Staring at Zero

Seeing Parse reach 100,000 apps is humbling.

Everything starts from zero. I remember the early days when we would measure the number of apps that used us on a daily basis, and then write that number big and bold on a white board.

This meant that for many days, we would look up from our desks and be faced with a big fat zero. Nothing motivates you more than zero.

That summer, we coded as fast and as hard as we could.

I recall when the number hit 2. Wow! 2 apps used us! People actually found our service useful. As the weeks and months went by, that number slowly went up. From single digits to double, then to triple and beyond.

Eventually, we stopped writing the number on the board and instead sent out an internal daily email with various important stats. Waking up to that email is still the most motivating part of my day.

So, my suggestion for when you're starting any project: write your daily number down. Seeing the number in ink and not pixels is much more visceral. You'll find yourself looking up once in a while, motivated to changing that number.

Posted on 13 Jun 2013

The importance of startup momentum

A startup just had its big launch. The fundraising is over and the champagne has been poured. For some, this is the great beginning. But, for others, it's the zenith.

The problem?

Momentum is easy to lose, especially after a big adrenaline rush.

Momentum is that invisible force that makes it easy to execute when things are moving, and difficult to get anything done in a languishing environment. The problem is that the natural resting state of companies (and really, anything) is to lose momentum. You have to actively work to maintain momentum.

On Y Combinator's homepage, Paul Graham emphasizes that the program doesn't end on demo day. A network of support continues throughout the life of each company.

But, there's an underlying message: just because the dinners have ended doesn't mean you should stop working hard! Building a company isn't a 3 month affair.

Demo day is only a passing milestone--the important work is when you build on the foundation to create a sustainable business after the launch dust settles. Many startups, even the most hyped ones, sputter after launch. They fail to achieve the momentum necessary to carry the ball forward. And this is a shame, because many of these companies haven't even had time to test their business hypothesis.

So, how do you maintain momentum?

1. Don't pin everything on one moment

It's a red flag when companies place too much importance on a single event like a launch, partnership, or funding. These have significance, but, by themselves, they do not equal success.

A string of these events, coupled with sustaining a culture of execution leads to success. After hitting a milestone, your eyes should already be fixed on the next one.

After a successful demo day, my co-founders and I at Parse were already looking ahead to the next big milestones in the months after. There was no time to waste.

2. Set both short and long term goals

Setting and achieving goals is crucial. There are always goals for your company to achieve, and to get there, you need action. You need to set achievable short term goals alongside big goals.

Hitting small goals gives you the momentum to hit other small goals. Soon, you'll find that you're well on your way to hitting the big goals.

Some people find it difficult to set a timeline for goals, simply because life doesn't hand you a timeline on a silver platter. So, set artificial deadlines! You'll be surprised by how much the simple act of circling a date will motivate you.

3. Don't get complacent

Reid Hoffman compares building a startup to jumping off a cliff without a parachute while building a plane. If you get complacent, you'll hit the ground hard. Every startup is trying to prove a business model. Every day, you should be working hard to achieve that proof.

Getting lazy after a big launch is like relaxing after assembling only one wing. You still need to assemble the other wing! Not to mention the engines.

4. Build a culture of doers

When momentum is lost, there usually isn't one person at fault. Every single person contributes to how well a company executes. The key is to be a doer and hire people who are doers.

These are people that will be able to conquer any task. Even if the task is outside their wheelhouse or seemingly insurmountable.

In the end, building a startup is hard work. Momentum is the flow needed to launch and vet your product in the market.

Don't lose your momentum!

We're also hiring at Parse. Check out our jobs page.

Posted on 29 Nov 2012

Do everything. Then hire.

When starting a company, it's essential that you get involved in every aspect of the business. This is true whether you're a hacker, designer, or MBA. No exceptions.

The obvious reason for this is that getting your hands dirty will force you to understand all parts of your business, and eventually, your industry. This is knowledge that will give you key business insights, paying dividends down the road.

But, the equally important reason for doing everything is that it will enable you to hire the right people to expand your business.

Lots of people will tell you to only focus on "high leverage" activities—things that are strictly in your wheelhouse. Delegate everything else. While this is true as you scale, it's a grave mistake when starting out.

How do you hire A+ people if you have no idea what their jobs entail? And after hiring them, how would you evaluate their work? The most sure-fire way is to understand the skill from a firsthand perspective.

Now, I'm not saying that hackers should spend copious amounts of time attempting to make world class logos in Adobe Illustrator, or that designers should pick up a computer science book and attempt to code a scalable distributed database from scratch.

What I'm advocating is that entrepreneurs should obtain a baseline working knowledge of each business segment.

To do this quickly, there are three aspects to focus on:

What techniques do people employ to execute on a skill? For example, designers employ storyboards, wireframes, and mockups. Engineers understand data structures, do code reviews, and thoroughly test their code. Marketers understand lead generation, funnel analysis, and know how to segment an audience to reach them more effectively.

Tools are the way people execute a technique. Learn how these tools are used and how they fit into daily workflows.

Most importantly, study great work. Google for it. Talk to people who are in the field. If you want to understand design, find some great works that are admired. For marketing, seek out successful campaigns from other companies. Always ask yourself: what makes this good?

The best time to gain firsthand experience is when your company is small. Don't waste the opportunity to gain insights from doing something outside of your comfort zone. In the beginning, it's okay to do work that doesn't scale.

So, the next time you need to balance the books, try doing it yourself. If you need a new layout for your blog, try fiddling with some HTML to make it work. Need to run a marketing event? Just try doing it. Don't be scared of making mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn.

And only once you learn can you effectively scale.

Posted on 23 Nov 2012

James Yu is the co-founder of Parse, lives in San Francisco, and likes to accidentally the whole stack.