Nobody likes to be associated with failure. It is a hard thing to deal with and learn from. One can take comfort knowing that anyone who has succeeded has failed many times to get there. As young entrepreneurs, we looked at the wall of obstacles before us and pushed forward, confident that we could succeed in this game where the willingness to work your ass off was, arguably, the most important. Well, we were almost right.
A few weeks back, Grant and I had one of our many introspective discussions about where we were, what we learned, and how we could convert lessons into actions with Together — our startup focused on getting people together. The focal point of our conversation was a presentation by Dave McClure titled “Startup Metrics for Pirates.” The second slide — which shows five steps of the customer lifecycle — hit home pretty hard. But the combination of that and our experience ended up helping us verbalize some of the biggest lessons we have learned from our startup experience.
One of the presentation’s recurring themes was to create feedback cycles that allow you to quickly learn from users or other product stakeholders and adjust your approach accordingly. Of course, to do that you have to have a way to interface with those users around your product. We failed to do this quickly. It took us a number of months to get the first eyes on Together and a couple more after that to make a release that was publicly available. Why did it take us so long? Because rather than choosing a small set of features and distilling them until we discovered the “right” ones, like Dave describes in his presentation, we ended up piling in many features and not iterating on those while our users were interacting with Together.
So what the heck were we up to? This experience has really helped us understand what we are great at and at what stage that greatness is important. As a team, we’re best suited at building attractive, usable products with complicated technical requirements. So we put a number of the latest technologies to work and created two mobile clients and a backend architecture to handle a couple hundred thousand users. Though what we built in those few months was impressive, needless to say, it was overkill for the stage we were at. We were well aware of the concept of a minimum viable product, but we didn’t realize how drastic that concept really is. We got excited about doing and building the stuff we were really good at and waited much too long to realize that the most important stuff to do were the things we had glossed over.
Despite our fair share of missteps, we were still able to learn a lot about the product, not just about how we worked as a team. We realized our product suffered from the “zone of mediocrity,” as Dave McClure called it. None of our users responded with ardent hate or love; instead, they provided even-keeled feedback about features they would rather have had, or not. A product that is going to help get people together needs to have some kind of emotional response; obviously, this is why a product like Instagram flourishes. Our metrics showed that people rarely used the product during the week. Most get-togethers happen on the weekend, but we hoped to do a better job communicating that the product could be used in a variety of situations where people have a need to organize a gathering, like at work for lunch.
This was Grant and my second experience working closely together as a team, and from the chemistry and product execution standpoint, we are still happy about what we were able to do with our powers combined. With our new-found understanding about our strengths, we had some decisions to make — go back and do step one correctly with Together, or explore opportunities with teams that have proven a concept but are trying to get their product from “it works” to “doesn’t suck,” “it rocks!” and beyond.
We decided to pursue the latter and set out to find a team that was small in size but not in talent or experience. This combination can be hard to find in a startup, but we were determined. We made a long list but only reached out to a few.
We have decided to join the team at Medium. We are humbled to be working alongside some truly amazing people. The Medium story is just beginning, and we are excited to be involved in the journey to come.