Don’t be a tech company

An observation: startups quickly forget their reason for existing and replace it with a different reason: be a cool tech company.

And this is likely why so many fail.

Let me explain. All companies likely start with a true and meaningful purpose. They have a problem they want to solve. Something they observe that is broken, or doesn’t exist and strive to fix it. Quickly we move to solutioning — and that’s when an app or website is built. And then that app or website is added to. And then improved. And then the Android (or iOS) version is launched. And all discussion is about making the app better, more fun, sticky.

The company is now a tech company. It’s product is an app that does something or another. We’ll test our app and make it better. And wait till we get to a complete redesign; that’ll be something.

I was thinking about this while listening to an episode of the StartUp podcast that looked at Startups after they shut down. The episode included an interview with Jason, from Bento. Bento was a food startup that provided quality meals on demand, ordered via an app. That business didn’t work out, though the company added a catering service which proved workable.

Asked what he had learned about his business, Jason states that his original business idea — on-demand delivery had “a zero percent chance of success.” It was unworkable. But Jason went further:

Had I started with the catering business I could have made that work, but that wasn’t a business I was interested in running.”

Solutioning is more fun than problem solving

I’ve worked with a number of brands. We’ve built a lot of digital products. Websites, online services, apps. Ostensibly these have all been for the improvement of a company’s customers. Or to attract new customers. And those companies spent a LOT of money on that work.

Some of those products worked. Some did not. Some were successful to a point. We did do user research in most of those cases, to a point. But the client — and my team — fell into the trap of loving our solution, what we were designing and building. We were beholden to our desire to build something cool and exciting.

And so we designed screens we thought were necessary. And then replaced them with other screens we designed when we felt they were better, or covered a business rule we felt was necessary.

We did this earnestly and with the best of intentions. But our focus always shifted to what interfaces we needed, what we could add that we thought would help. The purpose — beyond the screen — was always in the vaguely in the periphery.

My great idea for a startup

(umm, that’s sarcasm)

My point is not to criticize others. The pull of designing the screen over other things is strong. I know, I succumb to it often.

I’ve had an idea for a startup for a while, and have doodled on it over time. I share it here to illustrate my point, and the realization that while I day dream about it, I haven’t taken steps to make it real.

My observation/problem I want to solve: people hate to order food by phone. As a society, we don’t want to talk on the phone. And when ordering food, there’s a lot of pain and frustration in the ordering experience — bad connections, being put on hold, attempting to customize a specific order, etc.

Some restaurants enable online ordering. Usually this is done by 3rd party companies. And they’re often 1:1 relationships; an app for a restaurant. The ordering experience is lackluster. Passable might be an appropriate description.

My idea: create a platform that any restaurant can sign up for online. Users download a single app that is an enjoyable experience and are able to order delivery or takeout for any place.

I’m not claiming I’m the first to come up with this idea. Obviously there’s a bunch out there — Seamless, Grubhub, BeyondMenu, DoorDash, etc. While a lot of food apps attempt to solve for the delivery part of the experience — getting food to the user — I’m not interested in that part. The specific problem I want to solve is the ordering. Better experiences are out there.

(Whether my idea could be turned into a workable business model is unknown)

Here’s a wireframe I created for my app. I’ve worked on this and other screens for a while. But what occurs to me is my focus has been on these screens. I’m trying to design the app. I’ve taken no real steps to validate my hypothesis. Is there a problem with ordering food by phone? Do users want a different approach that is easier/enjoyable?

I’m designing the screens. I want to be a tech company.

Don’t be a tech company

As a general rule, the technology should be secondary. Building a startup (or anything) should mean focusing on the problem and always trying to solve that. The technology should be a tool, a piece, but not the point. Focus on the industry/problem you’re trying to solve, and not on the screen/app/digital thing that helps service that problem. That’s what your company should be.

Not a tech company.

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