Tim Dempsey


Paperclips Anonymous: Startup lessons from a virtual stationery entrepreneur

If you don’t understand the title of this story, don’t read it, don’t Google ‘Paperclips’, don’t ask a friend, just go home, hug your partner and kids and be thankful you have this time with them.

If you get it, then I’ve been there. I finished it/beat it/whatever (that combat music freaked me out, no end). And this is what this game taught me about scaling a (paperclips) business…

12 hours that I’m determined to justify…

1. Your browser needs to be open

The annoying thing about building my paperclip empire was that I could only do it with my browser open. I couldn’t leave it processing overnight and just wake up the next morning with a monopoly and a desert island in the Pacific.

One of the biggest truths is that you can’t build a successful business when you’ve got a different tab open. You need your eyes right on it, you need to see the detail as it emerges — it needs to be an extension of who you are and what you know.

Kahneman talks about intuition that we develop through our experiences as a plane of thinking, Gladwell says it’s 10,000 hours, it really is, and you don’t clock those by spending your time elsewhere — that’s on emails, on the golf course or mentoring others — they come through you spending hour after hour in your own business, understanding the real drivers of your market and product, talking to your people on the ground and noticing things that only your perspective and ambition could pick out.

Yeah, and you need to be around to click this, a lot.

2. Leverage moves

Buying wire for $15 was the only thing you cared about, now you’re shifting $100m in investments and you can’t buy your $450 wire fast enough.

Your first hires as a startup are the most important — you rely on them to do their jobs better than you could, build the right culture and let you get on with hiring more people. But there’s a time when you hire an HR guy to, errrr… hire more people. It’s not that who you’re hiring isn’t important, but you’re needed in other places — because the leverage moved.

These shifts are sometimes really difficult to spot, and sometimes very subtle, but it’s important to look out for them, and move your emphasis with them.

Tip: when it’s quiet, or boring, you’ve probably missed something.

I missed self-replication and hazard remediation as the key drivers, for far too long.

3. Experiment and measure; or waste your time

My friend, 7 days in, is still demanding a $0.30 for his paperclips. He doesn’t see the growth driver (and he’s bizarrely not yet unlocked the ‘revenue per second’ metric). THIS GUY IS WASTING HIS LIFE (ironic, I know).

You need to test your assumptions — the equilibrium isn’t always intuitive. 
Maybe you’re assuming the customer wants what they think they want. Test it — try something you think they don’t want and see how they react — that’s the data you need. So many startups understand part of their market, because their not testing the alternative.

Once you’ve got a real handle on both sides of the data, you need to optimise production (scale) around that price, or move the market.

Obviously, this is impossible without the right metrics. Your bias kicks in and tells you what you want to hear. You feel that lesson is overbaked, until you unlock the ‘revenue per second’ module, then you really learn fast.

4. Just like leverage, equilibrium shifts

So when you think you’re doing great with your $0.01 paperclips, you might be missing out on a revenue opportunity. Equilibrium gradually shifts, and you’ve got to shift with it, or you’ll grow much slower. The only way to see this is to keep testing.

5. Keep you swarm happy

It was 2.15am and my swarm was playing up. All I could see when I closed my eyes that night was some imaginary swarm — a bunch of errr.. swarms that I’d failed. It was probably just one troublemaker than turned the others, or went to the union rep, but it happened and my production stopped.

You’ve got to keep your team happy and motivated.
Communication has to be at the core of your culture.

Bad advice

6. You need processing power

I might be wrong, but Paperclips ate my battery life.

As an entrepreneur, you have to be a lot of things to a lot of people. 
You have a lot of stakeholders: customers, team, investors, board, advisors, family, friends etc. and you need the processing power to deal with that.

You’ve got to be the right machine. If you’re a developer, you’ve got to be able to stop coding. If you’re usually free thinking, you need to nail yourself down to decisions within a framework. If you can’t handle people, go work for United Airlines.

But more than that — you need time, space and brain capacity.

It’s super-hard starting a business with a young family, or if you’ve got health or personal issues to deal with. A startup isn’t the distraction you need, it’s what’s going to push you over the edge.

7. You’ve got to have the right currency.

There’s no point in holding Yomi when you need honor, or ops when creativity suddenly becomes fashionable.

and you need to have enough of the right currency at the right time to be both a mensch and a successful leader.

Sometimes that currency is ambition, sometimes its aggression, compassion, understanding or frugality. There’s no point in frugality when you’ve just raised a round, and equally, no reward for ambition when you’ve failed to raise one.

The most valuable currency is the ability to manage your mindset.

BTW, in Paperclips, don’t bother with >250k ops. I think even 175k will do.

8. There’s a balance between working & thinking

Even virtual stationers need a break sometime.

It’s not an on/off button, but even I know that you can’t think properly with emails pinging all day. It’s an obvious lesson, but when ops are your currency, you need to think and re-prioritise, and you can’t do that while you’re banging out octillions of paperclips every second.

But you know what I really loved about this thing? It’s so Web 1.0. It’s the 1990s all over again. It doesn’t ask you for an email or a social sign up, there are no adds, it’s not a FB plug in, you don’t share your time with anyone else, it’s flipping greyscale… even the page is index2.html.

That was a really good internet.

FFS, ain’t nobody got time for that

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