Startup Lessons Learned Running a Software Company at Age 23

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This founder shares the lessons she learned running a software company in her early twenties. 

By Jovia Nierenberg (COO, Experience in Software)

Many people go to work and then go home and try to stop thinking about work. That’s not my life and I don’t want it to be.

I never expected to be running a software company at age 23. After graduating college with a degree in psychology, I started working part-time for my dad’s software company that makes project management software. Our products include Project KickStart and Webplanner, an online project management application which I started managing in 2010. Soon after, my dad came down with a serious health condition and could no longer run the company.

I was working on Webplanner with a truly amazing programmer and did not want to see all of our hard work go to waste, so I decided to focus on Webplanner full-time. My bedtime reading became books on business management and start-up experiences and technical manuals on business tools and technologies. I hired a strong writer, Sophia Elson, to ensure the product is understood by the customers. Webplanner’s graphic designer lived just down a flight of stairs from me. I spent countless hours discussing ideas and showing friends prototypes of Webplanner in various stages. All of this is to say that when my father was no longer able to run Experience in Software, I ran with it rather than running from the situation, or being intimidated by it. Out of necessity, I grew very quickly into the role I’m in today.

Startup Tip #1 -- Take what’s given to you and run with it. Making the most of what you’re given can be applied to product development, and even to running a business. When you encounter problems in the development of your product, don’t be afraid to pivot or simplify what you are doing. Constraints make you creative. The most innovative people in the world are often immigrants; they’re used to adapting to new environments and working with limited resources. Having too few limitations can actually be detrimental.

Understand your limitations and choose team members that compensate for them. I personally am a little bit intimidated by networking events. My business partner is fantastic at them. Hire people you get along with, who think well, and learn and adapt quickly. At the beginning, while your company is still small, everyone’s job description will be a loose description of what they spend less than half of their time doing.

Be honest about where you are, but be prepared to grow. Expressing where you are in your blog shows transparency and personality. Be realistic about your limitations but ambitious about the future. Choose systems that are scalable and will grow with you. Embrace today’s technologies. I could not do what I do today without Google docs and a smart phone.

Startup Tip #2 -- Say yes to ideas. Ideas are sexy. If you’re not excited about the ideas that you’re thinking about, then you’re not thinking about the right ideas. Keep exposing yourself to new memes and incorporate them into the network of things you think about. Understand that while not all ideas are fantastic right away, continuing to think about your ideas and form new ones, even when one doesn’t work, is essential to getting things done. As Kevin Kelley said in his book What Technology Wants: "The proper response to a lousy idea is not to stop thinking. It is to come up with a better idea. Indeed, we should prefer a bad idea to no ideas at all, because a bad idea can at least be reformed, while not thinking offers no hope."

Record your ideas in a way that will help you make connections between them. According to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, an idea is not that light bulb moment that we are led to believe it is. Rather, it is making the connection between different pieces of information. Often we have part of an idea a decade or more before the rest. If you are able to record those partial ideas in an organized manner, making the connections later will be much easier.

For me, this means using my Evernote account to record quotes from books I’m reading (like the one above), technologies I’d love to see created, interesting things I find online, and my personal thoughts. I tag each note with as many tags as I find applicable, and later when I want to look back on what I’ve thought about on a topic or write a meaningful blog post, it’s much easier. I keep my personal notes and my work notes in one account because something that I may originally think is of a personal nature could later apply to work and vice versa. Allowing this mix to happen encourages innovation.

Understand that you won’t do everything perfectly the first time, and make it easy for your customers to give you feedback. Webplanner has a feedback button in the upper right corner of every screen, and we read and discuss every single piece of feedback we get. When something isn’t working, we change it. Being nimble is one of the main advantages of being a start up with a small team.

When we first thought about how we would price Webplanner, it seemed like it would make sense to go with a three-tiered pricing system, like many of our competitors do. I wrote feature lists, and had our graphic designer create a page explaining it. People asked lots of questions. They didn’t know how much it would cost to have their office using Webplanner. They just didn’t get it. Rather than work to try to explain it over and over again, I realized that it would make much more sense to simplify: to start with one kind of account for one price. This shortened our development time significantly.

Startup Tip #3 -- Embrace a student life style. Group living cuts costs and also has huge personal benefits. Living like a student works very well when running a start-up, and not just because it’s less expensive. Students live in a way that’s conducive to learning, doing research, and innovating, which is exactly what you’re doing in a start-up.

I live in a converted warehouse with eleven housemates. Our kitchen has three fridges and two stoves. We have circus equipment in our living room. Our house is constantly evolving as we think of new ideas and develop new interests. Living in a collaborative environment makes sharing ideas with others effortless. If you don’t have to expend effort to be able to bounce ideas off others, your thinking process will be that much faster.

Inspiration and energy don’t run on a 9-to-5 schedule. Students often have strange class schedules and work at odd hours of the night. Setting my own hours keeps me way more productive. I don’t like to wake up too early in the morning, but sometimes I’ll come home from work, eat dinner and hang out with my housemates, then start working again at midnight, and go to bed at 4 a.m. While not traditional, I know that this works for me. Know what works best for you, and go with it.

When working in a start-up, it often seems like there isn’t enough time in the day. Rather than complain about that, use your free time to do things that are rewarding and refreshing. Exercising on a regular basis helps me keep my life balanced. I rock climb and do aerial silks with a group of close friends, which is great because I get to see my non-tech friends, and I am able to be much more focused when I am treating my body well. On the same note, I make a point to cook my own food and cook with others. It saves money and can provide time to socialize even when my job is demanding.

Living the life I live today, running a start-up, and working hard to make it grow makes me feel more alive than I ever have before. My college counselor in high school said, “If you’re bored, you’re boring,” which continues to hold true. When your work life and personal life complement each other, it’s astonishing how much you can achieve, and how much fun you can have doing it.

Drawing a line between my work life and my personal life would be impossible, and rather than hinder Webplanner’s development, it has enhanced it.

About the guest blogger: Jovia Nierenberg is the COO of Experience in Software, which builds software products including Project KickStart, a desktop project management application, and Webplanner, an online project management application. When she’s not in the office, you can find her rock-climbing, doing aerial silks, or cooking something delicious. Follow her startup at @webplannr.