Starting a Small Business

    This week's letter was inspired by a reader who wanted real, practical tips for starting and running a small (growing) internet business. We contacted founders of innovative, disruptive companies that we admire and find intriguing. Extremely informative. I for one learned a lot.



    Kevin Systrom, co-founder, sent us his tips via email:

    "Instagram is a photo social network on your iPhone that turns your mobile photos into beautiful works of art through hand-crafted filters. We launched in October of 2010 and since have grown to over 15 million users who in aggregate share nearly 60 photos a second."

    Instagram's most essential components to starting a small business:

    • "Picking a great team. People are everything and will make or break your business. Find the people you respect most and work with them – be relentless about creating an amazing team."
    • "Solving problems. Start with solving a problem instead of having a technology and then searching for problems it might solve. When you create a problem driven business your roadmap dictates itself."
    • "Building only what you need to prove that you can succeed. Create the minimum you can in order to test the hypothesis of whether your business will succeed or not. Polish, and bells & whistles are great, but if you focus on answering whether your fundamental assumptions are correct, you'll be much better off in the long run."
    • "Failure is part of the process - In many ways, you should fail your way to success. Nobody gets it right the first time, so fail quickly and fail often and learn from each of the steps in order to create a winning strategy."

    I wish I had known...

    "There's a big difference between building a product and building a company. Many people in Silicon Valley start off by wanting to build a product without realizing that the key is to be able to build a company."

    Songs of the week: 3 genius, 80’s influenced synth beauties

    Midnight City
    by M83

    Amor Fati
    by Washed Out

    Mother Protect
    by Niki & the Dove

    Zagat Survey

    Zagat was started in 1979 in Tim and Nina Zagat's spare time and has since become a household name and the indisputable authority on restaurant reviews. The first to lend consumers a voice for their opinions, Zagat’s guides on dining, nightlife, shopping, hotels and more are published across a variety of platforms including print, the web and mobile devices, with reviews covering more than 100 countries worldwide. Tim writes us today to share how they turned their hobby into a successful international business.

    Tim's tips for small business success:

    • "Do what you love. If you enjoy what you're doing, it won't feel like work and you are inherently more likely to do well."
    • "You need business experience. Even if it's not formal business training, a law career or expertise in another field is necessary."
    • "Don't quit your day (or night) job. Having a steady income is helpful so you're not totally dependent on the new project."

    I wish I had known...

    "What we did not know in the beginning actually helped us. Since we both practiced law for many years before we started the survey, we weren't restricted by the traditional thinking of publishers and were able to create a new model for our business."

    Refinery 29

    Refinery 29 -

    Christene Barberich, one of the founders and the editor-in-chief of Refinery 29, emailed her input on starting a digital business:

    "Refinery29 is the world's place for discovering, empowering, and celebrating personal style. Founded in 2005, Refinery29 has grown to more than 4 million monthly readers and over 700,000 subscribers to its daily newsletters."

    Refinery 29's tips for building a lasting digital business:

    • "Real commitment, and patience. I think specifically with internet companies and the dramatic highs and lows we've seen in the industry over the last decade, we (myself, our two founders, and our creative director) were sort of conditioned to expect extreme success or failure really quickly. In fact, our success has been about the long-haul, staying focused and committed over time, and keeping each other motivated as a result."
    • "Be bold. I know this might sound cliché, but the internet is like an instant global broadcasting mechanism for everything you do. Everyone's watching (or seems to be) 24/7, so that occasionally made me and our other core team members hesitant about moving too quickly on a hire, a project, or producing content that was maybe too risqué. We learned however, and fast, that it's those big pushes and occasional leaps of faith that really propelled the company forward and got us noticed amid all the competition. Plus, it's absolutely energizing. You definitely want to contemplate growth and change seriously, but it's also important not to get stuck in the "what ifs" and circumstances you likely never have control over."
    • "Divide and conquer. Recognizing each others' specific strengths and allowing each other to run with what we knew and liked best about our business was a key stepping stone. It made it possible for us to focus and hone every part of the company and ultimately, get a better understanding of where the holes were in our structure. It also empowered each of us to properly lead and nurture that leadership, knowing that we were always being cheered on by each other from the sidelines."
    • "Change, constant thoughtful change. We've redesigned our site (and major aspects of it) about 5 or 6 times since our launch. And every year, we take a close look at our content and other products, both top performing and the clunkers, and really examine what's working for us as a team, an evolving brand and content leader, as well as for our readers."
    • "Be savvy, financially. There's this belief or myth that internet start-ups are born in crappy garages but very quickly transcend to these glamorous loft spaces with cool, crazy expensive seating and gadgets everywhere. It may sound old-school, but don't spend what you don't have, and make the most of the resources you DO have...find the right people that can help you invest, bring in the right champions who truly believe in your vision, and spend your money wisely... as a start-up, you never, ever, ever want to live too far beyond your means... no matter how cool it looks."
    • "Less is often more. In an age and industry where we're constantly being bombarded with information and innovations, it's very easy to get distracted and sidetracked from your path. For us, being steadfast to constantly streamlining and curating to only the very best (for us!)—both in content and product development—has helped us to have a super sharp focus, voice, and identity in the marketplace."
    • "Have fun with the fantasy. Starting a business is really hard and it can be a marathon in terms of keeping spirits up and staying positive. For me, it was really helpful to spend time imagining Refinery29's success and the fruits of all our hard work. When obstacles or frustration would creep up, I would just sort of go to that happy place and dwell for a minute in that feeling and image...the excitement, the gratification, the actual space. The fantasy is part of the reward—at every stage of the process—and it can be an insanely powerful tool for manifesting what you really want."

    I wish I had known...

    "That it sometimes takes a lot longer for the rest of the world to catch up to what you knew all along. Fortitude and plain old faith is everything at the very beginning."

    Warby Parker

    Warby Parker -

    Dave Gilboa, one of the Warby Parker founders, sent us his tips via email:

    "Warby Parker is an eyewear brand sold exclusively online (at for $95 including prescription lenses, which is a fraction of the price of what eyeglasses cost in retail stores. And for every pair of glasses sold, we distribute a pair to someone in need. "

    Warby Parker's advice for budding entrepreneurs:

    • "The best businesses solve real customer needs. The most valuable thing we did before and after launch was spend time talking with and understanding our customers and their needs."
    • "Resist distractions and stay focused on the biggest, most disruptive opportunity. We are constantly offered opportunities to expand into other categories and partner with different sales channels. It is easy to get enticed by activities than can drive short-term growth but ultimately hurt the company in the long-term."
    • "Follow your passion. Starting a company requires a million different sacrifices and painfully long hours—you won't succeed if your heart is not in it. For us, we were motivated as a founding team by wanting to produce beautiful but affordable eyewear, but also to create an organization that has a really positive impact on the world."
    • "Be unexpected and give people a reason to talk about you. Whether that is including hand-written notes to customers or selling something quirky like a monocle—being creative and standing out from the crowd goes a long way."

    I wish I had known...

    "Many people think that the most important part of a startup is the initial idea (you often hear ‘I want to start a company but don't have any ideas'). What they don't realize is that coming up with ideas is actually the easy part—the hard part is executing on them."

    Kiwi Crate

    Kiwi Crate -

    Sandra Oh Lin sent us her tips and tricks via email:

    "Kiwi Crate offers a subscription service that creates and delivers hands-on activities for kids. Every month, kids receive a curated crate filled with materials for art projects, science experiments or imaginative play activities, with monthly themes like colors, space, and gardening."

    The most essential components to Kiwi Crate's success in starting a small business:

    • "Working on something we're passionate about. It's a lot of work to launch a startup and build a business. It all becomes worth it when you have passion to address a particular need or solve a specific problem."
    • "Being customer-focused. Many projects we thought might work well were scrapped or improved drastically thanks to feedback from our littlest customers as well as our grownup ones. Our customers are also our biggest marketers and proponents. With social media - whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blogs - amplifying their messages, we're grateful that the testimony of our customers helps fuels our growth.
    • "Having an incredible and passionate team who are committed to the product. As part of our extended team and design process, we've added creative parents who dream up the projects, valued experts who review them, and a community of kid testers who keeps us on our toes and ensures the projects are fun and engaging."

    I wish I had known...

    "When we were starting out, I was introduced to a lot of people. Admittedly, I was a little afraid that some of these meetings would be a distraction, given all that we had to do to build the business. As it turned out, we made some of our most important connections through these "blind dates." We got connected to a fantastic product design team and one of our major investors. I would encourage new entrepreneurs keep an open mind and do those meetings because you never know where they can lead!"

    Stella & Dot

    Stella and Dot -

    We called up Jessica Herrin, founder of Stella & Dot, and here's what she had to say:

    "Stella and Dot is an accessories company that sells exclusively through independent stylists who can set up their businesses from home. It's a business in a box, that works when you want to work and that you can scale and grow without having to deal with accounting, fulfillment, raising capital, etc. I started the company in 2004 out of my living room. In 2007, after having two children, I was ready to raise capital and take the company to the next level."

    Stella & Dot's formula for starting small and getting big in business:

    • "Passion is essential. You need to make sure that you're passionate about the product you're basing your business around and that you are soulfully connected to the mission of the company. When I started, I truly felt that I had something that needed to exist and I needed it to be successful."
    • "Recognize that your original concept will evolve and that your product is completely separate from your business. You need to evolve both of these concepts separately and at the same time."
    • "Get input from friends, family and people that you trust and iterate your idea over and over. Through conversations, your concept will evolve and grow strong."
    • "Be tenacious. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Recognize that your biggest failures are just a precursor to your success. If you fail fast and change your ideas by learning from your failure, your business will improve."
    • "Don't go it alone. Surround yourself with people who will support both you and your business. Make sure that you can share your goals with a partner or even a board of advisors."

    I wish I had known...

    "I wish I had known that passion makes up for experience. In terms of hiring, if the person you're considering bringing on to the team has years of experience and an amazing resume, it won't get you anywhere unless this person is also as committed to and excited about the business as you are."

    Coveting this Narciso Rodriguez for Edition 01 dress. Fun, timeless cocktail dress, what could be better?

    And a great, affordable Topshop version.

    The goop collection