know). So I spent close to 100% of my time on tools, projects and areas I knew nothing about without even a slight understanding of a base layer. 

Alternatively, being at such a high stakes stage of the company it felt counter intuitive to work on things I knew very well already. If you know how to use a tool or understand a topic like the back of your hand then your learning is saturated. 

Clearly, being at either side of the bell shaped curve isn't ideal so one must actively work in a 50/50 capacity between known and unknowns. The closer you are to the 50/50 split the more you learn (depicted by the green area with the victorious icon). One reason being, if you're living in the 100% known, this easily leads to boredom, and if you're living in the 100% unknown, this leads to frustration. Another reason being, you can supplement the unknowns with key learnings from the knowns to help cognitive development

I hope that helps! It would have definitely helped my past self. More on my startup journey and reflections you can find my previous essays on how I launched my app and how I'd improve it.