- A guide to safe failure
1. Leave product management to a technologist
What could go wrong when you let a skilled technologist take responsibility for managing the product development? The short answer is "everything", and the nuanced answer is that you may get lucky. It's easy to understand why startups prioritize having a skilled CTO. Dealing with technologists is often difficult, and we feel beholden to their evaluations without the knowledge to verify their choices ourselves. Yes, it's reassuring to have a talented CTO on the team, but your respect for technology people makes the project vulnerable and opens it up to deep pitfalls.
We have a tendency to overestimate the technological challenge and underestimate the importance of proper priorities, user focus, design, UX, and listening to the market. You may be lucky and find a brilliant CTO with all of these attributes in one package. Such people do exist. I have met two such individuals in my career, but there is a greater chance that your CTO is just a skilled technologist. This means that product management must be owned by people who are closest to the market, customer needs, and business. Perhaps that is you? All too often, we see that the technical leader is given too much power of definition and becomes a filter between market understanding and the solution.
2. Raise just enough money to get to launch
Bootstrapping can be healthy. It forces you to make hard priorities and keeps helicopter expenses down. But it is AFTER launch that the learning curve and actual development begin. Plan for a launch party at the whiteboard and ensure the ability, resources and capacity to respond to the feedback and insights you get from your first users. Now you have real users, and if the improvements and changes don't happen now, you'll lose momentum, loyalty and opportunities faster than you can say " emergency fundraising".
3. Wait to launch
Launching is scary. It's when dreams and thousands of work hours meet the raw and often brutal reality.The days before launch are often the time for the sudden realization that your product just MUST have this little extra feature to fly. There are entrepreneurs who NEVER launch, but more commonly are delays that should never have been done. If you’ve done the groundwork well enough, (and you have, right?) you should launch with what you have and make the changes afterwards.
4. Build too much
Our rule of thumb is 6 months from start to launch. It provides the right degree of pressure and energy in the project and ensures you against making too many wrong choices and priorities. Everyone has heard of the concept of MVP (minimum viable product), but almost no one is prepared for how hard it is to make all the tough choices necessary to keep the project small enough to launch just enough to solve the need.
If you build too much, it's much harder to understand why users don't love the service, there's much more to change, and you risk getting lost in changes that don't really take you in the right direction.
5. Build for success
You read that right! You DON’T have to automate ALL processes from day one. The chances are that you won’t have a million users from launch and you’ll have time to create the right processes in line with user growth. Most entrepreneurs scoffs at the idea of cheating a little behind the scenes, doing manual processes to learn and validate. But that’s how Uber and a long line of today's digital successes did it. Fake it until it's validated!
6. Trust yourself
You must trust yourself, your own intuition, ideas, insight and genius, but not before it has been user-tested and validated. You are your own least valuable user and are completely worthless as a test user. Learn to love users who don't understand a thing about their interface, and listen to critical feedback as if it's the most beautiful poetry. Solutions are generally tested too little, on too few people, with too few iterations. Testing designs, UX, solutions, prototypes, demonstrators and ideas is cheap, fast and provides infinitely more insight than not doing it.
7. Stick to the roadmap after launch
It’s good to have a plan because you must have plans. Feel free to make a plan for further development after launch, but be prepared to throw it away. The insights you gain from user behavior and feedback will definitely turn your priorities upside down. Embrace it, and use the energy to solve real problems. Plan for change, and make change natural and valuable for you and your team.
8. Buy "cheap" development
Where should I start? You get development for 20 dollars an hour if you bother to open some spam mail from hyperactive sellers. But what does it really mean when some of these people can do thousands of dollars in damage for every hour they get to scribble on your project? After 10 years in the industry, I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs who have come to us with empty wallets and technical breakdowns. Few startups have the time or money to build a new, and we've seen a LOT of crazy code over the years. This actually has less to do with the country where development is taking place, and more about the professional community that’s being used. Good developers tend to be attracted to good professional communities, and in a global industry with demand for skilled engineers, "cheap" can quickly become really expensive. Remember that you’re not buying development hours, even though that’s what’s written on the invoice. You’re buying the realization of your idea as a functioning, living service your users love.
9. Get a team that does what they're told
It's nice to have people who say yes and obey, but that's not what you need. You need a team that understands your business idea, that has familiarized themselves with the user’s needs, that may even be able identify with your user group and, as a result of all this, can ask critical questions and enrich your concept with an invaluable nuggets of insight. Personally, I’ve always sought out teams that can mold a good starting point into something brilliant, that come back with a better solution than I had imagined, and ask critical questions about all aspects of the concept.
10. “Everything works after critical mass is reached”
You MUST have a plan on how to get the first 50 users, how to grow them to 500, 5000 and yes, you get the idea…. EVERYTHING is easy when you have a million users, so you should focus on what’s really difficult; User growth from zero, customer conversion, churn, user value and small business models.