Before working on Hotjar, I had almost given up on the dream of having a successful startup. Every startup I had ever worked on had generated little to no usage, and even the few users they had would not hang around for long. But I always told myself: each failure is a lesson, and a step closer to success.
Luckily, those lessons did help — they helped us realize that we needed to build a product that delivered an incredible experience and which served a real and broad enough need in the market. We managed to do that with Hotjar.
However, as it turns out, building a successful startup certainly does not end with having a product that customers actually want to pay for – that’s just the beginning. I was somewhat shocked to discover a whole world of challenges I had never faced before: hiring and building teams, creating processes to help all teams align their goals, creating career ladders… the list is endless.
Make no mistake: being great at building products does not mean you will be great at running a business.
For any of you who are either in the process of building a startup or are thinking about it, it’s important to understand that you are ultimately working towards having a real business. A real business that serves real customers, makes real money, pays real employees, and pays taxes just like any other brick-and-mortar business.
If you really enjoy building products, but hate the idea of building teams and forming relationships with others, then your startup journey can end in two ways:
- disappointment due to having too few users using your product, or
- disappointment due to the product gaining traction and realizing you now need to spend more of your time running the business
Ironically, if your passion is building software, a successful product will take you further away from what you enjoy doing.
As a founder or even a leader in an early-stage startup, your role will need to evolve quickly as the startup hopefully gains traction. Your success in the role will depend on how comfortable you are discovering and working on areas outside your comfort zone.
So say your product is now gaining traction. What comes next?
When your product starts to gain traction, you need to stop building the product and start building a team.
Once your product starts to gain traction, you may need to create and execute a go-to-market strategy that gets you a constant flow of high-quality leads. Or you may need to work on the next set of features that your users are begging you for. Or you may need to set up a support team to help your users navigate their way through your app... or you may need to do all the above.
In an ideal world, your founding team will have a broad enough skill set to cover all aspects of the business. This is rarely the case. That means you will most likely have areas of the business none of you know much about.
Many founders I've met through my career have instinctively thought: I'll continue focusing on what I'm good at and hire people to do the rest.
This is a big mistake.
If your job is to scale your startup, the first thing you need to realize is that your founding team does NOT scale.
I'll give you an example: At Hotjar, the technical members of the founding team (myself included) had no experience building and growing teams. For too long, we thought we could do it all ourselves.
Unfortunately, as more bugs were discovered, and more user requests came in, we had absolutely no time to work on our product vision. We were spending all our time coding and solving issues when the reality is we should have been focused on building a team that could do the work we were doing.
What about the areas you're unfamiliar with?
If you've founded a startup that's gaining traction, your job is to learn as much as possible about all aspects of the business. You need to stop thinking about your role as a fixed one.
You're no longer just a software engineer, or just a digital marketer, or just a product designer. You are now an entrepreneur and your role is to know as much as you can about all facets of the business.
Read articles, books, watch videos, speak to experts and mentors in the industry. Your job is to know just enough to be able to assess the person you need to hire to do the role instead of you.
You should ideally never hire somebody for a role you know nothing about. The more you know, the better you will be able to assess them at the hiring stage, and then collaborate with them once they have been hired.
You need to stop thinking that you are the only person or group of people who can make this business a success – your goal is to hire people who are better than you in every way.
Taking the time to learn how to build a team can be both tricky and exhausting if your main passion is building products, but it's also the only way your startup idea can officially transition into a real business.
- If you're thinking of creating a new startup, think hard about whether you're ready or even interested in actually running a business.
- Focus on building a team as soon as you know your product has potential. You will quickly become a bottleneck.
- The best founders are those who love going outside their comfort zone and are comfortable not having a fixed role description.