Lies, damned lies, and startup advice
In the early days of a startup, you rarely know exactly who your product is best for. You’ll know the rough industry, and a vaguely empowering statement about the audience.
“We’re changing the way [Insert booming market] companies manage themselves!”
So you set out with a rally cry, and try to figure it out along the way.
You talk to a few people who work in the, let’s say… pet industry. People like kennel owners, dogwalkers, and veterinarians. You say “I’m building a thing that makes it easy for you to manage your business.” and ask how they currently manage appointments. They point to a handwritten binder in the corner. You have a stroke of genius. These people need management software!
If there’s one thing software engineers go crazy for,
it’s finding something people still do by hand.
A few months later you have a handful of early customers signed up. Your original assumptions were fantastically wrong. Fortunately thanks to beta feedback you’ve hit a stride and things are starting to go well.
“I want to hear what you’re doing…”
Then one day you get coffee with a person with years of experience. A decade ago they invented something a lot of people liked. Today they advise some local startups you hear are doing well.
They seem incredibly smart… and also don’t understand your idea. Actually, that’s not entirely true — they understand the product, but worry you’re “missing the real opportunity”.
What if you focused on payment processing for pet businesses? That seems to be a real pain point. After all, they own a dog and they have to write a check every time they go to the dog groomer because they aren’t set up to accept credit cards. If you did payments, they know a dozen companies that could use this. The inventory system your current customers use is nice, but not a gamechanger. Or as they say — the killer app.
At this point there’s typically an extended pause.
You wonder if this is how successful people happen. Did you just witness a serial success cut through months of internal debate like proverbial butter and solve everything about your product within minutes of hearing it? Or are they guessing just as much as you, but with a bit more conviction?
Startups are supposed to be flexible, so you nod and say “That’s good feedback, thanks.” You say goodbyes graciously and think “I liked them, but we’re on different wavelengths.”
A week later you hear from mutual friends that the person thought you were “fascinating, but the business wasn’t there”. For some reason it stings more than you want to admit.
How the struggle actually works
This is the gray area adversity that’s hard to explain about the early days of product market fit.
Adversity rarely comes neatly packaged as
“Your product idea sucks and you’ll never make it”
Instead it comes camoflauged as “missed” opportunities. It trickles in as reasonable-sounding advice from people with successful track records. It’s the type of advice makes you ask “Should I redirect the team this week?” It’s the blank response from someone clearly ouside your target audience, but still pushes forward with “…right, but what’s the killer app?”
How to keep a feedback filter
When you first start, its hard to know signal from noise. Most founders start with an earnest belief that everyone’s feedback is worth listening to, especially since getting anyone’s attention early on is hard enough as is.
- Good product vision is flexible on the path, but firm on the destination. (e.g. “The best way for people to communicate live”)
- Good advice moves you further down a path while respecting the destination. (e.g. “What if you used chat instead of pigeons?”)
I like to weight feedback based on how close the person is to the action. Expertise expires as industry tools change. Would a horseshoe maker be a good transportation advisor to Henry Ford?
The awesome news? You get really good at filtering. I mean stupidly good. As you build expertise about how your customers work, you’ll learn where valuable feedback really comes from. Once you start valuing the right channels, your product will show the results fast.
Here’s my current list for Robin. It changes monthly:
- People who have built similar B2B SaaS in the last two years
- Potential customers
- People who have built similar B2B products
- Everyone else
In early days you should find people who believe enough to test the idea despite uncertainty. Some people will think you’re missing out. Ignore them. Not every problem can be solved inside a quarter. They’ll be back when you figure it out, and their insights will have little to do with the outcome.
Some problems you have to see for yourself, otherwise they sound almost unbelieveable. Sort of like explaining to someone who’s never left the suburbs that finding city parking can take hours.
…you know something? Those people could really use management software.