Make a useful thing and don’t be a dick

Startup or upstart?

By stef

I did one of those startup pitch competitions the other day, which isn’t something I normally do. A judge did the whole “self-important expert in the field humouring the upstart” thing on me and generally ignored the product I was trying to show him.

His last question was “so are you going to build the next billion dollar company and take over this conference one day?”

My answer — “No, I just focus on making something useful.”

He didn’t look impressed and suffice to say we didn’t win. Some nice chaps with a startup they’ve been working on for several years did instead, which is fair enough because we’re pre-launch and pre-revenue.

The following isn’t about sour grapes, I thought I’d write because it got me thinking because…

I used to be a bit of a dick

In previous companies we repeatedly entered, and won a bunch of awards. It was a strategy—don’t do advertising but enter all the awards, and build a reputation for being the best in the field. It was pure ego and self-promotion.

The thing is, when you’re receiving awards it makes you believe your own hype and start thinking that the world owes you a mega-win. It can defocus you from the real challenges of building useful things and turn your attention to the fizz of being a “big fish in a small pond” and everything that entails.

You can’t eat awards

Entering and winning awards may be a good strategy for an agency or a TV company, but is that the right thing to do for a startup? 

I’m not convinced. Yes, you get some exposure, but the distraction of the process can distract you from working on what you’re building. And that’s pretty dangerous. A bit of buzz is handy, but awards don’t magically turn into positive cash flow. 

You can’t eat awards—I distinctly remember multiple occasions being totally broke and going to pick up a piece of glass from someone important.

Keep it real

I think it’s pretty ridiculous to rock up to a startup showcase with something you’ve not even launched yet and say you’re going to build a billion dollar company!

The chances that it will turn out to be true are infinitesimally small, so to anyone sensible you’ll come across as arrogant and deluded. Yes, once in a while someone will build a billion-dollar mega-startup, but I bet that even those folks didn’t say at the start “we’re definitely building a billion dollar company here”.

What made me sad about the encounter with the startup judge was that it reinforced the idea that once you’ve made it, you get to be a dick to people. Personally, I am more impressed by people who’ve made it and yet are still generous with their attention and share what they’ve learnt. At the same event, Eileen Burbidge popped by really briefly and pretty much embodies that principle of keeping it real.

Just make something useful

If there’s a principle that we’re sticking to at Makeshift, it’s to experiment with creating things that people find useful. And we often get surprised by what seems to get a good reaction, and what doesn’t. 

Linky Dink (team link sharing) and Attending (tiny event pages) were toys that people are now using every day, and Hire My Friend (social headhunting) was a hack Jon build in a Google Spreadsheet that now looks set to be a successful product. And Wrangler (data analysis for teams), well, we’re releasing it because we’re using it every day to build the things we build. 

By paying attention to our own behaviour and listening to people that use the things we make, we’re focussing our efforts on “make something useful”. We’re betting on people enjoying using useful things and telling their friends about them. Less bluster, just craft.