6 Lessons Learned in my First Year building a startup

It’s been just over one year since we began building our travel tech product otto and I still often question my sanity. The journey has been ambiguous at best however with every milestone and lesson learned, I’m reminded how rewarding an endeavor it is. After months of development, we began rolling out our app to our very first users this summer and are excited to be adding more over the next few weeks. Heading into our next stage of growth, I thought I’d reflect on some of my key lessons I’ve learned along the road to Alpha. 

Prove people want your product first then focus on building it second

I learned relatively quickly from mentors, investors and other startup founders that a Founder’s primary role in the early stages isn’t building a product, it’s gathering data that confirms there is a market for the product you want to build. Many founders charge full speed at developing a product to later discover that nobody wants or needs it. Be sure to do your research before getting started and consistently check in with your primary customers. This will help ensure you remain headed in the right direction.

Build cheap and test often 

Building your minimum viable product (MVP) is a great way to gather data and test product-market fit. At this stage, you could invest in a developer but you should first consider whether leveraging an existing platform such as Wix, WordPress or Squarespace might make more sense. Building a tech product isn’t cheap which makes committing thousands of dollars to hours of software development a huge risk; especially when your idea hasn’t been validated. The previously mentioned platforms have become extremely sophisticated and are lowering the barrier for entry, making it possible for founders to create their first products and start validating assumptions at a basic level. Don’t feel pressured to jump right into building an app. Early stage founders should think creatively and find low cost ways to build and test ideas. 

Invest in quality expertise

Recognizing how little I know about business and technology has saved hours of late night research and frustration. While the idea of retaining pricey legal counsel or opting for a more experienced developer might sound wasteful, when something goes wrong with your code or the IRS hits you with your tax bill, having experts on standby to advise and advocate on your behalf, automatically makes that money well spent.

I often resort to Google to help bridge the knowledge gap, however when it comes down to deciding between teaching myself and hiring a professional, I ask myself one simple question; “what is the cost of getting it wrong?” As Steve Jobs said “…we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” While it can be tempting to some founders to compromise quality for cost, it’s important to strike a balance. Money spent on quality expertise is money invested in a strong foundation for your business. 

Don’t dwell on rejection, people or problems

The journey is full of  successes but also disappointments of varying scale and variety. Oftentimes things just won’t go as planned. Learning how to bounce back from disappointment, a tech hurdle or financial setback will save you time and free up mental capacity so you can focus on what really matters. In these situations, your gut instinct will be to over analyze. “Why did that happen? They probably didn’t like the product.” In many cases, the reason for a setback will be obvious and you’ll recognize when it’s your fault. However in the event of the opposite, odds are circumstances were beyond your control, in which case you should do yourself a favor and carry swiftly onward. 

Check your expectations. These things take a while

Facebook wasn’t built in a day and our app certainly isn’t any different. It’s tempting to let your imagination run wild with dreams of overnight success however setting expectations and realistic timelines has helped ensure we aren’t disappointed. I’ve also learned to enjoy the ride as much as the destination. Over the past year, I’ve met, collaborated and brainstormed with people from a variety of disciplines who think in completely different ways than I do. Each of these interactions has helped broaden my thinking and shaped our product in one way or another. Not to mention, I’ve cultivated a number of relationships I wouldn’t have had I not embarked on this journey.

Master self-discipline / find your inspiration

You learn a lot about your own ambition when you have no one to report to. As a solo-founder this can be even more challenging without a partner to keep each other accountable. Combating the temptation to slack off is an ever present struggle so keeping the customer pain-point front and center is how I’ve stay motivated. For otto, that means getting on an airplane and exploring a new city as often as I can. As long as the challenge of sharing and sourcing recommendations exists,  we’ll be in the business of trying to solve it.

At otto, our mission is to make the world more accessible for all who choose to explore it. That means simplifying the research and booking process. We’re delighted to have just celebrated our first birthday and look forward to many more. As we enter our next stage of growth, we are excited to be expanding our team of travel loving tech experts. If this sounds like you drop us a line – we’d love to hear from you!

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