I spent last Saturday giving design feedback to the current batch of startups at 500 Startups HQ in Mountain View, California. For each company, I’d quickly listen to their value proposition, look through their product, and provide suggestions for improvement over the course of fifteen minutes. At the end of the day, a recurring theme had emerged — many founders didn’t know their product’s story. The companies were all very early stage, so it’s not particularly troubling, but “before you design anything, you first need to be able to tell your story” (Chuck Longanecker).

It’s common for entrepreneurs to pitch their products as a list of features, tech specs, or explain an abstract, convoluted idea. What they should do instead is a story — something everyone can understand and relate to, from investors and employees to friends and family. Something that is memorable, easily passed around, and well-received by even the least tech-savvy. The web’s most viral products are the result of simplicity that represents something commonly understood. Instagram’s founder, Kevin Systrom, started out with a full-fledged mobile social network called Brbn, but whittled the product down to a single feature — capturing beautiful moments and sharing them with others. To craft a story, you must first understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and your solution — inside and out, backwards and forwards.

Identifying a problem

There are three types of problems entrepreneurs aim to solve with a product: a problem you have yourself, a problem someone else has, or a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s easier to solve a problem you face than someone else’s, and most difficult to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. I’ve found that it’s common for entrepreneurs to list out multiple problems they’re trying to solve at once, explain what their customers want when they had never spoken to them, or have difficulty clearly articulating the pain point their product solves. This convolution is often reflected in their homepage messaging and product flow. Every successful startup began by solving a single problem they understood very well, and only after they had gained traction did they widen their reach. Brbn, the predecessor to Instagram, had dozens of features. But one in particular exposed a growing problem — everyone was buying smartphones, but their photos didn’t look great. Instagram describes on their FAQ page how the idea came about:

“Mobile photos always come out looking mediocre.”

This was a problem that would only grow as we took more and more photos with our mobile phones, and Kevin knew it was worth focusing on. Brbn never took off, even though it had filters because the product was trying to solve a much broader issue. When understanding the problem it’s best to talk with your target demographic as much as possible before you begin to hypothesize a solution. This helps discourage any bias, validate that it’s a real issue, and identify one problem that you can focus on.

Proposing a solution

It’s easy for an engineer or designer to come up with an idea in the shower, and later that night start building away. It’s our natural state to build, but what will likely happen is that you’ll build something only you understand as feature creep sets in and you spend weeks polishing your product. Instead of building right away, take a step back and make sure you understand what you’re going to work on. Hopefully you’ve identified a single problem, so it’s easier to focus on creating a single solution that does one thing very well. One of the startups I talked to on Saturday said his product had multiple types of customers, and that the user homepage had to accommodate each of their needs. Creating a product that provides many solutions is difficult to build, and it’s best to start with a solution that’s as simple as possible. Here’s how Instagram describes their solution:

Our awesome looking filters transform your photos into professional-looking snapshots.

They’ve added additional features since then, but this was, and still is, their most unique and compelling feature.

Crafting the story

The story is the summation of the problem you’ve identified, and the solution you’re proposing. It’s devoid of technical back-end, industry buzzwords, and feature lists. It’s the entirety of what your product represents and why it exists expressed in concepts and laymen terms that you could explain to an aunt or uncle at a family reunion. Begin with by describing what: the solution your product provides at the highest level. Taken from Instagram’s homepage:

It’s a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your photos with friends and family.

The second part is to describe how your product does this, by explaining the solution you’ve come up with in concrete terms:

Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram. Share to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr too – it’s as easy as pie. It’s photo sharing, reinvented.

Crafting a narrative to describe your product should be the first step, prior to building, and can be used throughout the entire process. It provides a starting point for storyboarding the design, mocking up the flow, writing the homepage messaging, and marketing the product. It also ensures everyone involved is building the same thing and working towards the same goal.

In the next article, I’ll explain how you can take your product’s story and build something that is easily understood, marketable, and measurable. Interested? Be sure to follow me on Twitter here and I’ll let you know when it’s available.

Also, to learn more on validating ideas before designing a mockup or writing a line of code, check out Running Lean by Ash Maurya. It’s a great book on how to test an idea through customer development.

Edit: Discussion on Hacker News here.

Edit: Part II, Creating Successful Product Flows, can be read here.