It’s been 6 months since my partner, Mitra Parineh, and I launched Telling and we wanted to share a few thoughts on our journey so far. We hope you find them useful as you begin your own foray into entrepreneurship.
1. To the extent that it is feasible, fund your own project.
Telling is 100% bootstrapped. We’ve put in our own money, we’ve given up our full time jobs, and we take no salaries. At some point in the near future we will need to raise money, but bootstrapping instills financial discipline that is critical to keeping an early stage business above water.
It makes a difference when you have “skin in the game.” We feel the pain every time we spend a dollar (and believe me, we feel the pain of every dollar we are not earning). Not having cash in the bank forces us to negotiate everything, to be creative with payment contracts and to constantly prioritize what to invest in and what to outsource.
Mitra and I have relied heavily on our personal networks and have simply asked for help. It amazes us how generous people have been. People want to help; all you have to do is ASK.
Bootstrapping also forces you to quickly build a “no frills” minimal viable product to test the market. There is simply no time or money to build the “perfect” product, but this is a good thing because the quicker you get your product into people’s hands, the faster you will start learning something.
2. A good co-founder is someone who holds the mirror up to your face for you.
Before Telling, Mitra and I worked together for 8 months at another publishing startup in San Francisco. We went through hell and back working at that startup, but we cultivated a deep understanding of what we each cared about, our strengths, our weaknesses and working styles. We had such a good understanding of how we would work together and what roles we would play that it should have been relatively easy to just start executing when we started Telling.
But it has not been easy. The past 6 months have exposed our weaknesses in communication, they have exposed our respective egos and insecurities, and they have exposed how scared, uncertain, and crazy we sometimes feel.
You need to be able to share the worst of yourself with your co-founder and trust they will still work with you to make you and the venture successful.
Needless to say, you need to find someone who complements your skill sets. You both have to believe wholeheartedly in the core mission of your company and the meaning of your brand. Outside of this, it is best if you disagree.
Mitra and I disagree, all the time. It is draining. But that is okay. Telling is attempting to bridge business and art, technology and art, and we, as founders, embody the natural tensions that keep these worlds apart. But this tension is also the source of our creativity and helps us stay true to our mission.
3. Plan to make money from day 1.
It is trendy these days for consumer web businesses to build an open platform, create viral loops, get zillions of users on your system and then figure out how to monetize. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this model, I think it devalues some good things about a more classical approach to business (i.e. make a good product and sell it to a market that wants it).
When someone is willing to pay for your product or service, it means something. It means you are delivering actual value and simply put, this is what all businesses should strive to achieve.
When you take someone’s money, you actually feel responsibility of delivering exceptional service to the customer every single time they use you product or service.
Even if you charge 1 cent for your product or service, do it. You will amazed at what you learn about the actual value of your product or service.
4. Care about design.
Good design is not about pretty colors and making things look beautiful. Design is a systematic method of building and iterating on a product and business so that you end up with something people can use intuitively.
Good design starts with asking yourself these questions over and over again:
- What problem am I solving?
- What needs are we trying to address?
- What are people going to stop doing once they start using your product?
Then, it is important to prototype your idea. This means drawing out each feature of your product and iterating on it. MyBalsamiq is a great tool to draw out each and every frame of your product or service. Take your drawings out into the market and ask people if your product/service is something they would want if it exists. Get feedback and draw some more.
Next, build your minimal viable product, get it out into the market, collect feedback, and build again.
We must have gone through this process 8-9 times before we released our beta version. Our idea literally started with emailing pdf stories to people via MailChimp and has since morphed into digital media platform where art and technology co-exist and enhance each other.
5. Can’t code? Then learn how to read code and find the right developers.
Many non-technical founders struggle with not being able to build or iterate fast enough because they can’t code. While this is a frustrating handicap, you can build a product using the right contract developers. My advice is to not be cheap, stay local, and find developers who understand how the end consumer will use your product. Look for people who have a background in design or design thinking.
Most importantly, if you can’t code, learn just enough so that you can at least read code and piece together how your developer is architecting the solution. It will open the lines of communication with your developer and save you from getting ripped off.
Last, but not least, make sure to take the time and write a full functional specification for your beta product. Ensure that you and your developer have the same understanding of what the spec means and try to account for each and every edge case in advance. It is a lot of grunt work up front, but you will be glad you went through it when things start breaking.
If you have an idea, you owe it to yourself to build an early prototype and test your idea. Go out and build. You can always get a job later.
Article by Avanti Prahlad (Columbia ’04).
Telling is a digital media company focused on excellent storytelling.
Convinced that the time has arrived for San Francisco to step into the literary world, and for the world of art and letters to join forces with Silicon Valley, we offer a subscription service unlike any other: one that marries art with technology, and refuses to compromise on either.
Literature has been hit hard in 2013, print publishing having begun its rapid decline. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has tried—and failed—to “create content”. Unfortunately, the heroes of hacking are somewhat clueless about the deliberate and painstaking process of writing, editing, and publication.
Telling is a company run by representatives of seemingly warring tribes: a writer-editor from the world of publishing and art, and a business woman, from the world of Pepsi-Cola and satellite technology.
At Telling, we bring reading, art, and listening of the finest variety to subscribers world-wide, daring to call our work both high art and joyful entertainment. We also distribute through our own digital platform—in fact, we insist upon it.
Telling offers the essence of a fashion magazine, the sensibility of a literary journal, and the joy of a radio storytelling programme. With a kick from Silicon Valley to make the experience of reading, listening, and viewing a perfect pleasure, Telling is 21st century media.