Startup Lockdown: 5 Lessons

I’ve already posted individual recaps of some things that I’ve learned each day via Startup Lockdown. I wanted to write a quick summary of the overall lessons I took away. Given the whole five people / five days / five ideas, I figured I might as well also stick to to five lessons.

1. Define what “business” means to you.

Going into Startup Lockdown, we thought we had everyone on the same page. After all, how many ways can you interpret Five Businesses/Five Days/Five people?

At least five.

Our sticking point was “what’s a business?” Amongst the five of us, this was inconsistent. It can be a the first sale, it can be making a Product people use, it can be having a business model you know will work, or it can be something else entirely. Those different definitions create a lot of different directions you can go for the first few deliverables.

Since we weren’t consistent, it was hard to know if we were working towards the same goal on any given day. If I were repeating this, I’d define what let the owner define what “business” is for each idea up front, and part of that definition would be what qualifies as a success at the end of the day.

A great example of this was Tuesday/Wednesday. On Tuesday, we had a rough financial model — but as a group we felt like it would’ve been better if we’d found a real customer a puppy. On Wednesday we considered booking a vacation for one person (exactly what we’d wished for on Tuesday), but it didn’t feel “big” enough, so we opted to make a website instead. The difference was in what the leader felt like would be a good validation of the idea.

2. Understand what your process optimizes for.

Before we started, we sat down with the original Startup Lockdown process. I made some “small” changes to include deeper user insights. This fundamentally changed the process — even though it looked cosmetically similar. Even while working, we didn’t realize how much we’d changed it until Wednesday.

The process you come up with reflects your idea of what makes a business. For me, a business has always started from a Product, which addresses a serious user need, which means starting from ethnography — finding people to talk to, and talking to them. For me, Everything else is an afterthought. I’ve always believed that if you make something good, you can figure out a way to have it make money. (While that sounds nice.. it’s unfortunately not true. The best way I’ve seen this explained was in Editorially’s announcement “Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.”)

When I made changes to the process, I was aligning to my own process. While it aligned to what I thought of as “business” (piece one) that wasn’t necessarily the case for everyone. It doesn’t address things like an actual financial model or competitive landscape.

The upside is that I now realize that about my process. I know what it’s good for, and I know it’s weak spots. I need to make sure to have accountability systems in place to cover the things my process neglects.

3. Reflect on right and wrong early.

One of the things that was most interesting for the week was that a day is NOT enough time to think through the ethical ramifications of what you’re building. That’s not only a limitation with having a day. Anytime you’re moving quickly it’s hard to stop and reflect for long enough to figure it out.

I’m not talking about straight forwarded cases. I’m talking about some of the more subtle issues. If you build an ethical puppy marketplace — are you preventing puppy mills? Or making it easier to opt to get a puppy instead of a rescue dog? Do you hurt or help animal welfare as a whole? How do you figure out how to measure that?

Many of the things I’ve worked on haven’t had these ramifications. Kickstarter is a positive force. I stopped working on Office Mobile in part because ad campaigns like these give me the heebie-jeebies.


That doesn’t mean it won’t keep coming up. I’m working on a project now that helps connect amateur photographers and low-budget events. I don’t want to drop the bottom out of the photography market, and that’s a genuine concern of mine. I do want to expand the number of events that can have higher quality photos. I’ve been moving quickly, which means I haven’t spent as much time on that question as I should.

4. Stop Judging.

It’s hard to admit, but throughout my career, I’ve judged people and companies based on some pretty unreasonable things.

One small example: this blog runs on Wordpress — yet I still found it absurd when I heard that the Daily Muse started there.

My brain said: how can you not care enough about your business to build your own site?!
Reality says: It’s a content site. Of course it makes sense to use a CMS at the beginning.

Only having a day means you have to work faster and cut corners you normally wouldn’t.

Normally, I wouldn’t throw up a bunch of Squarespace landing pages for fear of the judgement others might make about my technical competence/lack there of. I’d either (slowly) build things myself, or I’d ask a friend to do it for me. Given the extreme time constraint, I just threw up the Squarespace pages. I did lots of things I normally wouldn’t have done out of fear for my reputation.

I didn’t entirely realize I was thinking this way, and it’s a dumb way of thinking. Early on, done is better than perfect. Sometimes it’s better to go fast and experiment. And even more important? I should stop judging how others build things — that’s just lame of me.

5. Honor all of your commitments.

The last piece is the most personal, and probably one of the most important. I dropped a lot of balls during the week of Startup Lockdown. It’s hard to do something like this and keep everything else in the air. In retrospect, I wish I would have made the schedule work so I didn’t have to drop the rest of my life. I think the most important one is that I was not a good domestic partner during Startup Lockdown.

Being physically unavailable most of the day wasn’t ideal. I was gone from 8am-10pm each day. Even when I was home, I wasn’t pulling my weight. For the week, I was not the person who fed the cat. I did not cook us any meals. I did not do any chores. I actively made things messier by leaving stuff all over the floor. This is not uncommon — the busier I get, the more likely I am to fall into this pattern.

I also was relatively emotionally unavailable. After fourteen hours of people time, I don’t really want to talk more. I don’t think I listened well about Tom’s day, and I didn’t share very much about what I did during the week. Sadly, also not that uncommon when I’m busy.

I try to be aware of this because I know that it happens. When it happens, I do try to compensate — getting up extra early to have breakfast together, making sure the weekend before is totally empty, planning something special for the week after.

I point this out because it would be easy for me to do this all the time. I get wrapped up in the crush of exciting new projects. Work obligations do come more easily to me than personal ones, and new things seem shinier than old ones.

This isn’t about work/life balance — it’s about honoring all the commitments I’ve made, and not just the latest one.