Obviously I'm very pleased that gdgt turned out to be a success, but that doesn't mean that looking back there aren't things I wish we'd done differently. Here are a few things I would go back and tell the Peter Rojas of 2009:
Be less secretive
We weren't exactly in stealth mode before we launched gdgt, but we did try and keep what we were doing a secret, mainly because we worried about being ripped off. When you're a tiny startup with very limited resources, it's easy to imagine someone bigger coming along and knocking you off, but in retrospect this was the wrong thing to be worried about.
Instead of having our ideas copied, we should have worried a lot more about how good our ideas were in the first place. The gdgt we envisioned when we started isn't all that far off from what it's become. Even though the execution evolved, our goal of helping people make better buying decisions has been consistent from the start. But no matter how strong your concepts are, there's no substitute for getting people to use your product and so they can let you know what works and what doesn't. By keeping the site under wraps until launch (apart from a private beta just before launch), we missed out on the opportunity to find out what parts of what we were doing connected with users and what parts didn't. If I were starting over, I'd just be out in the open about what we were doing and would try and get as much feedback as possible along every step of the way. That would probably have meant doing an open beta with a limited feature set and not worrying so much about there being a big gap between what the site is and what it should be.
(And the funny thing is that we were copied by plenty of other sites anyway after we launched and it didn't make much of a difference.)
Don't sell a big launch sponsorship
This one was tough. We managed to sell a sweet six-figure sponsorship to coincide with the launch of the site, which was great in that it meant we had money come in from day one (I guess technically we were cash flow positive during those months). Making money like that was a big deal for us, especially since we had only raised a few hundred thousand dollars by that point. I'm all for making money, the problem is that when you sell a sponsorship like that you get locked into launching on a specific day, and we probably could have used a little bit of flexibility there (though arguably having a fixed launch date can also give you much-needed focus). The bigger issue was that it more or less prevented us from doing an open beta, since part of what we sold to the sponsor was that they'd be part of a big splashy debut, a debut which was predicated in large part on no one knowing ahead of time what we were up to.
Don't worry about getting press or even on having a big launch
Similar to selling the launch sponsorship, we gave the New York Times the exclusive on our launch. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time -- who doesn't want coverage in a big newspaper? --and it did help drive a ton of traffic to us on our launch day, but we ended up getting a lot of drive-by users who checked us out and never came back. We'd have been better off launching quietly and letting word of mouth drive more engaged users (which is what ultimately ended up driving a lot of our traffic anyway). Could Ryan and I, who were getting press we hadn't wanted just on rumors about what we were doing, have had a quiet launch to the site? Maybe not, but by arranging to have a spotlight pointed right at us we certainly didn't do ourselves any favors.
Be less agreeable
This one is a little counterintuitive, so let me explain. Ryan and I have worked together for almost ten years now, and while we definitely don't agree on everything, we've gotten really good at figuring out how to compromise. Normally this is a good thing, but it actually had a negative effect when it came to the site itself. Rather than one person's vision prevailing, we tended to meet in the middle, and the result was something that often didn't satisfy either of us and was usually a worse product than if we had just let one person's vision prevail. It wasn't fun for either of us when we didn't get our way, but gdgt improved as both a product and a business when we made it OK for decisions to be made this way.
Bring design in-house as soon as possible
Hiring Michael Cosentino as our director of design was one the smartest moves we made (and I give Ryan 100% of the credit for finding him). Before this we had worked with a couple of very talented agencies (first Ideacodesand then Hard Candy Shell), both of which did great work for us, but given how important design is to creating a great web product I just don't think there is any way you can outsource it. The site's look-and-feel, as well as user experience, improved dramatically under Michael's stewardship, and I'm proud of how often people comment on it.
Don't be on different coasts
This is perhaps the least critical of the things I'd have done differently, but Ryan and I probably shouldn't have been in different time zones. We'd worked very well together this way when we were doing Engadget, but being in opposite coasts was more of an advantage when we were doing a news site. Working on a something like gdgt we needed to collaborate in a different way, and while it didn't necessarily mean we needed to be in the same room, me being in New York and him in San Francisco did result in us having fewer overlapping hours to work (especially since I have kids and was getting up and going to bed even earlier than I used to).
It's okay for the product to not be perfect
One of the hardest things about doing a startup is that there is almost always this big gap between your vision for what you're doing and the reality of what is currently out there. When we launched we were missing tons of features, and this drove me crazy, since I felt like we weren't putting our best foot forward and I wanted people to see the site we were going to be, not the one we were. It didn't help that our users were not shy about letting us know when there was something we lacked. Obviously it's important to listen to users and their feedback and complaints about missing features, but you also can't let it make you afraid to put something out there because the reality is that you'll never have perfection or a product that satisfies everyone anyway, even if you do take that extra time.
We managed to make things work in the end, and that's because despite all of our mistakes we did do a few things right, like hiring an amazing, dedicated team (we had very little turnover, which I think says something) and a very supportive board that took the time to help us when we got stuck. I won't say something trite here about how the important lesson from all this is that you have to learn from your mistakes -- everyone already knows that. What I will say is that you just have to accept that when you're doing a startup you're going to make tons of them and that a lot of them won't even seem like mistakes until years later when you've had some time to reflect.