DO ONE THING AND DO IT RIGHT
The most powerful lessons I have learned while transitioning from the corporate world to the startup world is … do one thing and do it right. A strong foundation for a product/business is built on a commitment to achieving a defined goal, and proving (or disproving) a solution before attempting bring the long-term vision to life.
This isn’t to condone operating with tunnel vision on one objective, but rather to take the necessary steps to achieve success for one objective before either pivoting or building out a second objective.
For context, picture you’re building LinkedIn and the core purpose is to allow people to connect professional. In this case you should build out the profiles functionality to meets the user’s needs before building out the recruiting vertical. Without the profile meeting the user’s needs the recruiting functionality is worthless.
HOW TO OPERATE
In product development and business architecture, early stage efforts require a commitment to validating one thing at a time and to limit over-stretching resources or distracting from core initiatives.
Example — Imagine you’re building a mobile marketplace app. You have an array of features listed out, some competitive analysis, a ton of opinions, and knowledge that the eventual product or business model could vary greatly. You know the core functionality needed to engage the transaction, searching, scheduling, payments, and security. You also know that there are dozens of bells and whistles that random people have asked for, which are more of “nice to haves”. In this instance, you should ALWAYS focus on solving for the core functionality of that app before considering building out the longer-term business vision. Build the core functionality so that the full workflow can all be properly tested with your defined target market. Iteration and optimization is necessary at that point, so the core objective needs focus. Bells and whistles belong in the backlog for the initial period.
The dangerous alternative is to begin building every bell and whistle into the app before you’ve fully validated its core functionality. One frustrating personal experience I faced during a client engagement was after 5 months of customer development and Beta build development, the client wanted to immediately start rebuilding the entire platform so that it could be white labeled and used in multiple different business verticals. Absolutely crazy, right?
This was made without any market research and any concept of whether or not the core experience that was being built would meet needs of the target user. This type of product decision is very costly, financially and for timelines, which will be detrimental to the product’s success. Think of this like building a house, but before you finish adding the roof you decide to move your entire family in and simultaneously begin building an addition. The outcome of this almost certain failure
Discipline to doing one thing and doing it right should focus on quickly and efficiently validating core components that define success and populating the product roadmap. Only with a strong foundation are the “nice to have” features even possible.
HOW I LEARNED THIS
I entered the startup world after two years within a highly structured environment. I was hired for a defined role, within a proven business model that did not evolve or experiment, with numerous other high-performing individuals. My day-to-day was somewhat of an assembly line, a series of predictable events where everyone knew their task and what success meant. This made execution highly efficient, but also incredibly mundane. Large corporations like this are a case study in business discipline, employing thousands of individuals in a wide array of functions, all seemingly operation simultaneously in an almost magical way.
Transitioning from a corporate environment into the wild-west of the startup was a bit of a culture shock, but also an exciting opportunity to truly exercise my skill-sets. I love to solve problems, figure out how to optimize efficiency of individuals working together, and continually expose myself to challenges that allow me to grow both personally and professionally. This seems like a dream come true, right? It sure has been, but I entirely underestimated the sheer lack of business discipline that I would have to deal with.
Many companies lack business discipline to varying degrees. This has greatly hindered their ability to reach ever their full potential. Dozens of examples come to mind, but here are a few examples: one company was trying to build two products from day 1 without truly understanding their target market, another was trying to build a suite of 4 different products at the same time while bootstrapping and without focusing on monetization, and another company attempted to build both a Saas and services business model at the same time with the same resources and little to know funding.
The most shocking situation was a newly minted entrepreneur with easy access to capital who seemed to pivot their business more frequently than I changed my socks and needed to prioritize every single feature that anyone requested. Bananas, right?
All of these scenarios could potentially be fine in theory, or even produce great results. However, successes like those instances are only possible through regimented focus and/or large amounts of funding. Even at that point, I truly feel it is best to always do one thing and do it right.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN AND WHY IS IT BAD?
The core of this is a cultural issue in the product space. This can be a beautiful case study of “survival of the fittest”. One cultural issue is that the startup space has many entrepreneurs that simply want freedom and to seemingly endlessly “innovate” and talk about doing things without thinking about how to do this. This free reign can bring with it “shoot from the hip” type behavior that directly contradicts the concept of discipline.
Another cultural issue is how people learn product development and venture architecture. The product development space is filled with influencers, blogs, books and podcasts that feed buzzwords and provide understandable and relatable insights.
Unfortunately, context can generally be lacking with much of this information. Three words in particular that I believe have become largely misinterpreted are lean, agile, and scale. In the right context they can define a series of scientific processes that allow businesses to move quickly, make well-informed decisions, and fulfill their target-markets needs. Out of context, I have seen many people interpret this as validation to move quickly, pivot constantly, and develop outlandish expectations for scale.
This scattered approach and lack of commitment to addressing individual problems at a time is bad because in most situations there are finite resource, finite funding, and a finite amount of time to achieve some semblance of success. This means that there is a limited margin for error when making product or business decisions, meaning that disciplined decision making is critical for success. With a scattered approach of constant pivoting, a culture is built that emulates that, which is incredibly dangerous.
This lack of disciplined focus will almost certainly lead to poorly built product, flimsy business model, and an endless backlog of to-do’s that aren’t goal driven.
AVOIDING THIS PROBLEM
My approach has always been to build trust in my decision making, back up my thoughts / plans with quantitative and qualitative facts, and never hold back when there is an evident red flag. Being a product professional often operating in a less disciplined environments, it became my responsibility to champion the product vision, delicately managing the politics of the decision making process to ensure that dangerous decisions were avoided.
This included making sure that everyone’s voice was heard, that all reasons / facts were on the table, and to try and find the right balance between making the right decision while not stepping on toes and hindering the relationships in that specific business scenario.
So the question becomes, how do you combine a disciplined focus to business decisions with a fast moving process that drives success. One can only develop a true understanding through real-time experience. All of the information we ingest from experts and assumptions we make must be fearlessly addressed and rigorously tested. From this context comes a true understanding of the decision that you’re making and the consequences that it carries, which eventually builds your instinct that allows one to operate even more quickly and efficiently.
Another critical component of this is surrounding yourself with the right people. Putting yourself in a strong business/product culture with the right people where this context and discipline is a core component will allow you to grow. Experiencing those challenges with a watchful eye of someone more experienced will help guide growth, or at the very least a sanity check for challenging decisions.
Lastly is to always force yourself to step back and look at the situation or decisions that you are faced with. This can be through creating a checklist (ie — how does this affect timing, how does this affect cost, etc) or conducting either individual or team-wide retrospectives, but slowing down and asking simple questions about your current situations unearth wisdom that can be truly valuable.