1. The people you know can be your unfair advantage. YOU may not be able to be the best at everything, but it helps if you can get access to the person who’s the best.
  2. Very few things are impossible if you fight hard enough. We often make excuses for ourselves. “It’s too expensive”, “He’s too hard to get to”, “It’s too selective.” There is ALWAYS a path from point A to B. You just have to find it.
  3. Focus on your users. Do everything you can to be there for them. Know everything about them. You can’t do any of the fancy marketing and business 101 math that you learn in college without this.
  4. Be nice but confident. Be nice whenever you can, even if people are mean to you. It helps in the long run.
  5. Find a Routine. Without a routine, I would have days where I’d ask myself….What did I REALLY accomplish today? Did I actually move the needle? Or did I just keep myself busy with useless work and terrible coffee meetings? A routine helped me focus on what really mattered and kept me moving fast. Trying to write a novel? Well, find a way to write a little every day. I actually remember reading somewhere that Ernest Hemingway used to say that consistency was one of the most important traits of a writer.

These are the lessons we learned from shutting down our old company and starting Commaful, our new visual storytelling website that has been growing quickly and attracted many top founders, investors, and more to contribute content.

All of our learnings from our last company went into shaping a better me…..and building a better product.

My Approach to Learning

I left USC after my sophomore year to start TalentTrail, the recruiting startup we shut down. While I felt that I was learning a lot at USC and LOVE USC, I felt that my learning curve was slowing down. I was learning, but not at as fast of a rate as when I first started college. When working on TalentTrail, my learning curve felt like it was accelerating. Why? Because every new challenge made me learning something new.

So how does an inexperienced 19 year old learn if not through professors?

Through mentors and books. What made this type of learning different was that I actually got to APPLY what I learned immediately and then practice it. As an example, for TalentTrail, I was the one man sales team pitching companies our recruiting platform. After asking a few mentors for advice, I had put together our sales strategy and then get on the ground SELL. After 6 months of this, I felt pretty confident.

Beyond mentors, reading blog posts and books also significantly helped my learning and process. The goal was to leverage the knowledge of greats to help come up with potential solutions. If I was low on time, I’d use a book summary site like Wired For Youth or something to get key points quickly.

TalentTrail kept opening new challenges every day and every week. For each challenge, I’d end up applying a similar structure:

See Problem → Do research/Come up with possible solutions → Consult Mentors → Execute

This has extended itself to everything in life and has shown me the true value of networking. I will not be the best sales person ever. But as long as I know the best sales people, I will always have access to the tricks of the game as well.

We did something similar for Commaful: We knew nothing about the content space. We built Commaful for fun initially. So…..we turned to mentors who understood the space for advice. As a fun note, the same sales strategy I used on TalentTrail, I used to find influencers to post on Pencil. We’ve had some cool people come on to contribute, including co-founders of LinkedIn, Foursquare, Pencils of Promise, and more.

Best Type of Learning for a Startup is Talking to Users

I read a lot of business books and took a few business classes when we first started TalentTrail so I thought I was pretty smart. We made a marketing plan, did all of our branding and mission statements, got all my spreadsheets ready…..

Long story short…we launched and nobody signed up. What was wrong? Users didn’t care about the product. We had spent a lot of time interviewing users, but asking the wrong questions and not showing them anything about our product. We had no feedback and worked in the dark.

Talking to users ultimately made a few lightbulbs go off that made a huge different in growth.

For Commaful, talking to users helped us realize that poetry, horror, fanfiction, and more were important to our userbase.

Make a Routine and STICK TO IT

I’d be surprised if you’ve never experienced this. You wake up one day and start working. You work throughout the day but you ask yourself: “What did I accomplish today?”

Let’s see….I met these 5 people for coffee (who actually didn’t have anything to do with my business). I responded to emails….I made a few mock ups for features that we’ll build in a few months…..yeaaa it was a busy day.

Busy, but not useful. I found that this would happen to me every so often. I found that once I created a system or routine, things just worked.

Here are parts of my routine I find extremely useful:

  • Pull up challenge: We work in a tiny room. Every time I leave the room (which ends up being 7–15 times a day), I have to do 5 pull ups. I increase this as it becomes easier. You can do this with pushups too.
  • Meditation: Keep your mind under control. Helps make me more focused when I work.
  • Plan the Night Before: I plan what I want to get done the night before. For each thing I ask myself: “Does this move the needle? Will it improve growth or help make our product better?”

Book everything on your calendar. Investor updates, focus time, etc. Follow it religiously. In college, I could get away with just passing tests and not managing time. That changes when you’re working all day on your company…

Hope you found this useful!

Until next time.