Resources for Startup Founders
There’s a lot of startup advice out there. Much of it is useless.
When quantity increases and quality declines, curation becomes valuable . So I’ve put together some of the resources that I found most useful in my own journey . I’ve organized them by theme:
- Oracles: the voices that define this era of tech
- Ideas: find something worth building
- Product: build it right
- Growth: get noticed by the world
- Metrics: measure what matters
- (More sections to be added over time)
There is a lot of material here, and for that I make no excuses. If you’re serious about building a startup, you have to put in the work. I know of no successful founders who are not also learning machines .
Let’s start with the classics. You can’t be part of the tech ecosystem without knowing these books, internalizing their language, and understanding the (collective, not always perfectly overlapping) worldview they espouse:
- Marc Andreessen’s blog
- Paul Graham’s essays
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel, also online
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, also online
- Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman, also online
These 5 writers are essential to understanding the modern era of tech (2009 to 2019: Uber’s founding to WeWork’s non-IPO). You can find all of them in this excellent series of videos with accompanying notes and resources.
There’s a common startup trope that ideas are unimportant, and execution is what counts. I disagree; I think ideas matter. They matter because to make anything worthwhile takes time. And as a founder, I would hate to spend 5 to 10 years of my life doing something that is irrelevant, or uninteresting, or inconsequential.
How do you find a good idea? How do you find a problem worth solving?
Paul Graham’s classic advice – “make something people want” – is still the best counsel out there for aspiring founders.
How do you know when people want the thing you’ve made? Marc Andreessen popularized the phrase “product-market fit” to describe this magical stage in a startup’s life.
Two sidebars to that are that you should make something you want to make (aka commitment) and that you should make something you know how to make (aka founder-market fit).
One way to accomplish all these goals is to “scratch your own itch” – solve a problem that you’ve previously faced. That way you know it’s a real problem, you know you want to solve it, and you have some ideas on how. This is how Quandl got started.
Sometimes you need to experiment a bit to learn exactly what resonates. First Round Review’s interview with Payak Kadakia of ClassPass describes this process.
You don’t need to rely on serendipity in your experiments! Rahul Vohra has a great post on how Superhuman systematically d/refined their value prop for their most committed users.
Keith Rabois argues, and I agree with him, that you cannot pivot or iterate your way to a bold vision. Experiments are a useful tactic but they do not replace strategy.
A good summary of all these themes and more can be found in this conversation between Andy Rachleff and Mike Maples jr.
Once you have an idea, the next step is to build a product: in its broadest sense, a way to meet your users’ needs. This could be a piece of software, a system or process, a venue, a tool, a resource, or something else; the key is that it solves a problem, and is hence something people want.
Building and delivering the right product, efficiently and effectively, tying together the needs of different “stakeholders” (company, customers, investors, counterparties, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, design and more) is what product managers do. Here are some product management resources I’ve found useful over the years:
A step-by-step guide to product development, in 7 fantastically detailed parts.
So you have an idea, and you’ve built a product. What next? Growth: by which I mean, getting users, getting revenue, and getting to scale. Paul Graham famously says that startups are defined by growth.
In the early days, there is no formula. You have to figure out what works slowly, iteratively, often fortuitously.
Technical or product-centric founders often spend too much time fine-tuning their product and not enough time talking to customers. It’s important to get out of the building!
The opposite mistake is bringing large numbers of new users to your product, without recognizing that the product itself is mediocre. Andy Johns has an excellent post on why this is a dead end.
Balancing these two imperatives is tricky but important. James Currier talks about the psychology that makes this possible.
A piece of advice that is almost always applicable (and remains that way far longer than you might think) is Paul Graham’s “do things that don’t scale”.
In the later stages of a startup, it’s exactly the opposite. There is a well-established body of best practices on how to grow a business – any business. Indeed, the maturation and codification of these techniques is one of the key features of our current startup era.
There’s a finite set of levers you can pull to acquire customers at scale; Andrew Chen breaks them down.
Mark Cranney has a comprehensive plan of attack for startups going to market; it’s dense and information-rich.
In a series of four articles, Andy Johns describes the tension between optimization and innovation – which result in incremental and step-function growth, respectively – and how to design organizations that can do both.
Before you measure anything, you need a framework to give context to your measurements. I like the pirate metrics (AARRR) framework covered by Andreas Klinger in this deck; it applies to virtually any customer acquisition/conversion/retention process.
The point of measurement is of course to improve outcomes. Andy Johns shows how to do this systematically.
Real life is more complicated than simple models suggest. For example, if you push one metric up, it often pulls another one down. Don’t blindly optimize; be thoughtful in how you use metrics and analytics, advises Bill Gurley.
A question that’s always asked is, how good are my metrics? Is my growth strong enough? Some high-level attempts at an answer include: the T2D3 Rule, the Quick > 4 Rule, the Mendoza Line, and the Rule of 40.
Finally, metrics matter for fund-raising. A16z defines some of the most commonly used (and asked for) startup metrics. Gigi Levy-Weiss explains how VCs use these metrics to construct their investment narrative.
Most of these articles are relevant for early stage founders, ie, from zero till about Series B. After that, founders typically have access to far better and more focused sources of expertise than articles on the internet, no matter how insightful.
This material is a few years old. The best current wisdom is to be found in operational docs (decks & memos) or on Twitter; it hasn’t yet been collected into books or blog posts.
I welcome recommendations for new articles to add to this list – please email me your suggestions!
A final vital piece of advice: think for yourself. You can’t build a startup the way you build a piece of IKEA furniture, by following instructions. Reading all these articles is just table stakes; the necessary context and framework and background required for you to make smart, contrarian, correct decisions. But only you can make those decisions.
 Why this decline in quality and increase in quantity?
Back in the early 2010s, a number of VCs discovered the power of blogging to attract talented founders [1a], and they competed with each other to share their secrets with the world. It was a golden age.
Unfortunately, the very success of this content marketing strategy attracted more creators. Not everybody has great insights to share, and the competition for eyeballs is fierce, so the content on offer rapidly devolved into platitudes or click-bait. The median “how to startup” article published today is pretty terrible.
[1a] Good content boosts your profile as an investor; it attracts the kinds of founders you want to invest in; and it makes them more likely to pick you as their partner. VC is a business with funnels and conversion rates just like any other!
 I was a first-time founder; so was my partner Tammer. While we’re both engineers, neither of us had ever worked in technology firms, or startups, or in Silicon Valley, prior to starting Quandl. What strikes me looking back is how little we knew, and how much we learned along the way.
 If you can benefit from other people’s wisdom (instead of learning yourself by trial and error or deducing everything from first principles), why wouldn’t you?