Lessons from Experiment's First Year

I’ve been meaning to put to paper something like this for a while now. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to write openly about where I’m at, what I’ve learned, and what I’ve been thinking about.

The past year and a half have been a whirlwind. I say this to everyone I meet, but in the past 1.5 years I’ve learned more than my entire 24 years combined. I’ve failed hard and made huge bounds forward. Here are some of the most important things that I’ve had to learn.

Always Be Building

Creative work is when you can be finally free, so cherish it and create as much as you can. My previous life experience doing research wasn’t very creative, in that it was mainly carrying out the same protocols of routine tasks. But when you’re creating in the raw, there is no one to tell you “you can’t do this” or “that won’t work”. You just end up building, dreaming, doing.

I met a founder once who went on to grow his company into a large workforce, and he told me that his days now consist of meetings, the entire day. He said that he misses being able to sit at a computer with Photoshop and a text editor open. Unless he has that, he simply doesn’t feel productive. I don’t know if that will ever happen to me, but chances are this opportunity of raw creation only happens once in a company’s lifetime.

Talk To Users Before Building Anything

If you’re always building, then this necessarily means you should always be talking to users. Users are the lifeblood of what you do, without them your app or product is just an exercise for fun.

We spoke to 100 different researchers before we ever wrote a single line of code. Talking to users not only validates your ideas and assumptions, it also teaches you empathy.

Hire People Just Like You

Everyone loves to talk about having diversity in the workplace. However, when you are just starting off on a long arduous journey, you don’t want someone who’s going to start shit before you’ve even left the building.

If you’re the kind of person who is hard to work with, a bad listener, or generally just annoying, then you have some problems you need to sort out first.

There Is No Right Way Of Doing Anything

Five months in, Cindy and I were still teaching ourselves how to code. On several instances, we often had to update a user’s information. To do this, we actually cloned snapshots of our production database, edited it locally in our machines, and pushed it back up to our server. We literally had no clue what we were doing.

The same can be said for a lot of our day-to-day operations, as well as our general strategy. We’ve never done this before, so everything to us was done by whatever made the most sense. Common sense is an immense tool, because unlike the technical equipment that you use, common sense can be trained and honed. Over time, we got better at relying on our guts with enthusiastic confidence when it came to big decisions. This is something we wouldn’t have developed if someone had just given us a manual of how to properly edit user data on our servers.

Everyone Is Waiting On You

In the same vein that it’s alright if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s important to realize that everyone else also has no clue what their doing. When you’re trying to create something new, or introduce something unfamiliar and vague, people tend to rely on you to make the first move. Depending on how confident you are, others can be motivated to also act confidently, and more importantly, quickly.

When people are waiting on you to make the first leap, it’s easier to gain followers if you can send the right message across. Even just being vocal about why you’re about to jump off a cliff is enough to get others to think to themselves “well if he’s so ready to jump off, should I be doing the same thing?”. Swagger is a huge part of getting results, more effective than any other type of financial incentive.

Study The Theory

It’s really important to have a grounded theoretical framework for any system that you are trying to break. An academic understanding means being able to dissociate any personal feelings or agendas (e.g. “this should or should not be like this”) with a set of unknown questions. This is also a challenge as you grow, since being able to take a step back is something that very rarely gets prioritized in the chaos of growing. But, having this solid foundation adds a palpable conviction to your actions that swagger can’t recreate.

Work On Something That’s Right

The opposite of moral hazard is moral imperative, or in other words, a social conscience that compels a person to act. When the dark days of startup life hit, filled with failures and misses, it makes it much easier to swallow when you know categorically that what you are working on matters. Usually, this means that there is a multiplied impact on other people based on your actions. It doesn’t even have to be big. As long as it’s a non-zero chance that your work an positively affect other human beings, then you are on the right track.

Maybe boil it down by asking, in 1000 years, will there be anyone out there in the world who would disagree with what you’re doing? Is it flat-out, objectively indisputable? If your mission stands the test of time and is focused on something fundamental (humanity, happiness, progress, education, etc.), then it’s a very rare thing that few people get to experience. Be happy that you get to attempt to make a dent in the universe, instead of working in a school library on weeknights (like I did). Let that drive you to be more curious, more daring, and more determined.