Point Nine Land
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Point Nine Land

The Most Important Job in Technology

Courtesy of “Oaky the Truffle Pig”
  • A clearly defined user who has a problem you can solve.
  • An innovative, beautifully-designed solution that solves that problem.
  • A business model that allows you to reach customers and close deals profitably.
  • Clear differentiation from the inevitable competition any good market attracts.
  • Enough customers who will pay enough to make this a large market.
  • Take product picking seriously. Assume that it is hard and is unlikely to happen without lots of focus and trial and error. Avoid falling into the trap of believing that once you’ve done the heavy lifting to build an engineering team, product success is just a matter of turning your vision into code. Most startups are working on products that no one wants, so remain paranoid that you are until you have contrary evidence.
  • Have a methodology for product picking — Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology and Eric Ries’ thinking on Lean Startup are good starting points to help you understand what your assumptions and risks are and what you can do to validate them. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll succeed, but if you get something in front of customers early and often and ask lot of questions, you may at least avoid some dead ends.
  • Keep your finger on the pulse. Become an aficionado of great products by keeping up with the latest and greatest apps being launched (Product Hunt is a good place to start). Don’t just look at your competitors — look at what is happening with product in other markets for inspiration — for example looking at the features and designs of the best consumer apps and bringing them to B2B software is a reliable startup play.
  • Decide how product decisions are made at your company. Decide who on the team will make the final call on product picking decisions and how everyone else will have input into those decisions. You want lots of discussion and debate, but avoid an expectation that you will always reach consensus. Someone needs to choose.
  • Include a designer on your founding team. While it is still possible to build a beautiful and usable product that fails because it doesn’t solve a large customer problem, including a great designer on your team makes that less likely since that designer will focus on understanding user problems and validating solutions. This tends to pull the entire team along to making better product decisions.
  • Work on problems you are passionate about and understand. The best products usually come from “organic” startups where the product is a natural outgrowth of problems the founding team was uniquely qualified to understand (“founder/market fit”). Startups born outside of Silicon Valley, like the ones I meet at my work as an advisor at Point Nine Capital, usually are organic since all but the most dedicated founding teams are winnowed out in locales where seed capital is scarce. Few great products have been built by a founding team brainstorming product ideas on a whiteboard, which can result in what Paul Graham calls “Sitcom product ideas.” This is also why startup from serial entrepreneurs who have a long track record working in a market (like my company, Gladly), have a higher-than-average success rate.

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Michael Wolfe

Co-founder, Gladly. Advisor at Point Nine Capital. Five startups. Endurance athlete, SF dweller. Quora addict. Fanboy.