Building the product vs building the company

Paul Graham is a bit of a hero of mine as I think he is for many people who have had a go at creating a start-up. Not necessarily for his track record (which is also brilliant) but for his ability to put his finger on what’s important, particularly in the essays on his site:

I’d noticed startups got way less done when they started raising money, but it was not till we ourselves raised money that I understood why. The problem is not the actual time it takes to meet with investors. The problem is that once you start raising money, raising money becomes the top idea in your mind. That becomes what you think about when you take a shower in the morning. And that means other questions aren’t.

(Rest of the article is here.)

At the moment we’re really focussing on building what in the start-up world is called the ‘product’ as we design a new service to help people organise small groups to learn from one another. I have to say I’m really enjoying it. It’s entirely what I’m thinking about in the shower rather than worrying about all the permutations of investment or legal issues.

However, there is a bit of a knack to minimising the amount of time I spent on managing the company. Some of that came with experience — the first time I had to do an annual return for example, I worried about it quite a bit, but the next time it was much less of a distraction. Other tricks are about choosing the right tools — Things has helped me not to have to worry about remembering key dates for company admin and the simple spreadsheet I use for managing cashflow is now very easy to use. There’s also choosing the right people to take boring problems away — having the right accountants and lawyers definitely helps.

I guess that’s why we’re running Accountancy Club — to help people spend less time worrying in the shower so they can think about building exciting things instead.

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We’re just getting to the interesting bit

It struck me this morning how my experience of London has changed in the last few years. I swiped my Oyster card to get on a bus to go along to a meeting of School of Everything Unplugged (organised using Meetup), then hopped on a TfL bike to get back to the office. I’m about to pop out for my weekly Good Gym run and then I’m going out for the evening using a Streetcar. Now none of those activities is new in itself but the way they’re organised using technology is.

Fred Wilson has a neat little blog post today called Retooling Stale Businesses which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. While the car was a pretty smart and lucrative invention on its own, its biggest impact was that it led to suburbia, fast food, and many other completely new social systems — many of them things we now see as bad. But I couldn’t help feeling a little bit emotional watching the Top Gear piece about the decline of British sports car manufacturers, especially the eerily quiet Jenson and TVR factories. But of course the Lotus factory (the other place Clarkson and chums visited) is actually turning out the Tesla Roadster.

There are no shortage of new ideas in the car world, many of them suggesting the model of organisation will change radically. I’d be surprised if car ownership was anywhere near as common as now by 2020. The riversimple guys are doing some of that. Liftshare and Streetcar too. Maybe Better Place will pull some of it off too. And the interesting thing about all those is that they are only possible because of the internet.

For me we’re getting to the most exciting phase of the internet’s development, when it gets beyond novelty and into reorganising society at large. The need to help shape that reorganisation for social benefit is why we’re starting Bethnal Green Ventures to offer support to projects that set out to use the internet and mobile for social good. It’s early days but you can find out more here.