A startup is just a series of prioritizations

In the early going, before there is a product or service, all you are doing is looking at a relationship between people, and maybe the market at large. 

The goal is to answer one question: can we create something that is useful, interesting, meaningful, inspirational, valuable, and/or helpful to a specific person? 

If you can, and they share with you why it has meaning or value, then you can build a community around it. 

This is what every "visionary" pays lip service to, but experienced founders know: an early stage company or project is just an exercise in building community.

If you focus on growth alone, you may occasionally stumble across value, but you're likely to miss many of the non-transactional reasons people relate to a company or organization - why they are loyal and choose to stick with something, or why they choose to try something new. 

Your job is to keep a list of 10, 20, 50, or even hundreds of priorities that reflect the values of your community...and constantly re-prioritize the list based on what is possible, and what can be imagined.

If the list is all imagination, you'll miss the opportunity to deliver meaningful value. If it's all value here and now, you'll miss the chance to build a community with vision.

When (and how) to outsource marketing in a startup

One of the most interesting problems early-stage startups run into is when to actually invest in marketing. 

There's no one size fits all answer, but there are tested and true approaches. Most importantly, if you're a founder or early employee, the starting point is to assess where you are...

"We are working on an idea and have some early customers / users of our product"
"We have a company that’s making money (revenue positive) on a consistent basis, and has a clear business model and path to growth"

For early-stage startups, outsourcing marketing is almost always a mistake. This is because you haven't identified your market(s), and built enough of a community or customer base to withstand changes.

Rand Fishkin of MOZ, recently published a deck on all the ways startups suck at marketing, and how to avoid them. In some ways the conversation is similar to hiring a sales team before you're ready to scale: you have to actually do the work yourself first.

But the crucial point Rand makes, and that many people miss when they're busy encouraging you to outsource your marketing, is that marketing in a startup is a mix of strategic and tactical work. 

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A strong culture isn't about what happens when things go well

Startups and corporates both constantly preach about the importance of culture.

It's something that's supposed to attract and keep the hardest working and most talented folks, and people who lead teams or found companies like to brag about how good their culture is, and how much everyone likes working there.

But good, deeply creative culture has nothing to do with sodas in a fridge, ping pong tables, bonuses, awards, or praising people.

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The power of looking for patterns that don't match

Pattern matching at it's most basic is about finding things that seem to fit together. 

In venture capital that often means looking at startups and interpreting what works well, or what makes a good entrepreneur. There are plenty of problems with the method - Chris Dixon wrote about a few of them in 2012, and there is significant research that suggests that pattern matching through things like gender and race may unconsciously lead to much narrower ideas of what works, and poorer outcomes for picking winners.

But one of the things that's not dug out as often is that looking for patterns that don't match is a valuable skill. Another way of thinking about it is: everyone wants to know what makes a winner, but not enough people want to know why something doesn't work, why a pattern you expected to fit, simply doesn't. As it turns out, those tend to be the underpinning to finding patterns that create growth in a company (and probably as an individual, too). 

For example, one of the most complex questions in an early stage business is: we've found something that works, but how do we know it will last? You can pattern match your way to more users or customers ("hey this works let's do more of it"), but unless you're paying attention to which patterns don't match, you'll likely get hit hard when a tactic doesn't work. There's a very small peek at that struggle in a recent update from Mike Wilner at Compass, which matches designers/developers to small business owners & entrepreneurs who need a smart, basic website.

Both sides of the coin are important. You have to be willing to seek things that don't make sense, because they can help you hedge against your own unconscious bias. And it increases your ability to see things at a much larger scale, instead of simply chasing things that fit what you've already run into. 

Telling one story a day about the people who use what you create

Building a company from scratch is exhausting. 

Entrepreneurs need various kinds of support to stay afloat —understanding friends and family, tough advisers / mentors, a good reading list to encourage contemplation, these are all important.

But the best source of support is the people actually using what you build. Their stories are the ones that open up your world when you’re thinking too narrowly, and provide inspiration to keep going. While solving a problem for one person typically doesn’t justify a stable small business or a rapidly growing startup, it’s the starting point for everything else. 

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