The next startup unicorn in the making

Why your future startup sucks and what to do about it

The title is a bit of a clickbait, yeah. Your startup doesn’t necessarily have to suck. But it might. Read on.

For the past few months, I have been working with a number of local and remote startups. Some of these are located in the mighty CodeBase, and many others are dispersed across Europe. It’s been more than a year of freelancing for me (and a good few years of serious design work before that, in consultancy and agency setting). The exposure to multiple clients, also much larger than just a few-person powerhouse, brings interesting conclusions.

I am hoping that this article provokes you to think before you embark on the startup journey. I want your idea to develop into an amazing venture. Whilst this is often the case for companies I engage with, I am also finding some that are suffering badly for a number of simple reasons. Addressing these is entirely within their control — but ways of doing so often remain unclear. Maybe what you’ll read here will help you to make your product rock. I’ll give you simple tools to work with (tl;dr — look at the end if that’s what you’re after). None of this will be rocket science, I promise. But I also want to warn you:

I am not good at bullshit and I’ll give it to you as it is.

Let’s talk about failure.

Starting with a potential failure in mind won’t take you far

‘Hey, we’re a startup, and if we fail it’s ok because we’re a startup!’ — I’ve heard this a countless number of times in my career. People who say these things run organisations that are often on the verge of collapse. They have very few customers because their product doesn’t deliver any meaningful value. Or worse — it wasn’t meant to create any meaningful value from day one. It was nothing else but an exciting idea that someone woke up with.

If I counted the amazing ideas I’ve had in the shower and got a penny for each one, I’d be a millionaire by now. Most of them were shit but looked amazing at first.

Let’s zoom out of the startup world for a second. Whilst the majority of what we now consider successful businesses took failure into account (and quite rightly so!), most of them embarked on their journeys with their minds set to succeed. And that drive provided all the energy necessary to see it through. They didn’t stop at fantasies about success, though — they went further and identified real opportunities, rather than relying on wishful thinking.

The sooner we abandon the idea of ‘it’s ok to fail’, the better. Nothing wrong with failing — but perhaps we can work towards avoiding it in the first place? It’s surprisingly easy.

Unrestricted optimism is a recipe for failure

If you decide that failing is the thing you really want to do (hope it’s not), be very optimistic about your product’s uptake on the market. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I believe that adopting a healthy, realistic point of view would benefit many organisations I interacted with. Does it mean that your idea isn’t awesome and only you think it is? Guess what.

It might be that. It’s ok, though. No need to panic.

To ensure that there’s something in it, check for a product-market fit. Learn if there is anyone out there who would like to use it first. And be realistic about it.

Fail fast — how fast? Well, as soon as you can

If you want to fail, fail really fast. Not at the stage of your first working prototype, and not when you have the entire infrastructure in place. Not after you’ve employed a graphic designer, an accountant and two developers to help you. Certainly not after you’ve realised that the business model of your startup isn’t at all viable.

Fail after you shower in the morning and that brilliant idea comes to you through the medium of soap. Spend a day, two or three on finding out whether this thing could fly at all.

Yeah, you can hire a researcher to help you do user research and discovery, but please, don’t do it immediately. Do it after talking to people that you don’t know too well (that’s very important!) and ask them about their real problems. Only then get someone on board who could help you research and refine the concept.

If you find that people don’t have the problem that your product was meant to solve, don’t dive in. Why waste money and energy?

Have a good night of sleep, wake up with another idea and check it instead.

Failing fast is not about going through the whole lean startup lifecycle and finding that you have to let all 30 people go. There isn’t any pride in that. This is a shit and irresponsible business model. Silicon Valley sharks would like us to believe that doing this is cool, but it’s not. It’s soul-crushing, can put you in misery and would make your hair go grey. You will also leave some unhappy, jobless people in your wake. Do you want that? I don’t think so.

Please, don’t innovate. Solve real problems instead

‘Innovation’ is a dirty word. I hear it every week (funnily enough, it’s a buzzword stronger than anything else, especially in the public sector). The lifespan of most ‘innovative’ products is very short. Well, it’s great when we can truly innovate. Yet, how many truly innovative, game-changing, disruptive products have I seen coming out of the startup community I work with? Products that turn someone’s world upside down and make their problems go away?

I could count them on the fingers of my one hand. However, what’s important here is that you don’t have to build an innovative product or a service. Let me repeat this: I believe (and you might think otherwise) that you don’t have to build an innovative product or service. It’s much better if you work on something that could truly help someone achieving their goals and fulfilling all the nasty tasks on the way. Focus your energy on this. Find an opportunity. Solve real problems; issues that we encounter in our lives. Small things that annoy us.

A website is not an innovation. A web app is not an innovation. Your blockchain-based, React Native-powered, VR-enriched thing is not an innovation either. Making someone say: ‘Damn, this has really made my life easier!’ is an innovation.

And this will scoop the prize for you, I promise.

Take away — how to make your dreams come true…

…without grinding teeth? Here’s how. This is a proven recipe — I’ve used it before and clients who chose this path loved it. Try it for yourself.

  1. Thinking of your initial idea, ask yourself a question: what problem is this thing really trying to solve? Does such a problem exist in the first place? You want to keep asking this whenever you think of another shiny screen. Every. Single. Time.
  2. Find people who could answer these questions for you. Don’t ask your partner, and certainly don’t ask other developers or a friend with a pot of money that they want to invest. Go after people whom your product or service is for. Find them on Facebook, Twitter, post an ad in a local paper; talk to them and learn about their lives and their problems. And only then confront them with your idea.
  3. If you’re lucky enough and they say your product could help them, keep talking to them — and find more of them — as you are developing the thing. This is where the lean kicks in; do it fast, learn fast, fail fast and learn from your failures. But if you find that there isn’t any need for such product on the market, back out and find a real problem to address.
  4. Look inwards as much as you can and reflect on your ideas. You don’t need a mindfulness app for that, and you certainly don’t need a Basecamp subscription. You just need to sit down with a piece of paper and the Internet in front of you and do a bit of research. In this funny world, chances are someone has already failed at it and documented it online. God bless them.
  5. Understand that investors who measure growth in a number of signups, activations, and website visits don’t want your company to thrive. They want it to quickly generate a gazillion of (put your currency here) opportunities by selling you out. Look for investors that are interested in the quality of your service, as only the quality will keep users with you. Not quantity. Not anymore; we’re in 2019, 1997 is a long time gone.
  6. Smile often and read articles like this to stimulate thinking, but ultimately suit yourself. I might be completely wrong. The fact that these things work for my clients doesn’t mean much in this big, big world.

All of this will save you tears, anger, frustration and fees that you’d have to pay to consultants who will come to help you only to tell you that your product is unfixable. Or even worse — who will pretend they can help instead of telling you to put your money elsewhere (these people are dishonest dicks; don’t hire them).

Fail fast the right way, learn from it and be a happy person.

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