Starting up is hard! It really is, and most people don’t understand how difficult it is to create real value. The fragility of early stage ventures in their ambitious quest to create some sort of value. I think it is one of the biggest things that inexperienced investors and first-time founders get wrong. ( Reporters, know-it-all bloggers and forums included.) They unconsciously judge emerging startups as established businesses and play prophet and fortune teller…declaring that the startup will not amount to anything. I think it is the same as looking at a new-born baby and immediately concluding that it will amount to nothing. How cynical – shame on you.
Its no wonder why founders are obsessed with building the entire product on day one. I was talking to a couple of founders the other day about over-engineering and their fear of launching. It has become this shameful thing to get to the market with a “not so great looking product” that founders try to make their product as shiny and as failure-proof as possible.So much so that they end up building a product that they want and not what the customer actually needs. I find it very strange when entrepreneurs complain that they do not have the “capital” to build their product, when what they really mean to say is ” I do not have the money to build the ultimate version of my product.” They are haunted by the thought of having that tech blog post some ‘underwhelming” article about the predicted death of their startup. I went through the exact same fear and the associated anxiety that quickly turns into frustration then depression. There has to be an easier and less demanding way to build and launch. I think of it as the process before the startup, before the product and before the undue expectation…when the “what if” turns into inquisitive actions.
Starting up as an Experiment
Starting off as an experiment removes some of the pressure associated with trying to launch. Its curiosity-driven progress, discovery-driven growth. Ian MacMillan, Wharton professor of innovation and entrepreneurship says that it is important to “know from the start that the plan is wrong.” Entrepreneurs spend ages working on 100 slide decks and massively researched business plans backed up by spreadsheet after spreadsheet when in truth, its all a bucketload of assumptions and questions. So the only real plan should be to learn as you go, to get to talking to users and start off with a comparatively untargeted launch.To look at what kind of customer uses the product and then direct more effort towards getting that kind of user and making the product better with usage.
“Remember, its not what the software does, its what the user does!”
The only way that you can get to understand the validity of your assumptions is by interacting with the user. And yes, it means shipping that duct tape solution, so long as it is providing the value users want. It doesn’t have to be overly pretty at first. It just has to do what it was built for. This is not to say that we should disregard any and all forms of planning and/or strategy whatsoever, No. Some rough understanding and a bit of guidance is necessary even in the beginning. The entire experiment is what gives rise to the data that can then be used to formulate the winning strategy. Think of it as the startup before the startup. Its the source of ‘data’ that fuels the “data driven decisions” we so love to talk about.
Founders Spinning Yarn
One of the unfortunate products of this overly unnecessary critiquing of early stage startups is that some founders then feel this need to constantly show growth and a relatively high probability of success. You always hear them at startup competitions and pitching platforms, these vanity metrics, and the over-selling of MVP’s (Minimum Viable Products) as fully functional products that are being gobbled up by the market. When did facebook likes become a metric for product uptake and usage? Its called attempting to spin yarn into gold….derived from this ideology that you have to fake it until you make it? An ideology that isn’t well suited for creating new products in an uncertain ever changing world. Again the product doesn’t have to be overly pretty at first. It just has to do what it was built for and continue iterating, getting better and better as the founders receive and solicit for more user input. Let not the glory of an early launch and the few “pats on the back” from the media and colleagues lul you into compacency and thinking that your barely functional product is already changing the world, you have to keep on moving forward, it is that progress, as the best self-motivator, that will keep you going.
The Startup Search Mode – Permanent Beta
I took the time to look up the definition of the term “Startup” and came across Steve Blank‘s definition. He says that a startup is a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. So by definition, a startup has to be constantly searching, with the aim of creating, capturing and delivering value. It has to constantly be in Beta, testing and improving upon whatever version of the product that is available, constantly asking how this could be done better, quicker, faster and more efficiently. This is what converts a duct tape offering into a scalable product on which a startup can be built and grow into a business. Unfortunately a good number of entrepreneurs get stuck on that initial product, like a deer caught in the dazzling headlights, they lose sight of their vision and get swayed around until they get swallowed up as the innovation curve catches up with them ( then blame other people for stealing ideas). This search mode, being in permanent beta, is a way of life. One that as entrepreneurs need to adopt in our personal lives, and then extend that to how we build products.
Go out and give them what they want
I hear a good number of entrepreneurs talk about hiring a “sales and marketing” person right in their first week of “starting up” and I totally get it. Talking to customers is hard, the thought of going out there to talk to some stranger and have them smash your dream into a thousand pieces is frightening, its easier to just delegate and have other people run around. After all….being the founder = autonomous unchallengeable power and control right? wrong! Founders need to be in the trenches, they need to know how the customer feels about the product and what the customer wants! They need to be able to distill the actionable items from user feedback.
Frello’s user driven development
I liked how Frello ( one of the startups I work with) built feedback right into their application and gave their users the power to dictate what feature to roll out next. It means that, over and above the real value that the app delivers, users will only get features that they really want! This might not have been what this particular founder set out to build, he, however, has saved himself hours upon hours of market research and endless hours of building features that in the end would bury the true value of his app. Interestingly, getting to market with his the not-so-great-looking application helped him realise the value he could deliver for enterprise customers early on! Frello is still beta testing its platform and mobile application and I cannot wait for them to officially launch!
To the No-Chill masses
The truth is that it is important that you get to interact with actual users who might pay for your “work in progress.” Its even better if they pay, because that has a horde of benefits in itself as highlighted in the previous post. It doesn’t matter if they dismiss your initial product, they almost always get it wrong anyway and come back swinging into your corner once they see growth. Despite what the public, the media or self-titled startup serial entrepreneurs might say what is important above all is that you do not dismiss your own startup. So Dear founders, don’t give up, just get up and go get yourself some users!!! Remember…..