This is a chapter from the book Starting & Sustaining which is a system to help you build and launch a web app with less pain and fewer mistakes. The entire book is free to read on the web.

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Embrace learning

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over.

Richard Branson
You learn by doing and by falling over
October 27, 2014

You might believe you’re a generalist with a wide range of knowledge, but starting a company will quickly expose just how much of a specialist you are. Even with a couple of cofounders, the breadth of knowledge needed to launch a hosted web application is enormous. If you’re a sole founder, it’s effectively impossible to know everything from day one: design, front-end, back-end, database, server, security, marketing, business, pricing, support, release management, and more.

Let’s break down front-end development: HTML, CSS, transitions (animation), Sass, Compass, Less, CoffeeScript, jQuery, Ajax, web fonts, HiDPI (Retina) displays, responsive design, and a proliferation of devices, screen sizes, and resolutions unlike anything we’ve seen in the web industry to this point. That’s a full-time job.

But try not to let it scare you. Remember the fear? This is one place where it can easily overwhelm you. “I don’t know enough” shouldn’t hold you back from launching a business–because no one ever knows enough. Recognize that and focus on how to manage your lack of knowledge.

Like we discussed in the previous chapter, you also have to fight the temptation to procrastinate when doing the things you don’t know well. Our brains are wired for reward, and the tough learning curve for new skills creates a lot of temptation to work on the things we know we can do. It’s all right to play to your strengths, but you mustn’t let your brain trick you into neglecting that difficult but necessary work.

Before Sifter, I was a specialist. I needed to keep up with two or three high-level topics to stay current without being left behind. I had a few RSS subscriptions, and I kept up with a few topics on Twitter. It wasn’t easy, but wasn’t impossible either. With Sifter, I tried to stay current on every piece of the business from the technology stack to the business and marketing. As a sole founder, there was no way I could have built anything if I tried to keep up with every little thing that had a chance of improving the product.

As an example, Sifter had about fifty lines of JavaScript when it launched. JavaScript wasn’t one of my strengths, so I focused elsewhere; it simply wasn’t feasible for me to build the application with all the advanced interactions that were becoming more common among web applications. As our vision and the application became more mature, we included more JavaScript where it made sense, but we always stayed mindful about where we added it.

Throughout all this, I’ve found that having a clear approach to new areas helped me stay focused. Whether it’s a brand new area for the industry or just an area that’s new to me, the following helped prevent me from feeling overwhelmed.

Accept that you can’t know everything. It’s impossible to know everything and use every cutting-edge technology. This may be easier said than done when you’re constantly seeing others doing great new things, but it’s the only way you’ll get by. Use only what you need–don’t try to be cutting edge just for the sake of it.

Keep it on your radar. Just because you’re not using a technology or skill doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be at least vaguely aware of what’s happening around you. Today’s latest browser feature may be widely supported in a year when you’re ready to use it. Keep your eyes and ears open through RSS, Twitter, and other channels. Bookmark anything you think might be useful later, and then forget about it until you need it.

Learn it when you need it. There’s not a lot of time for aimless exploration, but the good news is that if you need to use a technology you haven’t used before, you can learn it as you go. If you’ve kept an eye on things, you should have plenty of resources bookmarked so you can dive right in.

Be ready to leave your comfort zone. It may be tempting to avoid new things simply because they could slow you down and take you outside your comfort zone. But if you’re starting a business, you’re going to have to leave that comfort zone and learn new things. Mentally preparing yourself for that can make it less intimidating when the occasion arises.

Don’t forget to bring in experts. There are some tasks that are close enough to your core skills that you can grow and expand your skills, but then there are the skills you have no business spending time on. In those cases, be quick to turn to the experts and recognize that it’s not wise to learn a completely new skill for which you don’t have the foundation.

It can be difficult to find time to keep up with the latest technology. It’s easy to get swept up in trying to stay current and forget that the whole point is to create something. Instead of trying to know everything, focus on staying aware of what’s happening. Then, when the time is right, and you come across advances that may be useful, you can learn as you build.

When you need to learn something, take the time to do it right–but if you don’t need it yet, file it away and move on. Worst case scenario: it’ll be there you when you need it. Best case scenario: newer technology could make it obsolete while being ten times easier to implement.

As a founder, your time is limited. Don’t get left behind, but don’t spend all your time keeping up, either. Running your own business will give you the flexibility to explore new technologies, but there’s no room to explore aimlessly. Learn new technologies when you have a purpose and a reason to do so.

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