tl;dr I started 12 Labs 3+ years ago, and struggled initially. Then learnt to be productive and grew the app to 400k+ downloads (1000 dl/day), 4.5 star rating over 500 reviews, and top 100 in Health and Fitness in the app store. Closing aseed round soon. Here are all my secrets revealed.
First some background. I’m one of those people who once upon a time, would procrastinate till doomsday. I struggled terribly with being productive. I never paid my bills in time (because I hated to), so my credit score was so low I couldn’t even get my credit card limit raised from $500 to $1000. Yes, that bad. I used to need “inspiration” before I could do something productive. That “inspiration” never came.
On a different note, unless you’re a ridiculously lucky founder (Facebook, Snapchat, etc) or a part-time founder, you’re going to have to learn to handle startup depression as a founder. 3 years into my startup, I’ve had terrible depression the first 2 winters and then essentially mastered it.
The core reason behind startup depression is this. You have a nice paying job that you quit. That’s stressful, though as a bold, ambitious and determined entrepreneur, the stress is not obvious to you right away. You feel it, but you don’t think of it as stress. You think of it as guilt for not getting things done.
So 2 weeks into your newfound status as a founder, you’re feeling pretty good. You don’t have to report to a pointy haired boss, and there is no “schedule”. You go to a cafe and “work” on your laptop for hours. And it’s only been 2 weeks, right?
If you’re at least somewhat productive, you’ll have something built in about 3-4 months. That’s a good thing. The problem is, that something is not near what you’re expecting to build. So you don’t ship. On some rare days, you try to add up the actual amount of time you spent designing and building stuff that day.
This is what it looks like:
- Reading HN, Reddit, Books about startups, Amazing blogs about startups: Most of the day.
- Actual design/coding work: 0-2 hours.
This should alarm you. But it usually won’t. Part of the reason is that it’s really hard to accept you’re so unproductive when left to yourself. The other reason is, well, compared to reading blogs, designing and building things by yourself is a hugecognitive load. So you do what every child does: move from the unpleasant and difficult to the pleasant and easy: read about starting companies and building products. After all, don’t you need to do it anyways?
I’m guilt of this myself. Several times, I deleted all apps on my phone and forced myself to not open one of these horrendous distractions because I was a slave to them instead of actually working. It didn’t really work. You know why? Because I still had not steeled myself to just getting those horribly painful design decisions done. Real work is not fun. Real work is difficult and unpleasant and takes you out of your comfort zone. But there is no substitute to just getting through it. You have to walk on those coals.
So if you expect great things from yourself but what you’re doing on a daily basis several months into a startup is not very great (or even average) compared to your own expectations, it’ll stress the hell out of you. That’s called depression. The answer, is to learn to be productive. Productivity reduces stress, which makes you more productive. It’s a good cycle.
Here’s my Magic-12 formula. Once I had figured it out, it felt really simple.
1. Start the day with a line of code.
When you wake up in the morning, open Xcode or Eclipse and write one line of code. Just one line. It’ll kickstart your day. Just give this a try – you’ll thank me.
This idea came to me from a passage in one of my favorite books: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Being a writer is in some ways harder than being a programmer/entrepreneur. What works for writers, works really really well for us. Try it.
2. Get into a healthy routine. Wake up early. Get good sleep.
Force yourself to wake up early (7 am). That’ll force you to sleep early. Going to sleep at 2 am everyday is natural after college, but will hold you back from success. You’ll feel tired and lethargic everyday. Get good sleep – it’ll make you very productive and energetic all day. If you wake up at 7 am and write one line of code everyday, you’ll usually have done 2-3 hours of solid work before other people have gotten to work. That feels really good. Motivation fuels productivity.
3. Get checked for deficiencies that might make you lethargic and tired.
Get checked for Vitamin D and thyroid hormone deficiency next time you visit the doctor. It’s just a quick blood test, is covered by insurance, and might solve your problem. Vitamin D deficiency is very common among sedentary occupations and can leave you feeling sleepy and tired all day. Usually you blame laziness, but the root cause is clinical. (I happen to have both. After a few months of supplements, I have had amazing energy everyday happily ever after).
4. Ship to 5 friends. Within 3 months.
If you’re not ready to ship publicly, ship to 5 of your friends. Just 5. Their feedback will catalyze you. Use TestFlight – it’s simple and quick.
5. Practice what you read.
Don’t just read articles on App Store Optimization and getting downloads.
After reading, go and actually implement what you read. They work. At 12 Labs, once we started doing that, our downloads went from 1/day to 50/day to 200/day to 1000/day in about 4 months. We knew the tricks all along, but had never made ourselves actually implement them and study the results. To do these really high-leverage things takes barely 0.1% of the time you have invested in actually building the app.
In a nutshell: screenshots really matter (esp first screenshot) – study the top apps, get at least 10-15 good reviews (4-5 stars) – bug users inside the app, optimize keywords and app title, pick the right category, respond really quickly to customer support emails (they’ll usually write a great review if you respond within 5 mins, and then ask them for a review).
6. A good co-founder makes you 10X better.
If you don’t have a co-founder (I was a solo-founder for a long time, it was really stupid of me), get some advisors to help you. Work really aggressively to get a co-founder. On advisors: before you ask someone to be an advisor, get them to help you for 1-2 months. They must not be obsessed about stock options before having given you real help repeatedly. Stay clear of people who start by asking for stock, but be open to consideration if the person truly has an amazing track record.
7. Get any review as quickly as possible. The good, the bad, and the very ugly.
Don’t be scared of getting bad reviews by shipping too quickly. This happened to us. I had built our first version in 3 months but kept postponing the launch to avoid bad reviews. Guess what happened when I shipped? I had no downloads, so there were no reviews to worry about. As a startup, your problem is not that you’ll get bad reviews. Your problem is that nobody cares about you. You’ll get no reviews. Bad reviews might be a good thing early on – it means you are shipping quickly and users actually care about your product. Make it your objective to get any reviews as soon as possible.
8. Try AppsGoneFree. At least you’ll get a boost in morale.
Our app was free, but we made it paid for a day and then made it free again so that we could qualify to get featured on AppsGoneFree. It was really morale boosting to see 5000 downloads in 2 days, after having gotten 20 downloads/month for the first 6 months. Most of those users never came back, but the downloads were amazing for motivation. Staying motivated is very important in a startup. In a few months, some ASO magic took our downloads to 1000 a day (we have about 423K downloads till date).
9. Build what you think is a reasonable design. Second guessing yourself is a waste of time.
In handling a technical design, you might start second guessing the first solution that comes to mind, and doubt it might be inferior. Don’t. Your first design is usually pretty good most of the time. In any case, you won’t really know how good the design is until you build it. Go from first design to implementation really, really quickly. You’ll feel accomplished and motivated. Even if you have to redo the whole thing (which will happen much less frequently than you think). Don’t take 3 weeks to select a design that was clear on day 1.
10. Find a way, even pay, to talk to customers.
Talk to customers. You might have no idea how much customers love your product. Usually, when we ship a release with a major bug is when we realize how much customers love us – they email us and threaten us to fix the bug quickly or else..
That’s an amazing email to get, btw – look at the passion for your product. Now don’t wait for a bug. Just have a way for people to contact you easily from within the app, and when they email you, reply back and then ask to speak to them for half an hour. Initially we gave away 25$ Amazon gift cards to get people to talk to us. They did. People love Amazon gift cards (electronic ones).
11. What did I accomplish in the last hour. How did I spend yesterday?
Always ask yourself: What did I accomplish in the last hour? Calculate how many hours you actually worked yesterday. Be intellectually really honest about this. Combined with the techniques above, you’ll start getting very productive.
12. Don’t give yourself permission to fail.
Don’t give yourself permission to fail. I have built almost 8 apps now, but only released two. The others happened whenever I was feeling low about FitFrnd. I never shipped them though, because everytime I tried to quit, my downloads would somehow go up because I had been thrashing around trying all sorts of techniques. Do not allow yourself to fail. And do not only try to do something just once, or with just one approach. Keep trying different approaches and different things. It’s tedious, but it works out after a thousand tries.
For me, the worst times as a startup founder were December – January. Make sure you don’t stay by yourself in your room the entire winter. Go out and have a drink. Celebrate your failure to get traction. Make plans to celebrate Christmas, New Years etc with friends or other founders. It has a magical effect in uplifting mood, and making sure you don’t lose perspective. It happened to me the first 2 years, and boy, were they brutal.
I hope these techniques help you as much as they helped me. I had to learn them: my son was born a few months after I started 12 Labs, and the only time I could code was when he took naps (my wife was working full time).
Shameless pitch: we’re closing our seed round on AngelList soon (75% done). If you’re an investor, you should check out our AL profile.