I’ve had the chance to talk with some really smart entrepreneurs during FounderFuel’s search for its third cohort. There’s a recurring theme I see that really baffles me, because I had thought about it prior to making the life-changing decision of becoming a startup founder.
The nature of kickstarting a new company is by all means similar to kickstarting a new product development. Or is it? You think about what the ideal solution might be to that big problem you have insight to, you imagine a simple solution to that problem (probably by way of creating a new web app or iOS/Android app) and then you build it. Simple right?
Reason #1: You have no idea what you’re building
How do you know what you are building if you aren’t able to tell me what it is in two-three sentences? I talked about the importance of the pitch, how it is impossible for you to be building something if you’re not capable of distilling the essence of the venture in a short, bite-sized message.
But how is this possible? Of course you know what you’re building since you’re building it! You might have a really good idea for what it is, but does everyone else understand it?
Reason #2: Nobody will ever use what you’re building
Harsh. But true nevertheless. How can people find–never mind use–what you are building (and therefore selling) if you don’t make it obvious to them what pain you are fixing? How can your marketing groundwork function if you aren’t capable of targeting the right people, due to not knowing which people you should target?
You’re probably building the wrong thing. There, I’ve said it. Unless you have vast amounts of insight in a particular industry (unlikely at this early stage of your venture’s lifecycle), there is a very high likelihood you’re building a solution for a problem that does not exist.
“But Eyal,” you will say, “I’m in this industry for a reason,” you will say. “Of course I know what I’m building!” Industry insight can definitely drive vision for your company, but product development should be driven by customer development, not guesses.
We humans are absolutely terrible at gauging risk and options. Don’t let your gut make the decisions on what to build.
Reason #3: You’re not talking to your potential customers
The problem is you haven’t gone out and spoken to people you theorize are the right customers. It has happened time and time again. New idea comes up, give it a quick Google search to see “what’s up”, come up with a cool-looking website that changes on a two-week basis, rinse and repeat.
You need to speak to your customers to find out what you need to build. Construct a feedback loop. Find what they need, build it and iterate on it.
Many businesses start out, invalidate their thesis on what the problem they are building is, and decide to pivot to focus on a particular issue their customers have told them to fix.
One of the most famous pivots is undoubtedly Instagram. They started out as Burbn, a location-based service very similar to FourSquare.
Guess what they learned. They realize they were building something that wasn’t needed, and instead turned to their customers and usability data and made the call to focus on pictures instead. Definitely a high totem-pole idea (though up for debate) seeing as how millions of people get up every morning and yes, use Instagram for everything.
Reason #4: You’re building without testing
There’s a famous project management methodology called the Waterfall Model that you might be familiar with. Most people end up building things in one shot. That one shot went in your foot my friend, because you’ve just spent a lot of time and resources building something that not only you haven’t validated actually fixes a problem, but you’re also not surveying the usability of what you build and asking: “is this actually a feature that will be used?”
There are very simple tools available to you to get started on doing this. From project management (we use Planbox at IGL, it’s awesome) and ranging from Web Analytics (Google Analytics for web usability) to App Analytics (Mixpanel for in-app engagement) and even multivariate testing of your features (Optimizely for A/B Testing).
Integrate these tools into your development workflow and create a conversation with the people using your website (even if it’s 20 people). Start building as per what they need to attract more like-minded people (to an eventual like-minded website).
Reason #5: You’re spending time on things that will never produce money
There is a difference between a minimum viable product (the very first version of the product you can put out to test your assumptions about users) and a minimum sellable product (the very first version of the product that can produce revenue).
A lot of people assume that your MVP needs to hold all of the elements of a final product… this is the complete, polar opposite of what an MVP is.
Stop spending time on aesthetics (beautifying something you’re not even sure is useful) and concentrate on adding value in the areas you can prove represent interest in the minds of your customers. Areas you feel can produce revenue through additional features you might be building. If what you’re doing today doesn’t fit in any of those categories, chuck it.
Reason #6: You’re emotionally attached
This is probably one of the biggest, most terrible things that can happen to you. I realize this may sound weird, but being emotionally attached to your startup (this is normal for the record) is synonymous to driving decisions through emotions.
Emotional decisions aren’t decisions at all, they’re instincts. When’s the last time “instincts” scored brownie points in the stock market?
Disconnecting the emotional attachment to your startup allows you to lead without fear of failure and with a much clearer roadmap on what you want to do to accomplish your vision. Don’t let emotions get in the way of your startup’s success, because after all, your startup is bigger than just you. Remember that.