Technical entrepreneurs love to compare the number of features in their product to competitors, and they love to keep adding features — just because they can. Unfortunately, this approach often turns off mainstream customers because they find the result hard to use. Even worse, this “feature creep” often makes the final product late to market, sluggish and more expensive than competition.
“Focus” is the key to success in a startup, and a minimum viable product (MVP) that does a few things better than anyone else will get more attention quicker from your market. From that base, you can then iterate more effectively, based on customer feedback, to add additional features that really expand the market. Early adopters, who love to count features, are not your major market.
As a former developer, experienced technical entrepreneur and an advisor to many startups, I recommend that every technical startup adopt and live by some strict strategic and organizational rules to counteract the urge and risks of feature creep. These include:
1. Separate requirements gathering from product implementation. Every startup team needs a “product owner” role who is not an engineer or coder to collect from customers, prioritize and document required features. Then developers size the implementation alternatives, and startup executives draw a line based on vision, costs and funding.
2. Define and enforce role and decision authorities. Developers should get the last word on implementation, sizing and duration alternatives. Marketing and product owner negotiate the MVP level based on competition and customer expectations. Financial executives set staffing budgets and monitor spending.
3. Communicate and commit to a formal development process. With agile and other incremental development processes, schedule and track the allowable time boxes — 1-to-4 weeks — per cycle. In my experience, where development cycles and timeframes are completely open-ended, the number of features goes up, and the quality goes down.
4. Update or substitute features as required, but keep the same total. The team must deal with changes from the market and technology, but resist any urges from anyone to add features without pruning or removing others. Maintain role responsibilities as previously defined including executive sensitives to overall progress and opportunity.
5.Focus on stability, usability and performance of key features. The urge to add more features often takes priority over confirming that the basics have been implemented with a competitive level of quality and ease of use. A bloated product with more features done poorly will not survive against a simpler product that does a few things very well.
6. Incrementally add features in small numbers to follow-on releases. Including too many features into initial release dramatically increases time-to-market and the likely need to pivot. Customer requirements should be re-confirmed and re-prioritized after each release. Plan incremental releases every few months — but not too frequently.
7. Avoid adding features for a single customer to close a sale. Sometimes it pays to say “no.” Features added which have not been evaluated to have general appeal make your product more difficult to support, dilute your development effort for important features and complicate the usability and installability for all customers.
8.Build multiple products versus a single product with many features. The advantage of a multiple-product strategy, with integration capability, is that it allows a natural planning cycle for market requirements, resources required and marketing efforts. Customers are not “forced” to buy features and complexity they do not need.
In reality, most customers and marketers cannot remember or name more than a half-dozen key features of any solution, so extending your implementation to double or triple this number is counter-productive. The negatives outlined here of “feature-itis” in a startup far outweigh the potential positives of appealing to more customers. Do not let your business be a victim of feature creep.