How start-ups fall into the ‘sandwich trap’

A delicious, mental model for tackling the 3 fundamental start-up challenges

Justin McMurray
Sep 20, 2018 · 4 min read

The start-up world is by no means short of advice, ‘hacks’ and secrets-to-success listicles. It’s a jungle of jargon, armchair experts and often bewildering terminology.

The prevailing philosophy for tackling new ventures is the Lean Startup. After 10 years of growth and adoption, Lean Startup feels like its splintering and diluting (even a founding father recently ruminated, “Is the Lean Startup dead?”). And its focus is more specifically and unashamedly on the earlier stage of the product lifecycle.

Is there a simpler and broader way of framing the start-up dilemma?

This is what I’ve been thinking about for the last several weeks. When I parse the various methodologies, tools and frameworks I’ve encountered or used — and filter out the jargon — I’m left with the following fundamental start-up questions:

1. Do people want it?

2. How do you make it?

3. How do you get customers?

The challenge is not in identifying these as fundamental problems to solve. The real challenge is how you prioritise and balance your effort for each.

My experience interacting with hundreds of new ventures over the years is that their prioritisation of the 3 fundamental startup problems is seriously askew. And many fail because of this lopsided sense of what’s important.

Which brings us to sandwiches.

We’re going to use the magic of sandwiches to (only slightly clumsily) draw an analogy to how start-ups might balance these 3 fundamental challenges.

Imagine that the 3 challenges represent the fundamental elements of a sandwich — top, filling and base (genius so far, right!?).

So what do most start-up people’s sandwiches look like!?

A delicious sandwich, but…

Start-ups don’t spend nearly enough time or rigour on understanding what customers want (the top of the sandwich).The typical scenario is that they might run a hasty survey, or do some rough interviews, or perhaps make 1–2 basic prototypes with some rough, instinctive testing. It’s around then that confirmation bias takes inevitable hold and destroys their lean intentions. Their monkey product brain relents and agrees to jump prematurely into the ‘fun’ stage (a.k.a. filling) of making your product.

Good sandwich-making strategy, bad product approach.

You absolutely need to be spending more relative time and effort understanding what your customers want (in its defence, this is exactly what Lean Startup methodology is all about).

In terms of making the product, this is the tasty, exciting filling! Delicious! But nowadays, unless you’re playing around with cutting-edge technologies, you don’t need to get carried away. For most start-ups, the early and minimal versions of your product should be easy to build. You have a plethora of tools, languages, platforms and technologies that make nearly everything faster, simpler and cheaper.

The problem is that you can spend forever in the phase of making, tweaking, pre-emptive optimisation and polishing. You just need to stop it. If you find yourself spending all your time in this part of the sandwich, you’re doing it wrong!

Which brings us to the last challenge of how to acquire customers. Most people don’t give sufficient thought to how they will acquire customers until after they claim to understand what customers want and have built the first (or several) versions. This is too late. Obviously, you do not have to acquire the customers before the product is built (although there are many ways to pre-build audiences, communities, registrations and more). But you sure as hell need to explore, experiment and validate some ways that you should be able to acquire customers.

So, what should your startup-sandwich-balancing-act look like?

Your efforts need to look more like this sandwich. If you’re thinking that this sandwich looks pretty ordinary, you’re right. But bad sandwiches make good startup strategy.

Actually, if you were a real sandwich pedant, you should actually be using your fingers to squish the ‘customer acquisition’ base into the ‘making’ middle in a more concurrent approach (a.k.a. product marketing).

A Wrap (sorry)

There are universes of complexity, challenge and near wins/misses within each of the 3 fundamental problems. Nothing that (any) short post can meaningfully address. This is the ecstasy and agony of being in the trenches with new digital ventures. There are simply no easy answers or short-cuts (although this Y Combinator video on how to find ‘product market fit’ is pretty exceptional and pretty much encompasses the sandwich analogy).

If, however, you’re considering taking the leap into, or perhaps taking a breather from, those trenches, ask yourself if you’re being smart about your prioritisation. It might be, that like many others before you, you’re falling for the ‘sandwich trap’ of being too obsessed with the filling, with little regard for what really holds everything together.



Incredibly, this is not the first time I have utterly tortured a sandwich-related analogy with regard to product strategy. This post from 8 years ago on The Empty Hamburger Dilemma is some type of weird prequel to this one.


Justin McMurray is the co-founder of Early Days. He likes to build digital businesses with an anti-sandwich strategy in mind. Get in touch if you’re an entrepreneur or business leader grappling with challenges in product invention, customer experience design or revenue growth.

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