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8 Bizarre Tricks for Start-Up Success

At the London Web Summit this week, the CEO of CloudFlare explained the rules he learned starting one of the world's fastest-growing companies.

Conor McCabe / London Web Summit

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"It took Facebook more than five years to hit 400 million unique visitors a month. It took CloudFlare just 1.25 years," Matthew Prince, the CEO of the phenomenally fast-growing cloud-based service that aims to make websites safer and faster, told the London Web Summit on Monday. How did CloudFlare manage to become, as Henry Blodget recently put it, "a monster company in the making"? Exploding expectations doesn't come from following the conventional wisdom, so it's no shock that Prince ascribed his company's success to these eight simple but utterly counter-intuitive rules:

1. Big ideas are easier than little ones.

At first this idea may make your brain hurt, but Prince insists that epic ambitions are actually easier to accomplish that middling ones. Why? Big dreams and a compelling goal make it easier to attract talent with bold vision. Don't be YAIA ("yet another iPhone app"), Prince said, and like CloudFlare you'll have people literally "camping in the hallway" to come work for you.

2. Say no early and often.

What could possibly be wrong with big customers (or high profile VCs) and why would any sensible start-up say no to one? Prince explained that being afraid to say no to clients changes a company from being engineering-driven to being customer-driven. That might not sound like a terrible thing, but Prince insisted that talented people do their best work when they're driven by the work itself, not the cash, pointing to a study of painters as proof. The survey of hundreds of years of art history found commissioned work is simply less good than work artists did on their own time. So, be brave, and learn to say no.

3. Under-price and over-simplify.

Cheap and simple expands markets, said Prince, who explained that these days products need to be easy to understand and easy to afford. But he also stressed that when you're aiming for minimum viability, you can't forget that your product still has to be viable.

4. Invest in community service early.

Early on CloudFlare did a little digging into who was using its service, and was surprised to discover how many Turkish escort agencies had signed up. Your business is unlikely to be servicing Anatolian escorts, so what's the takeaway? No matter who your customers are, you need to be authentic, get to know them and make a contribution. CloudFlare embraced helping some of the least savory businesses in Turkey. Now it is protecting the website of one of the country's top political parties.

5. Build learning into your product and team.  

Even if your plan was awesome on Day 1, things change. On Day 101, the market may demand something entirely different. Plan to adapt and respond. Hey wait, doesn't that sound sort of familiar?

6. Be relentlessly cheap (with commodities).

OK, maybe this is the least counter-intuitive of the bunch, but that doesn't make it the least valuable. Prince urged start-ups to be relentless about reducing costs and just as obsessive about passing the benefits on to the customers.

7. Be obsessively fair (especially with employees).

Earning a reputation for trustworthiness and fairness for your brand is a valuable but long-term process, and it starts at home. At CloudFlare, managers ask employees what they need to live, and that's what they them pay them, said Prince.

8. Aim for 10 degrees above the horizon.

Sure, some start-ups drive themselves right into the ground through incompetence or misguided ideas, but far more, Prince said, simply fail to improve and stall. To avoid this fate, think like a pilot and aim not for level, but instead try to keep your nose up.

What does that all add up to? "Be cheap, be nice, be simple," concluded Prince. Do these rules work for every business? Probably not, but they're well worth pondering for nearly any entrepreneur.

Do any of these rules apply to your venture?

IMAGE: Flickr
Last updated: Mar 21, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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