A lot of people don’t think an internship does anything and unfortunately, in many industries, you end up getting coffee for someone and may not do anything that teaches you something of value. However, if you happen to work in a startup with a small team (three to five people), as I did this summer, you’ll learn a lot. This is mainly due to the fact that a company with such a small team inevitably needs everyone to do work, and even an “intern” gets meaningful work to do.
I having worked with Frank Chen, CEO and Founder of Tisket over the summer, here are three lessons I learned that I think are applicable to almost all startups:
One of the things that Frank urged me to follow when I was working with him over the summer, and even more so now that he was able to see the return of his time, was that a startup’s founding team shouldn’t be focussed on scalability — not at the beginning anyway. His rationale being that a very small number of startups are successful at all, so it’s not worth the time of making your product scalable until you’ve tested to make sure that customers are going to love it. He said that in their early days, founders should spend their time doing things that don’t scale (I think he was significantly influenced by an article by Paul Graham titled “Do Things That Don’t Scale”). This can include things like physical marketing (i.e. going out on the street and handing out samples / flyers), competitor analysis, or, what he thought was imperative to making a product people love, customer outreach.
Frank is a strong believer in spending hours upon hours finding your product’s power users. He gave me the example of Pinterest, who believed their power user would be architects, and so the founders of Pinterest went to an architecture conference to not only show architects their product and (hopefully) get some feedback, but also to find out if they were right and that architects were indeed going to be their power users. According to Frank, this method of outreach is critical about making your business survive.
However, Frank took this one step further. When I questioned him as to why he spent – and had me spend – almost all of our time reaching out to people he thought are Tisket’s power users, he had one simple reason: feedback. If a product is novel enough, and it genuinely solves a problem for some people (potentially even a niche group), those people (the power users), will be willing to put up with a slightly sub-par product, because it does something that makes their lives significantly easier. Relating this back to doing things that aren’t scaleable, he made it a point to reach out to Tisket’s power users (fashion bloggers) personally and make each email unique to the person he was reaching out to rather than just blasting out a generic email to everyone. Having followed this process for over 4 months since when we started it together, Frank found it incredibly rewarding, especially given that he successfully converted far more fashion bloggers than we had both thought possible.
When I asked Frank why he thought fashion bloggers first began using and then continued using Tisket, he had a very simple answer, yet again: product iteration cycle. Something I had begun to notice when I was working with Tisket was that when we asked fashion bloggers what they liked about Tisket and what they thought we should change, they were more likely to continue using the product. Again, this is going back to Frank’s personal touch in every email that went out from the company. Continuously engaging your power users and improving your product to fit their needs will be significantly more productive than if were you only trying to improve it by yourself. If you continuously update your product by asking your power users for feedback, not only do they feel they have a say in the direction of the product (which makes them stick around), but it also improves your product in such a way that it benefits all of your power users (which probably make up a significant portion of your users).
In summary, the three lessons I learned from Frank and my internship with Tisket:
— Do things that don’t scale.
— Identify and reach out personally to your power users / customers.
— Continuously update your product taking into account the needs of your power users.