When I started my company 12 Labs, I initially struggled. But once I learned how to be productive, I was able to grow my app to 450K+ downloads, a 4.5-star rating and a place in the top 100 Health and Fitness apps in the app store. In this post, I reveal my secrets for getting things done.
I used to perpetually procrastinate—even to the point of missing bills. I needed inspiration before I could be productive, but it never came. The first two winters of building my business I also struggled with depression, until figuring out how to master things. The core reason for my startup depression was stress.
Quitting a nice-paying job is stressful, though it wasn’t obvious right away. I only recognized it as guilt for not getting things done. A few weeks into becoming a founder you may feel good, and if you’re somewhat productive you’ll have something built in a few months. But it might not be near what you were expecting, so you don’t ship. And when you add up the actual time you spent designing and building, you’ll realize your days were mostly spent reading about startups, with only a few hours of actual design or coding.
It’s hard to accept that you’re unproductive when left to yourself. Designing and building is a huge cognitive load, so you move from this difficult task to a more pleasant one. I’m certainly guilty of this—I’ve even tried deleting all of the apps on my phone to avoid distractions. But it didn’t help, because I hadn’t steeled myself to getting the painful design decisions done. Real work isn’t fun. It’s difficult and takes you out of your comfort zone. But there’s no substitute for just getting through it.
So if you expect great things from yourself but what you’re doing on a daily basis doesn’t meet those expectations, it’ll become stressful. For me, the answer was learning to be productive. This productivity reduced my stress, which made me more productive in turn. The following 10 steps became my formula.
- Start the day with a line of code. When you wake up in the morning, open Xcode or Eclipse and write just one line of code. It’ll kick-start your day. This idea came to me from “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway: “Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, 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.” What works for writers can also work really well for entrepreneurs.
- Get into a healthy routine. Force yourself to wake up early, which will force you to go to sleep early. Going to bed too late will hold you back from success, as you’ll feel tired and lethargic. Get good sleep—it’ll make you productive and energetic. If you wake up at 7 a.m. and start with one line of code, you’ll usually have done two or three hours of solid work done before others have gotten to work. This feels good, and motivation fuels productivity.
- Check for deficiencies that might make you lethargic. Get checked for Vitamin D and thyroid hormone deficiencies next time you visit a doctor. It’s a quick test covered by insurance and might solve your problem. Vitamin D deficiency is common and leaves you tired. You blame laziness, but the root is clinical. I had both, but after a few months of supplements I’ve felt much more energetic.
- 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. At 12 Labs, once we started doing that our downloads went from one a day to 1,000 a day in about four months. We knew the tricks all along, but had never implemented them or studied the results.
- Find a great co-founder. If you don’t have a co-founder, get some advisors to help you. I was a solo founder at first, which was foolish of me. Before you ask someone to be an advisor, have them help you for a few months. Make sure they’ve given you real help repeatedly, before you discuss stock options. If they have an amazing track record, be open to it. But stay clear of people who start by asking for equity.
- Ask for reviews as quickly as possible. Don’t be scared of getting bad reviews by shipping too quickly. I built our first version in three months, but postponed launching to avoid bad reviews. But when I shipped I had no downloads, and no reviews to worry about. In a startup, your problem isn’t bad reviews, it’s that nobody cares. Bad reviews might be good early on—it means that users care about your product. Make it your objective to get any reviews as soon as possible. If you’re not ready to ship publicly, at least ship to five of your friends. Their feedback will catalyze you.
- Try AppsGoneFree for a morale boost. Our app was free, but we made it paid for a day to make it free again so that we could qualify to be featured on AppsGoneFree. It was really morale-boosting to see 5,000 downloads in two days after a rate of 20 downloads a month for the first six months. Most of those users never came back, but the downloads were amazing for motivation, which is important for a startup.
- Don’t second-guess yourself. In handling a technical design, you might start second-guessing the first solution that comes to mind. Try not to: Your first design is usually pretty good. Plus, you won’t know until you build it. Go from first design to implementation quickly. You’ll feel accomplished and motivated, even if you have to redo it. Don’t take weeks to select a design that was clear on day one.
- Find a way to talk to customers. Talk to customers. You might have no idea how much they love your product. Usually when we ship a release with a major bug, they email us asking us to fix it quickly (or else). That’s an amazing email to get—it shows passion for our product. But don’t wait for a bug; have a way for people to contact you easily from within the app. And when they do, reply back and ask to speak with them. Initially, we gave away $25 Amazon gift cards to get people to talk to us. It worked.
- Don’t give yourself permission to fail. I’ve built almost eight apps, but released only two. The others happened whenever I was feeling low about my main project. But I never shipped them—every time I tried to quit, my downloads would go up because I’d been thrashing around trying new techniques. So don’t allow yourself to fail, and don’t try only one approach. It’s tedious, but it eventually works out.
For me, winter was the worst time as a founder. These productivity tips and not staying by myself helped. I suggest going out and celebrating your failure to gain traction with friends or other founders. This can lift your mood and ensure you don’t lose perspective.
About the Author
Durga Pandey is the CEO of 12 Labs, a venture funded spinoff from the MIT Media Lab. 12 labs is the creator of Applause, the popular weight loss program that’s powered by data-science and behavioral psychology. Durga was previously a director of product management at Salesforce.com. He earned an MS from MIT, and was a Digital Vision fellow at Stanford University.
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