Why do startups fear their idea?

Startups are about potential. The potential to build something great, the potential to make people’s lives better, the potential to change the world. However, I often see this potential get in the way of the present with some of the early stage startups I meet. They let their vision for the future invade their present too soon.

The most obvious symptom is a bloated and unfocused product. I believe founders are afraid that their core idea isn’t smart enough, isn’t big enough, isn’t useful enough — so they add. It is this fear that leads to the rationalization for adding feature after feature in the hope that the sum will be greater than the parts. Founders are very good at convincing themselves that users will need this feature or that feature without actually knowing as such. Expecting to stumble upon a killer feature is a fools errand, that results in a product riddled with half-baked features collecting dust.

A good product is not a bucket of features, a mere bulleted list of things users can do. A good product is an exercise in exclusion. A good product is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as by what it does. This is especially true at the start. At the onset, people don’t care about you, they don’t know what you do, and they certainly won’t put up with a confused product. This apathy must be acknowledged and combated in a product that does one thing extremely well; otherwise it won’t stick.

When the product is merely a half-baked idea the excitement leads to idea after idea, cool feature after cool feature. It is hard evaluating the relative importance of these ideas in the glow of creation. The urge is to do it all, but the critical step is to realize most features are not absolutely necessary in the beginning, and that adding them can be destructive.

At the start, more features means more apathetic users. Every feature a user encounters adds to what is referred to as ‘cognitive load’. This added cognitive load will retard user adoption because there are more actions for users to comprehend and use than their level of engagement will permit. Users are deciding whether to leave your site, not how to take advantage of all your features.

Fear leads these startup founders to add. They add and add. Each additional feature can be rationalized on its own, but what is often left unconsidered is the true impact of these features on the product as a whole. More features require more code. More features require more design. More features lead to more user confusion. More features lead to less focus.

Startups need to be confident in their core idea. The idea should be sharp and pointy, an idea that lodges itself in people’s brains where no other idea has already taken up residence. The more they add, the more they do, the harder it is to own a unique spot in people’s minds. Features upon features is a downward spiral. Features are not the magic bullet, stop treating them that way.

On Twitter – @calebelston. Co-founder of @delighted. Dubious of people who claim to be experts. Worked on @heymosaic. Co-founder of Yobongo. VP Products Justin.

On Twitter – @calebelston. Co-founder of @delighted. Dubious of people who claim to be experts. Worked on @heymosaic. Co-founder of Yobongo. VP Products Justin.