Through the course of my work at New York Startup Lab, I have had the privilege of interacting on a regular basis with early stage entrepreneurs who are looking to get their projects off the ground with a little help from our company. These entrepreneurs often come to us with not much more than a basic plan and a ton of passion. Our job is to get our partners to minimal viable product (MVP) as quickly and cheaply as possible so that they can hopefully do a combination of three things:
- Prove the concept/Get some traction
- Build out the team
- Get funding to bring the project to scale
The concept of MVP has been well defined by those much smarter than I, but the application of its principles has been only loosely upheld. As I have personally been involved in the launch of over 50 products in the last several years – some successful, most failures – I have picked up some insight on where there are some holes in the thinking of some entrepreneurs and have personally experienced firsthand what happens when one become too product focused.
“If You’re Not Embarrassed By The First Version Of Your Product, You’ve Launched Too Late” – Reid Hoffman
When you are first launching an MVP/prototype, you really have zero idea of how the target market will react or who your early adopters will actually be. You may think that you have an understanding of your user base, but the truth is that you probably have no fucking clue. It really does not matter how much market research you’ve done. Those customers whose doors you have knocked on about a hypothetical product tend to disappear once you ask for a check. The inability to forecast the future accurately has paved the way for “the pivot”.
There are a number of factors that govern the success of technology products and they have very little to do with market research and more with execution. You may be targeting soccer moms in the Midwest, but your actual user base will be warlords in Ghana. Take the case of this publication. We launched it as a New York-centric publication expecting our readership to be comprised of the tri-state area, with some in the valley, and in a few other tech hubs across the country. It is now being read in 200+ countries. Surprise – yes? Deal breaker – no!
The beauty of technology is that it allows for rapid iterations based on actual data that allows you to respond to your user base, and a responsive mindset can drive engagement. We aren’t in the business of building board games that have long shelf lives and even longer update cycles. Facebook has a very mature product that is constantly iterating not only to introduce new features but if a ton of people are bitching and moaning about the latest version, they are engaged and using Facebook. Believe me, this is by design… People get bored of the same shit. Rapid iteration increases engagement.
While you can gain and lose knowledge and capital, time is a commodity that none of us are getting back. Your time should be spent getting a core product out to market as quickly as possible and not spent obsessing over small feature sets that your users may or may not ever use. There are hundreds of cases of where shitty technologies have turned into good businesses and stellar technologies that haven’t become viable businesses. The difference lies in execution.
It is important to remember that, when iterating, for all those people who asked you to tweak a function, there are just as many who are happy with the way things work now and they don’t complain because they are content. A basic statistical analysis of reviews will indicate that people are more willing to complain rather than to compliment.
I’ve learned the hard and expensive way that it takes an incredible amount of hubris to push out a product that you think the market needs because of your infatuation with building this perfect product. “We can’t roll it out without XY feature because it will be incomplete.” Most of the time, this XY feature really isn’t critical for your go to market strategy.
I have a close friend who was an early employee at a company that exited. Armed with some new cash, he set out to launch his own startup. He spent two years building what essentially can be considered the equivalent of Airbnb. He was neurotically fixated on every detail of the product, making sure that it was perfect and “ready to be acquired.” In those two years that he spent nurturing this product, Airbnb swept in, took the market, and essentially killed my friend’s business and savings. While he was there first, he didn’t execute and now he is the proud owner of a very expensive technology that has no commercial viability.
What you really need is a basic product that you can actually go out and put some hustle behind. The cost of hustle is negligible. With the technology stack moving towards modular components, the cost of getting a functional prototype is a fraction of what it was. If you are building the engineering equivalent of the Mona Lisa that will change the world, you may be required to get that $25 million round, but for 99% of startups that are being built, technology is a means to execute on an idea that solves a problem, and that input is becoming commoditized rapidly.
You can build the Ferrari of products, but your audience and monetizable users may be Lamborghini aficionados. Start building a Chrysler 300M aka “Baby Bentley” and go from there. Your business will be more viable that way.
Image credit: CC by SoCal Car Photography