Don't plug leaks when you got no boat

 

My first company, Openvote, was a question and answer site where people could poll their community.  We had dreams of the site being a forum where bold conversations could take place.  We wanted people to expose the real issues going on at their school or company and really push the envelope of controversy.  We knew that, if successful, we could become a powerful way to give people a voice.  We also knew that the site could easily spiral out of control.  We were very concerned about this prospect.  Very concerned.

We knew we would need ways for users to flag comments that were inappropriate.  But wait, what if people were flagging good comments just because they disagreed? We'd need a way to monitor who was flagging what and allow the community to vote on whether a comment should be removed.  This would probably require some sort of moderator system to help facilitate the process.  Which would also mean that we would need a process by which the community could elect moderators.  They'd need a page so that there would be transparency in the community.  There was a lot to do.

Fortunately, a lot of companies have tackled these types of problems.  We researched how the Wikipedia community is managed.  We looked into Digg's sorting algorithms.  We studied Reddit's process for using moderators.  We followed Hacker News's karma system.  And all of these sites had one thing in common:

 

They had users.

 

We had no one.  No one was spamming us.  No one was leaving inappropriate comments.  No one cared about us.  We were irrelevant.  We weren't pre-product-market fit; we were pre-product!  

We were solving problems that hadn't occurred yet!  And I see this from entrepreneurs all the time. It makes sense.  You pitch your vision all the time.  You invest emotionally in a dream and begin to believe in it as if it's already happened.  You have to because investors/advisor/friends/employees need convincing that this thing is really going to happen. 

And if you let those big fictitious plans infect your product development process, you're in a lot of trouble.  Product development is about figuring out the single most important problem that exists right now and doing that and only that.  It's much harder to do than it sounds.  Somebody has to keep the whole team focused on those issues that are most critical right now.  And that somebody is you.

 

Tips for focusing on the right priorities:

 

Read Getting Real

I recommend this book more than any other book.  Written by the guys from 37 Signals, Getting Real flips the way most people think about product development. Instead of starting with the big vision and working backwards.  You figure out the most important features and build those before doing anything else.  Every single MBA interested in entrepreneurship needs to read this book.

 

Break features into V1, V2, Vx

Take all those awesome, creative, forward-thinking ideas and throw them into a bucket that you label VX.  Keep V1 as your minimum viable product.  Put your next feature request into V2.  You'll be shocked how many times you re-prioritize after V1 and never end up doing what you originally planned for V2.

 

Do stuff that doesn't scale

This is one of my favorite tricks.  Anything you can do upfront that reduces development time, you should do.  Even if that means doing something manually.  Even if it means calling up people one-by-one.  Sign-up forms don't have to be implemented up front.  A recommendations algorithm can be replaced early on with brute force hustle.  

 

Create hypotheses

The goal for a startup is to find product-market fit before running out of money.  Once (and if!) you find it, your goal will be building your business.  But until that happens, you should assume that your hypotheses are wrong and work as quickly as possible to disprove them.  Make sure everyone involved in the company understands the hypothesis on which you're currently working.

 

Use link-testing as trial balloons

Have a hypothesis for a new feature that will take 2 months to build?  Design the page in a day, throw it on your site, and invite people to use it.  When people go to click on the link, ask them to join your beta-testing list for this new feature.  You can even A/B test this with alternative features to help you decide which to build first.

 

Track your speed of experimentation

How long does it take you to prove or disprove a hypothesis?  I love seeing early-stage companies that can execute at such a speed that they're testing a meaningful hypothesis about their company every month.

 

As an entrepreneur starting from scratch, you're not maintaining a battle ship; you're inventing a new type of raft while on the verge of drowning.  Don't plug links when you got no boat.

tl;dr: stay lean.

 

 

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News 

******************
I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  
You should follow me on Twitter: @JasonFreedman.
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8 responses
I love the last bit, about testing ideas through experimentation. Just like with my blog, I run my business as a series of experiments - hitting a new idea full force, but ready to kill it at a moment if the idea proves less than viable.
This painfully reminds me of mistakes I've made. So specifically the same thing, too - don't build moderation tools until you need them. Don't build automatic content recommenders before anyone is using your hard-coded suggestions. Sigh.

Also I think the link to Getting Real is broken?

Jason,

You're a star, thanks for this post, it came at just the right time to provide some inspiration as I've been bogged down with worrying about how I was going to get new registered companies to renew their credits on my new project. You have made me realise there is no need to worry about this, until I've got such a volume of new companies, I can do this all by hand via simple email form. You've just saved me time, money and hair.

Thank you

Alex
Budding entrepreneur at OpenYourDiary.com
Online appointment booking made simple.

Awesome post - reminds me exactly some questions we're asking ourself with Indigital right now.

Will buy Getting real today - thanks :)

Fantastic advice. I'm especially intrigued by starting with the most important feature instead of starting with the vision; goes against everything that I've been told (and most everything I normally believe).
This post is bang on. You've clearly stated some of the key lessons I learned through my first startup. Unfortunately I think these are some of the things that no matter how many times they're said, the way most people are going to learn them is by doing them wrong first.
Thanks for the insights on building out a website and what features to build.

I only wish I had read it earlier. Some really good tips.

Thanks

John

Managing projects that depends on human opinions are tricky things to handle. It is always good to counter yourself as to anticipate the comments of the rest of the company. This will ensure you covered all your bases and you will have a better plan than what you started out with. Thank you for all your suggestions!