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“What is your startup’s unfair advantage?”, a partner from a VC firm asked us.

Ugh. I had no answer for that.

It’s not that I was surprised by the question; I had thought about it a bunch. But, how in the world is a startup supposed to have an unfair advantage? You’re starting from scratch.

I sort of nervously mumbled something about our domain expertise and the partner nodded. He clearly didn’t love our answer but the rest of the meeting had gone very well, we had traction, and they wanted to do the deal.

That was June 2010, right before we raised our first $1.3 million of funding for Yipit.

Four years later, I realize what I should have said, what our unfair advantage was: “We know a secret.”

Yipit’s Secret

In January of 2010, right before we released Yipit as a daily deal aggregator, we had been working on a local deal aggregator in New York. It wasn’t going very well but, as a result, we were paying special attention to what Groupon was doing and meeting with people in the deals space. In early 2010, we learned the following:

  • We had lunch with a friend in VC and they told us that Groupon was actually doing about 10x better than people thought they were doing
  • A startup friend of ours told us they were launching a daily deal company
  • Another startup friend told us that they were expanding their current business to include a daily deal product
  • A big publisher was trying to persuade us to build them a daily deal product
  • There was a stealth company backed by big names that was working on a white-label service for any publisher to launch a daily deal product

After these meetings, we thought it was likely that the number of daily deal companies was about to go from 3 to 50. We didn’t know if those companies were going to succeed, but we knew there would be a lot of noise. If we built an aggregator, we might be able to finally get some traction and get out of the cubicle we working in.

What happened? Well, lots happened. Groupon ended up doing 100x better than that VC thought they were doing. Over 700 daily deal companies ended up launching in the US (10x more than we thought). That stealth company was GroupCommerce, they raised $30 million and helped a bunch of publishers launch daily deal products including the NY Times.

Yipit was featured in hundreds of media outlets including Good Morning America. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and many others launched daily deal aggregators.

And, while the market wasn’t able to support 700 daily deal companies, the dust settled from the daily deal mania and Yipit emerged into a profitable company aggregating and recommending the best deals to now over 1 million active monthly users.

Our “unfair advantage” had been that we knew a secret but, as it turns out, many successful startups start with a secret.

Many Successful Startups Start with a Secret

Here are the backstories of a few of the most successful startups around today and the secret they knew:

Back in early 2010, two Stanford graduates were working on an app called Burbn, an HTML-5 Foursquare competitor. Unfortunately for them, the startup wasn’t really taking off the way they hoped. But, fortunately for them, they stumbled upon a secret. Burbn allowed people to take photos of the locations they were in (Foursquare didn’t have that feature) and it seemed that users really liked taking those photos and sharing them on Facebook and Twitter. So, they pivoted away from Burbn and launched the now ubiquitous Instagram.

Back in mid 2011, a team had been accepted to TechStars working on a platform to allow anyone to be the “craig” of “craigslist”. Unfortunately for them, the platform was struggling to take off. During the program, they took a weekend off and went to a Foursquare hackathon where they hacked together “Foursquare and Seven Years Ago” which would email you once a day telling you where you had checked in one year ago. The secret they learned is that it turns out that people really liked seeing what they were up to years ago and the service kept growing via word of mouth even though they weren’t working on it. When TechStars ended, they decided to focus full time on the service and expanded the product to include Facebook and Instagram calling it TimeHop. Today, TimeHop is downloaded 50K times a day and is a top 30 app in the App Store.

As a last example, back in mid-2012, the startup PetriDish launched as a crowdfunding site for science projects. While the site was working well, the founders felt like it wasn’t really taking off the way they had hoped and started thinking about other types of ideas to work on. They started thinking about the food space and an interesting product idea that would deliver to people three great recipes and all the ingredients needed to cook the meals. Upon doing research, the secret they learned is that there was a company in Sweden that had been doing something similar since 2007 and had been extremely successful. That certainly gave them and investors confidence to pursuit the idea here in the US which they called BlueApron. Less than two years later, they raised $50 million at a $450 million valuation.

How Do You Find a Secret?

Great secrets are, as you can expect, very hard to come by. It’s actually pretty easily to convince yourself that you do know a secret. I’ve done it way too many times. I’ve learned that there are okay secrets and some really strong secrets.

Here are some ways to find strong secrets:

  • Domain expertise. Entrepreneurs with deep domain expertise will often stumble upon a secret and start a company based on it. They are usually secrets because very few people are deep enough in the domain, actively looking for secrets and willing to do something about it.
  • Experimentation. Many startup secrets emerge from teams working on a different problem and stumbling into a secret (like TimeHop and Instagram). This is one of the big benefits of the lean startup movement which encourages you to build minimum viable products and learn about how your users engage with the product. Sometimes that engagement isn’t what you expected and turns out to be a valuable secret need. There are so many successful startups that started doing something completely different until they stumbled into a secret.
  • New technologies, behaviors. When new technologies or behaviors are massively adopted, they can create many secrets though these secrets usually won’t last very long which is why you see so many startups launch around the same concept at the same time (used to be mobile apps and now you’ll see virtual reality and blockchain startups).

For more on secrets, I recommend these Peter Thiel class notes on finding your secret and these notes on a Chris Dixon talk on secrets.

Like working with big data sets?

We’re aggressively expanding YipitData and looking for:

  • Data analysts (consultants, financial analysts)
  • Data product managers (technical and can work with analysts and engineers to build a system)
  • Data engineers (can build complicated systems to collect and process very large data sets)

Email me personally and we’ll meet up! I’m at vacanti at gmail dot com

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts will be on acquiring users for free and how to raise a Series A. You can get them by subscribing via email or following him via twitter.


Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

It was February 2010. We were noticing that a company named Groupon was taking off and a whole new industry was booming along with it.

Our idea for Yipit was simple, aggregate all these daily deals being sold by different companies and put them in one email. Plus, you could specify categories so that your emails were personalized.

The only issue was that we were working on a different product. The idea of trying yet another concept was exhausting.

So, we compromised by giving ourselves 3 days to build it.

In the first two days, we quickly built an email capture, sign-up flow to collect preferences and a script that would send people an email with the deals that matched their preference.

But, how would we get the deals in our database and categorize them correctly as “restaurant” or “concert tickets”? We would have to build a crawler to parse the deals from HTML from various sites and write a classification algorithm. Not a daily task for us.

So, we took a shortcut. Instead of building a crawler, my co-founder and I would crawl out of bed at 3 am and manually enter the deals into our database. Plus, when you’re doing it yourself, classification was easy. We did it all manually.

Within 3 days, we released Yipit and it took off. We got press and became known as the leader in the industry. Three months later we raised $1.3 million and a year later another $6 million. Today, we’re 25 people, over a million people have signed-up and we’re on a path to profitability.

The funny thing is that within a few months of our launch, several competitors emerged and they all had crawlers. But, from our users’s perspective, we were more advanced since we had categorization which was definitely no easily automated task.

We didn’t actually build a real crawler for the first 9 months and just kept scaling manually by hiring more data entry professionals. Instead, we were able to focus our resources on improving the product and user acquisition.

It’s now clear to me that not building that crawling technology early on was one of the reasons our startup succeeded.

Taking this “manual-first” approach was our secret sauce.

Many Startups Take the “Manual-First” Startup Approach

We’re not alone in our “manual-first” approach:

  • AngelList started with Nivi and Naval manually collecting startup applications and manually matching them up with potential investors. I know because Yipit was one of the first startups to use AngelList to raise funding
  • ZeroCater, a Y Combinator company, started with just a big spreadsheet trying to connect companies with restaurants that would cater
  • Groupon started with just a WordPress blog and manually sending PDFs with the first vouchers
  • Grouper, another Y Combinator company, also started with just a spreadsheet trying to match groups of people on dates

Benefits of the “Manual-First” Startup Approach

There are many benefits to taking a “manual-first” approach to some of the trickier technology challenges including:

  • Fastest way to get to the “moment of truth”. Having your potential customer evaluate your product and see if it addresses their need is the moment every founder is trying to get to and doing things manually allow you to quickly get there.
  • Easy to change your solution if it doesn’t work. There’s no code to re-write, there’s no sunk cost. You just have to change how you’re manually doing something.
  • Will really understand what to automate with tech when you’ve been manually doing it. When you’ve been manually providing the solution, you’ll know exactly where the pain points are that you should be automating.
  • Can really wow your potential customers. When you do things manually, you can try different things that really wow the customer and see which ones are worth trying to scale.
  • Customer doesn’t know how your product works behind the scenes. They won’t judge you for your manual approach because they don’t know that’s how you’re doing it. All they will care about it is that your product works.
  • Your product will “just work”. Because you’re manually providing the solution, the product will just work. When trying to implement a solution with technology, it can be very hard to make sure that it just works.
  • Helps you focus your time on the problem, not the solution. It’s very tempting to fall in love with the technology behind your solution only to painfully realize that the problem you set out to solve isn’t a real problem.

Next time you’re building a new product, I hope you’ll consider a manual-first approach to some of the trickier aspects of your solution.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, once said: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first release, you probably spent too much time on it.”

I also think it’s true that: “If people don’t laugh at how you first implemented your product, you probably spent too much time on it.”

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

The spread of the internet will put people into two groups: “People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” – Marc Andreessen

Hello-WorldFive years ago, I was firmly in Andreessen’s second group: the non-coders.

We had written an 80-page spec for a prototype and, since we didn’t know how to implement any of it, we handed it to an outsourcer. Six painful months later, we knew the outsourcers weren’t working out.

We were up against the wall and we decided the only way forward was for me to learn how to tell computers what to do. I needed to be in Andreessen’s first group. I needed to learn to code.

Since then, I started telling computers what to do. We went on to build Yipit and it changed our lives.

It’s abundantly obvious to me that teaching myself to code is the number one reason we’re here. Learning to code allowed us to build and iterate prototypes in days, not months.

It’s also one of the biggest pieces of advice I give struggling non-technical founders.

But, that’s actually something that has always bothered me at Yipit.

One of the core tenants at Yipit is that everyone should think and act like an entrepreneur.

But, how can they be successful as entrepreneurs without a basic technical background. I would not have been. If it’s the advice I give other entrepreneurs, shouldn’t I give it to people at Yipit?

So, we’re trying something new at Yipit. We want everyone to have the opportunity to learn to code. We want everyone to be able to tell computers what to do. We want to put everyone in the first group.

That might sound crazy and part of it is crazy. But, we’re not afraid to try things and, the further we get along with it, the more excited we’re getting.

What’s the practical benefit?

In finance, everyone learns accounting. It’s not because everyone is going to be an accountant but because it’s the language of finance. At a tech startup, code is that language. The idea isn’t for everyone to become a developer but for everyone to learn the language of tech startups.

It means everyone will start to get a better sense of what certain words mean: roll-outs, the build, breaking the build, commits, github, back-end, front-end, APIs, databases and more.

It means people will start to get a better sense of what’s hard and what’s not as hard.

It means that instead of people asking for things, they can start making those things happen. Anything from copy changes on the site, small bug fixes, writing their own reports, writing one off scripts to do their own analysis when excel just isn’t enough.

It could mean pairing with one of our more experienced developers on a new feature reducing the communication cost.

It could mean us moving our infrastructure into more of a service oriented architecture and having people work on their components without fear of bringing everything down.

It could mean hacking together quick tests and, when they work, bringing them back and having our more experienced developers build solid components.

But how exactly?

Several of our younger engineers came to Yipit with little to no technical background. And, during that time, our more experienced engineers have successfully been able to mentor them into becoming core contributors to our code base.

Along the way, we’ve built a curriculum. Each person gets paired with a more experienced developer and goes through the program:

  • We kick it off with a talk on the major components of the web stack largely based on the 6 things you need to learn to build your own prototype
  • We spend two weeks learning the basics of python via the excellent Learning Python the Hard Way
  • We then get a very basic understating of our web framework, Django, by working through the Django Tutorial
  • Everyone spends a day coming up with a super basic idea for a fun web app that they might use with their friends or family
  • We then spend the next two weeks getting practice building a web app by working through more Django tutorials including a todo, blog and calendar apps
  • Once done, they’ll spend two weeks building their own simple web app based on what they’ve learned
  • From there, we’ll spend some time learning the basics of systems work by getting their app deployed on Heroku, they can dive more into HTML/CSS and strengthen their knowledge of programming via Udacity’s course

The goal isn’t for everyone to become full developers but rather for everyone to learn the language of tech startups, to make better decisions, to become more self-sufficient, to truly become entrepreneurs within Yipit.


If you’re smart, hard working and want to learn how to build things online, send an email to jobs at yipit dot com or go to our jobs page. We’re looking for new developers (no CS background necessary) and a data analyst for Yipit. In both positions, you’ll learn to code.

If you’re in finance and consulting and looking to break into tech startups, this could be a great opportunity to take the leap.

If other tech startups have tried this, we’d love to hear about your experiences. We’ll make sure to follow up a in a few months with the good and the bad that we’ve learned.

Think this is a terrible idea?

There’s definitely a chance that this isn’t a great idea. But, at Yipit, we are scientists and we try things. If it doesn’t work out like we hope, we’ll learn and iterate on the concept, just like we do our product.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Note: This post is loosely based on our experience 2 years ago when TechCrunch covered Yipit’s launch.

You wake up earlier than normal, grab your iPhone which you slept on top of and do a twitter search for your startup name.

Boom. A tweet every 5 minutes.

People are re-tweeting the TechCrunch article covering your startup’s launch. TechCrunch just said you might be the next big thing. You even see a few random people recommending your startup to their followers.

You giddily open your email and you’ve got a bunch of messages from your friends at the co-working space congratulating you on the TechCrunch piece. One of your friends says “you’re famous!” Your parents respond with “Congratulations!” after they read the email where you explained to them that TechCrunch was a really big deal.

You crawl over to your laptop and pull up Google Analytics. You’ve never seen anything like this. Your previous traffic looks like a flat line next to yesterday’s huge 8,253 visits.

After months of toiling away in obscurity, you feel like you’ve finally made it. People know what you’re working on now. People all over the world are now using your product. Paul Graham should have never rejected you from YC.

You then you pull up your event log in SQLPro to see what all these new users are doing.

Hmm. That’s weird. Even though you had 8,000+ visits, you only signed up a little over 1,000 users. “Sounds like we need to do some work on that landing page”, you think.

You start looking at the emails of the users who signed-up and get annoyed with some of the fake emails:, “Ugh. Going to be hard to retain those users since they won’t be getting notification emails,” you mutter to yourself.

1,000 new users is still really good except a bunch of them didn’t really go through the full sign-up process. A bunch of people didn’t put in their interests. How are they supposed to have a good experience without customizing their interests? You run a quick SQL query and the number of users that made it through the sign-up flow: 200.

You send off a quick text to your co-founder asking if he was really sure that sign-up flow bug had been fixed.

And, while you don’t want to do it, you force yourself to see how many people came back today. The answer: 3. Really? Just 3. It’s still early, but can you really expect more than 50 to come back today?

You are happy to see people are still signing-up via the TechCrunch article but way less than yesterday. You do some quick math and then it hits you. When it’s all said and done, TechCrunch, best case scenario, will have given you a grand total of 200 active users.

Was that our big launch?

Why didn’t more people sign-up? Why didn’t people complete the sign-up flow? Why weren’t people coming back?

Now that people covered our startup, how are we supposed to get more press?

Why aren’t our users pushing their actions to Facebook and Twitter?

We got some users to invite their friends but why aren’t their friends accepting the invite?

How are we supposed to get a viral coefficient greater than 1.0 when people won’t share on Facebook or accept their friends’ invite?

Should we try SEO?

Chris Dixon said 10 million users is the new 1 million users. 10 million?! We have 400 active users.

Now what?

Welcome to startups.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

After about 6 months of struggling to get something off the ground, I realized a sobering truth: I had no idea what I was doing.

My startup instincts were terrible.

So, I went on a mission to learn from others.

And while “saved our startup” may seem dramatic, it really isn’t. Each of these books has a significant impact on how we approached a key area of our startup.

I honestly don’t think Yipit would be where we are today had we not learned their lessons:

  • Never Eat Alone – I used to hole myself up in my apartment thinking that an hour spent working was always better than an hour spent meeting someone else. This book convinced me I was wrong. I started getting coffees, breakfast and dinners with other founders and potential investors and I was consistently amazed by how much a single 30-minute conversation could cause us to completely re-evaluate our strategies.
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – So much of startups is getting your users to take certain actions. Getting them to sign-up, share a link, try out a product, etc. Constantly improving the conversion rates of each of these actions is at the core of what most startups do. This book laid out 7 key principles that will help you increase those conversions. Once I read this, I started seeing how every successful company uses them. These principles don’t replace a good product, but they can make it so that more people give your product a chance.
  • Getting Real – Like most other first-time founders, I could get lost in all the potential problems and corner cases our product would struggle with. This book taught me to ignore that instinct. A passage that really struck home with me was that 37Signals launched BaseCamp without billing because they figured they had 30 days to get billing done. While it seemed insane, it both allowed them to focus on problems they currently had and forced them to build a very simple billing system.
  • The Lean Startup – I think of our startup’s journey as pre- and post- learning about the Lean Startup movement. It completely changed how we approached our startup and I owe much of our success to its teachings. Plus, not only did it help us when we were getting off the ground, it’s helping us today as we apply the strategy to new products at Yipit.
  • Don’t Make Me Think – This is an old book, even when I read it four years ago, but it really taught me to put myself in the shoes of our users. It taught me that if the user can’t figure something out, it’s my fault not their fault. It taught me about simplicity and calls to action and re-using existing user interface design patterns.
  • Django Book – I’m not sure this is still the best way to learn Django anymore. But, when I decided to teach myself to code, this online book showed me how easy it could be to build web prototypes. I couldn’t believe how powerful a framework Django was and, within months, we were building and launching our own prototypes. This was the single biggest step-function change for our startup.
  • Startup Metrics for Pirates – Lastly, while not a book (though it should be), Dave McClure’s framework for thinking about startup metrics is brilliant. I found a video of him online giving his talk. Despite it’s terrible recording, I watched it twice, back to back– it was that good.

And, while you may think that reading a whole book about these concepts may not be a good use of your time, keep in mind that the challenge isn’t just finding out about these concepts but absorbing them.

Sometimes you just have to read 100+ pages to finally stop stubbornly following your misguided instincts, I had to.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Since going down the startup path, I’ve made so many mistakes, struggled so many times, failed in almost every way you can.

But, we turned the corner after a few years of hard work. We’re now 25 people (we’re hiring!), raised $7.3 million, and just had our best month ever.

I often fantasize about going back in time and giving myself advice based on what I’ve learned over the last 5 years.

I probably wouldn’t have listened but here’s what I would have told myself:

  • Teach yourself to code. After a disastrous experience outsourcing, you’ll eventually make this decision. I just want you to make that decision today. Of all the things that will happen, this is the single biggest step function change you’ll experience. Also, I know your outsourcers used Perl but please do not teach yourself Perl. Teach yourself Python/Django or Ruby on Rails.
  • Stop holing yourself up in your apartment. You think that an hour spent working is more productive than grabbing coffee with another founder. The problem is that you don’t yet know what to do in that hour. Talking to other founders, you’ll get some valuable advice that will help you save weeks of time. Plus, those founders will eventually introduce you to new hires and investors.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to potential investors. You keep avoiding it because you know you’re not yet ready to raise funding. While you’re right, you should still meet with them to get advice. Investors want to have a relationship with you and not just shotgun fund you. When you finally do raise a round of funding, it will have been with investors who had already gotten to know you.
  • Stop worrying about PR. You spend too much time thinking about it. Your startup won’t take off because you got great PR. It will take off because you built a great product. PR is a good way of getting some early test users. It’s not how your company will take off.
  • You’re not supposed to know what you’re doing. You keep trying to rely only on your instincts. The truth is, your instincts are terrible. You don’t know what your’e doing and it’s okay. You’ll realize this at some point and go out and get advice. You’ll eventually stumble into the Lean Startup movement. I just want you to do this sooner.
  • Celebrate the small victories. That feeling that you’re not quite where you want to be won’t go away. The way you feel now hoping to get your first 1,000 users, you’ll feel the same way when you’ve raised $7.3 million and have 25 people working on the team. You’ll never be satisfied with your progress so take time to celebrate the milestones.
  • Don’t worry about all the problems you don’t have yet. Focus on the one big problem in front of you. There’s a good chance the other problems you’re worried about either will get solved on their own or won’t be as a big deal as you think.
  • Build your prototype in weeks, not months. You’re going to get lots of ideas. Don’t spend months trying to build a prototype. Build something simple to test out the core assumptions of your idea. In a few years, your prototypes will be built in days.
  • Your first few prototypes are going to fail. You’re going to work really hard on your first few prototypes only to find out that they don’t work. That’s okay because you’ll learn so much that it will make you more likely to succeed with your next prototype. But, what’s not okay, is spending months and months building those prototypes.
  • Lastly, I have an idea for you. When the iphone comes out, build a photo sharing app where you help your users make their photos look better by adding filters. Call it “Instagram”. Trust me.

While I have yet to figure out how to go back in time, I hope others who are just starting out can benefit from the advice above.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

When we quit our jobs to start a new company, the first question we always got: “So, what are you working on?”

It’s actually a question I hated getting.

It puts you on the spot. You feel like you’re getting sized up. You have to justify to this person why you thought your idea was good enough to quit your job. Why this was going to be the next big thing and you’re the one that thought of it, not them.

Luckily, I had a quick answer: “Actually, we can’t really tell you. We’re in stealth mode.”

Why were we in “stealth mode”?

We had the same reason almost everyone else had, we didn’t want to awaken competitors or other entrepreneurs to our great new idea.

But, in retrospect, I know that, at least for me, it wasn’t the only reason.

We were in stealth mode not for fear of competition but of finding out our idea wasn’t very good.

You’ve quit your job. Your friends and family are behind you. Everyone’s waiting for what brilliant thing you’ve come up with. I mean, you quit your job, so it must be a really good idea. But, the truth is you’re not so sure it’s that brilliant. Somedays you think it’s great. Somedays you think it’s doomed.

So, instead of facing those fears, we could just say we were in “stealth mode”.

But, that fear sadly prevented us from having many important conversations with potential customers, investors, journalists, and other founders.

When we finally overcame those fears and started talking about our ideas, it was shocking how much a single conversation could impact the direction of our startup.

Letting go of “stealth mode” was one of the best decisions we made.

Overcoming the Fear

I’ve put the various fears of failure into buckets and how we overcame them:

  • Fear of family, friends not liking our idea. We started thinking about our ideas as experiments and expressed them as such. While they were supportive of us, they were quick to give honest feedback on our ideas which became a valuable source of input. Especially valuable were other founders who gave us great advice on product and market.
  • Fear of strangers not liking our idea. As we started thinking of our ideas as experiments, strangers became an excellent opportunity to practice our startup pitch and collect some feedback. You’d also be really surprised how random strangers may happen to know someone or something that can dramatically help your startup.
  • Fear of potential customers not liking our idea. This is by far the worst fear. We quickly learned that customer feedback was an essential part of product development. A customer not liking our idea was a great source of learnings so that we could iterate to a better product instead of guessing for a year what people might want.
  • Fear of an investor not liking our idea. We realized that talking to investors about our early ideas was a great way to develop a relationship. To be clear, it’s not about pitching them for money but for getting feedback. By the time our product started taking off, they already knew us and were impressed with our progress.
  • Fear of a journalist not liking our idea. Journalists have way more stuff to do then find a bad product from a first-time founder and write about how no one should use it. It’s hard enough getting journalists to cover your startup when it’s good. Good luck trying to get them to write about it when it’s bad.
  • Fear of competition. While this was more of a superficial fear, we realized that any good idea had many teams working on it at the same time. We were going to succeed because of our team and our approach and not because no one else was trying. We also became followers of the lean startup movement and our idea to prototype cycles went from months to days.

Unless you have an unbelievably good reason to be in “stealth mode” and it’s very unlikely you do, get out of it. You’re missing out, we did.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

A few days ago, Facebook Co-Founder Dustin Moskovitz said that Y-Combinator’s “No Idea” round for entrepreneurs is “really wrong”.

He further says “the only reason you should become an entrepreneur is because that’s the only way the idea will come into the world.”

What’s funny is that had a young Mark Zuckerberg taken his advice, Dustin might not be a billionaire right now.

It’s not like Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up the idea for Facebook and then turned himself into an entrepreneur to make it happen. Facebook wasn’t Mark’s first project.

He had worked on a bunch of projects from building an algorithm that suggested the next song to play in your mp3 player to a site that compared pictures of people.

It’s not like these were unbelievable ideas that Mark simply had to put into the world. What he had was a passion for solving problems, creating interesting solutions. The skills he learned working on those projects prepared him for Facebook.

And, while some people take the jump into startups because they have an idea that they really want built, the idea itself rarely works.

What keeps them going is that they realize they have a passion for spotting large unsolved problems, creating crafty initial solutions to those problems, building things from scratch, defying the odds, refusing to fail, proving wrong those that doubted them, convincing talented people to help them, fighting off competitors, seeing millions of people use their solution, rewarding those that believed in them and ultimately changing how the world works.

It’s not about that one brilliant idea. Ideas come and go and often don’t seem very magical at first. It’s about your passion for taking an idea, running with it and building off of your progress.

And, so I thank Y-Combinator for helping to dispel the myth that to become an entrepreneur you need a moment of brilliance.

The last thing we need is people convincing smart and talented potential entrepreneurs that they should be waiting around for that brilliant idea.

Those ideas rarely come until someone starts walking down the startup path. And, even when an idea for the next big thing does come, it rarely looks like it.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Things first-time founders regret saying:

  • “Don’t tell anyone we’re working on a picture sharing startup. We don’t want anyone to steal our idea.” (If your idea is any good, there are plenty of people working on it. You’re going to win because you out execute them.)
  • “Stop the launch! The forgot password recovery email has a typo!” (Stop worrying about the little things and get the product out there. Small flaws like this will have zero impact on your initial success).
  • “Our killer feature is that we’ve built every feature you can think of.” (Startups don’t take off because they have tons of features. They take off because they do one thing really well and then expand from there.)
  • “Our passwords don’t need to be super secure. But, they should require at least two grammatical symbols.” (You shouldn’t do anything to get in the way of your users signing-up and, unless you’re collecting credit cards or super private information, don’t worry about super secure passwords).
  • “We need to launch on mobile web, iphone, ipad, android, windows phone and SMS. But, lets hold off on Blackberry. I want to confirm people like our app first.” (You should just launch on one and iterate till it works before spending a ton of time porting it to different platforms.)
  • “We should probably use one of those captchas on the sign-up page. Google uses them.” (Don’t compare yourself to Google, they have very different circumstances than you. You don’t have a spam problem. Don’t get in the way of your users signing-up)
  • “We don’t need to talk to users. If Steve Jobs had, they would have asked for a mobile phone with a great web browser.” (You’re not Steve Jobs. Go talk to your users and try to understand their underlying problems.)
  • “OMG. I finally came up with our domain name for our picture sharing startup. It’s awesome. It’s… wait for it… Hope it’s not taken!” (Almost all good domains are taken. Don’t kill yourself on this. You can always change your domain later.)
  • “We’re just like Pinterest but we make the pictures bigger.” (If you’re trying to compete against a heavyweight, the new product has to be 10x better or take a completely different approach.)
  • “I would only maybe consider selling our company to Facebook. Maybe.” (Stop worrying about who you’re going to sell your company to and build a great product.)
  • “We should never email our users. It’s annoying when sites email me.” (Email is one of the best forms of retention and it’s used by almost everyone because it works.)
  • “We will never have advertising on our site.” (Unless you come up with a better business model, you will have advertising on your site but you’ll need a ton of users before it becomes meaningful.)
  • “We have to stop using Gmail, Google Docs and Google Analytics. When Google tries to buy us, I don’t want them to see our data.” (The chances this happens are so, *so* remote. These tools are great. Use them.)

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

I remember reading the first few pages of Steve Blank’s book, Four Steps to Epiphany, and thinking two things:

  • This is not exactly a page-turner
  • This is a really smart way of thinking about startups

Soon after, I started attending the Lean Startup meetup in New York and reading Eric Reis’s writings. I was believer.

One of the main principles is to release an early prototype of your idea to potential users to get their feedback.

But, despite being all in on the Lean Startup movement, we didn’t do that.

Why Didn’t We Release an Early Prototype?

Our current idea, Yipit, would find all the deals happening in your city (sample sales, happy hours, retail discounts) and would send you an email with the best 7 based on your interests and your locations.

It would have taken us just a week to have launched an early prototype.

We could have measured success based on whether people opened and clicked on the emails. We could have manually created the emails with deals we found and used MailChimp to send them out. There was no need to build any tech infrastructure.

But, we came up with all sorts of excuses why we just couldn’t release an early version.

Six painful months later, we finally put out the product. It didn’t work which was okay. What was not okay was realizing that our excuses for not releasing earlier were all wrong.

The Excuses We Came Up With

The bright side is that, 6 months later, when we iterated Yipit into a daily deal aggregator, we learned to ignore the excuses and released a prototype in 3 days that took off right away.

Below are the excuses we had and how we realized they didn’t matter:

  • It wasn’t good enough yet. We thought manually sending deals wasn’t good enough. We were guessing and didn’t really know. It turned out that six months later, the automated version full of features wasn’t good enough either. We could have learned why it wasn’t good enough 6 months earlier and spent that time actually trying to fix it. Instead, we just guessed why it wasn’t going to work and guessed wrong.
  • We didn’t want to give a bad impression to those early test users. I can safely say that this doesn’t matter. Those early test users just don’t care. After we re-launched as a daily deal aggregator, we got exactly one email from a user saying they missed the sample sales. That’s it. In fact, many of those early users enjoyed seeing our product develop.
  • It needed these extra features. We thought we had to have a web view, people had to specify where in the city they lived, it needed to have links to the source of where we found the deal. None of these were right. We were guessing. Had we launched in a week, we would have quickly realized these features weren’t going to make a difference.
  • It was going to take us a few months to build the tech back-end. We shouldn’t have built it. We should have just used MailChimp to send the emails. For the next iteration of Yipit, we didn’t build the back-end. Users don’t know what your tech back-end looks like. Focus instead on getting the user experience right.
  • It needed to scale to accomodate hundreds of thousands of users. No, it didn’t. We weren’t going to get hundreds of thousands of users. Not anytime soon. We should have just been worrying about getting our first 1,000 users.
  • Someone will see what we’re doing and copy it. If our idea had any merit, then there would have been at least 10 other groups of people out there also actively working on it. In fact, there were many groups of people working on a daily deal aggregator. But, because we launched in 3 days, we were the first ones and got most of the press attention.
  • A potential investor will see it. I’m not sure if an investor actually did see it. But, even if they had, it’s not a bad thing. Investors like to see the progress you make as a product and as a team.
  • TechCrunch will write about us when we’re not ready. They won’t. We spent a bunch of time trying to get people to write about us and they didn’t. Also, in some crazy scenario where someone writes about our terrible prototype, I can safely say it won’t matter in the long run. Startups succeed because they have a good product and not because they got good launch PR.

The Excuse I Didn’t Admit

There’s one more excuse I had but didn’t talk about. I was afraid it wouldn’t work.

I had quit my job. I had told my family and friends about the idea and they’re all telling me how much they believed in me. What if the idea is bad? What if I had to tell them it didn’t work? What if I had to admit failure?

You have to fight this feeling. The best way I’ve come up with is to think of a startup as an experiment, not as a business. Your early experiments are supposed to go wrong. Your goal is to find out what went wrong and iterate.


For those of you that don’t have an amazing excuse (like you will be put in jail if you do this), please launch an early prototype. Not waiting to launch is, by far, the best advice I can give. Hopefully you’ll listen more than we did.

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.