Paul Graham has to be one of the web’s most fascinating essayists. As the founder of a successful startup and an investor for many others, Graham offers key insights on how startups can move from their beginning stages into long-term success. Below are 5 brilliant Paul Graham quotes, and why I feel they are important for startups.
“If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You’ll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down. Pretty soon you’ll start noticing what makes the number go up, and you’ll start to do more of that.”
Growing user numbers in a startup is often a matter of testing, testing and more testing. Paul’s insight here is simple but profound: track your numbers, and you’ll soon find ways to make the numbers go up.
“Initially you have to choose between satisfying all the needs of a subset of potential users, or satisfying a subset of the needs of all potential users. Take the first.”
This concept parallels the idea of a company finding a niche market, or a social media maven finding his “true fans.” Avoid the temptation to appeal to everyone; you’ll do much better in the long run if you meet most of the needs of fewer followers—and better still if you’re one of a select few meeting that need.
“The most obvious advantage of not needing money is that you can get better terms. If investors know you need money, they’ll sometimes take advantage of you.”
Graham often refers to the idea of “ramen profitability,” that point at which a startup is making just enough money to pay the founders’ basic living expenses. If you can cut expenses and run on small profit margins, you can become profitable faster, and you’re in a better position for your next rounds of fundraising.
“The most important ingredient is formidable founders. Most investors decide in the first few minutes whether you seem like a winner or a loser, and once their opinion is set it’s hard to change.”
First impressions are everything! Graham reminds us here that confidence is one of a founder’s greatest assets. When asking for investments, be passionate about your product, know your numbers and have your pitch well practiced.
“Tell yourself you can be as nice as you want, so long as you work hard on your growth rate to compensate. Most successful startups make that tradeoff unconsciously. Maybe if you do it consciously you’ll do it even better.”
Another common theme I love in Graham’s essays is that nice founders are more successful than mean founders. For bonus points, read his post “Mean People Fail.”