I’ve been working on my little business for the past 8 months or so now, and most of that time was spent developing the idea and getting it ready for development. So here are my top 5 learnings that I have gleaned in that time:

  1. Don’t worry about NDAs. Firstly, they don’t really protect you; secondly, they are a lot of fuss, and thirdly and most importantly, its better to talk about your idea to friends and colleagues rather than hide it ferociously from everyone (like I did initially). You get so much more value from people’s feedback than you get risk from people stealing your idea. And the truth is, its incredibly difficult to start a business, most people will never do it, and even if someone is passionately intent on leveraging your ideas immediately, you will still have a head-start on them. My inspiring friend who created Marziplanner taught me this.
  2. If you can do it without a business partner, do it. I have been through three business partners in the last 8 months, and for various reasons they didn’t stay involved. I am now very pleased things have worked out this way. Although its great now and then to share the responsibility and financial risk, I find it better to have complete autonomy. Everything moves along so much faster when every decision does not have to be shared, and I have only myself to worry about. If I need to run things past someone, I leverage friends in the industry for second (and subsequent) opinions. And I am extraordinarily lucky to be working with an excellent development house whose owner acts like a business partner, ie. he doesn’t just do what he is told, he offers better solutions when he thinks ones exist, and he is versed up on web 2.0 trends so speaks wisely.
  3. It takes a lot longer than you think it will. I came up with the idea for my business more than a year ago, pre web 2.0 madness. It wasn’t until early 2006 that I thought I should start to make it happen. I then spent the next several months designing the functionality, writing specifications, mocking up wireframes, preparing business plans, attempting to get government innovation grants (thanks, Aussie government, for not considering an internet business ‘innovative’ enough… they tend to focus on pharmaceutical companies apparently), sourcing developers, negotiating terms, etc… It’s now a year on, and I’m still not launched. It takes a long long time, but I tell you, if you love it – and you need to love it – it’s a breeze.
  4. Know your market. This is a rather obvious point, of course everyone knows this. But the reality, especially when it comes to the web application and trends space, takes some dedication to actually achieve. I thought I knew it all, but when I consciously threw myself into a daily and detailed analysis, I realised how little I knew. For the past 8 months, I read about 20-30 blogs on a daily basis, I follow the links discussed in these blogs, I keep a catalogue of sites whose designs and functionality I like, I read technology news, I am abreast of all developments by the major technology players, I talk to people in the industry, I socialise at web events… its exhausting at times, and I could do a lot more if I didn’t have to work a full-time job as the amount of relevant material out there seems never-ending at times. But it makes such a tremendous difference to the quality of your business and the confidence with which you promote it: I know my competition, I know how to market my site, I know what I need to deliver to compete in this market… It takes more than a cursory search to know your market, its a task you need to commit to on a daily basis.
  5. Keep your life balanced. At one point, I was waking up at 5am to work a few hours before work started, I worked a long day, I went home, and worked til midnight, and did it all again the next day. I was so exhausted and burnt out, my eyes ached, my back was a mess, I missed my friends, I felt disjointed from the world. I didn’t do my best work in those weeks. Even if it means I don’t get as rich, or my site takes a little longer to launch, my health and happiness come first. And it actually works in your favour: I will do better work if I have exercised, if I feel supported by my network of friends and family, if I have eaten well, and if I am generally happy.

What do you think? What learnings can you share about what it takes to build a business?