Startups, Y U No Focus?

As I’ve been doing start-ups for a while now I’ve been getting more and more into the business that makes a start-ups succeed or fail. Over the years one thing does strike me over and over again. Some mistakes are made over and over again. I have found many times that problems can come from an imbalance between searching for solutions and making sure you keep your eye on the prize.

Focus!

Too many ideas

I was helping out at a start-up that was struggling for over a year with their product. I noticed a couple of things working, It wasn’t one product, it was a set of products. Initially as a start-up they wanted to bring web applications to a level where they would be competing with locally installed software. The basic idea is good and companies like Google have been working on providing services that do just that. Things like Google docs, Google drive, Gmail, Google calendar and Flickr were build all around the idea of replacing a desktop application or removing the need for a desktop application. It seem logical to do something in that space as we are getting less and less attached to the machines we work on and more to our data. However the company proceeded to create and maintain over 20 apps all at the same time with a group of 7 people. Surely enough that was not a very maintainable situation.

As cool the products that Google is creating are they are created and maintained by teams of engineers. Not one team for all of them. As a result the single team could not create the quality required to make it to be a good platform. With capacity spread so thinly over such a large surface problems are bound to burst through frequently. For the company it meant reducing scope from all the different products into 1 product. Interestingly enough their best option had nothing to do with their initial idea and was more of a service on it’s own. But they have been making good progress and are getting ready to rock n’ roll with just one good product. Say hello to the guy’s of Tolq.

Asking too many question at the same time

As a start-up it’s all about finding the itch of a user. Trying to trigger them into using your product and not the neighbors one. It’s good to ask the right question at the right time. A start-up I helped out was looking into a consumer product that delivered content to it’s users and engaged them with it. The company was ambitious and has the right people on board to do so. However the scope was not just set to ask one question of the users. The main goal of the company was to make a distribution platform for content. However in their trials they were also using newly and untested content. The user was given a product to give feedback on that posed a couple of questions about; the method of distribution, the content and the usability and the concept of the product. These were just too many questions and about the wrong thing when the goal is distribution.

Owning your own first content might seem cool and very useful on the long run. It does however make it a lot more complicated to figure out what is making the distribution platform work. When using existing content you have a figure that shows what the success rate of it is in other media. Using it then with the new distribution method should yield you a number that is equal or better than the original success rate. This way a baseline is created and a result can be measured. Solving less problems at a time also allows you to have to monitor less variables and gives a clearer picture because the different problems have less influence on one another. Having the correct content and having the correct way of distributing and presenting it are two different problems that are best solved one at a time.

Solving only the problems you need to

As a developer it can be tempting to see all the different challenges ahead and meet them head on. Make your own solution for a problem you are facing when dealing with your real target. In some cases it might be valid to also solve the side-problem as nobody is providing a solution already. However one company I consulted for wanted to build a payment system just to be able to manage cash flow between clients and suppliers. Although an interesting problem it was not the core problem they were trying to solve. Payments are an interesting challenge so they went ahead to work on a solution. They did so and wasted months on working on a solution that in the end was still sub-par to other solutions out there. This also made them loose focus on the real problem setting them back months.

The challenge like building a payment system might be very interesting but it’s very important to understand it’s not your main problem. Other parties provide services that can do what you want to do and maybe even do it better. In this case dealing with payments is not only technically tricky but also legally not the easiest subject. You can easily mistake a service like payments as easy as so many are doing it. It’s not as they work on it with a whole company and as they grew went way beyond an initial point. Making sure you do not underestimate the magnitude of the sub-problem and making sure you are aware of the possible services available to you can help your main problem progress much faster.

Forgetting to ask the prime questions early

Many start-ups are trying to solve a problem. Those problems normally consist out of several layers and smaller problems. Does my product solve a users problem? Does my target audience have access to the correct equipment? These might be very generic but they are essential as they can be a lot harder to solve once you are further down the line. I worked for a company that was building a big service to aggregate data. A lot of months were spend on building the mechanisms and services to deal with the load. However they forgot to ask a couple of base questions at the beginning. It turned out that the user were interested in the idea at first but it didn’t solve a problem. And in order to get it to solve the problem it would have needed a major rework. Not listening for the correct answer or not asking enough for the correct answer cost them months of work.

The company is still struggling to recover and they have been bumping into the same problem a bit more as the market went from web-based to app-based. Nowadays their main focus should have been an app. But what stood out most is that the prime questions were asked in one way or another. People did come to the platform and they stayed around for a bit. However it seemed that the users were not staying for long enough to make it profitable. So the questions were asked but the answers were misinterpreted. Just shows that you have to make sure the baseline of your questions needs to be answered before the more detailed questions can be solved.

Using this experience to FOCUS!

I’ve been working for a while now on my own start-up called OWNR and I’ve already been able to use my experience a bit to keep us out of some traps. We have some interesting challenges in front of is being a platform. We can work on our own video distribution channels. We can build our own frameworks for creating competitions. We could make our own location services. These are cool technical challenges to tackle but I have focused on seeing if our idea was able to work.

Initially we had a very big list of features we wanted to have for the platform. In order for us to work on it efficiently we needed to bring it down to the minimum. We had to park all the cool ideas we had for possible features and park them in a place somewhere in the future. We spent some time early on figuring out what the core of our platform was and made a short term, middle term and long term plan. Each having their own focus and own set of features that we could try. We are nearly done with our main set of features and can begin thinking again about expanding to new ideas. But we keep in mind the central focus ideas and the sub-idea need to support them in order to be viable to us.

Our first steps required videos, locations and competition system. We chose to focus on the competition system first as we needed users to be willing to vote. Without votes our platform would not work. So we made a very basic locations part of the app build upon Google maps and not too complicated, just the basics. We skipped the actual video upload but made it possible to use the existing Youtube and Vimeo video platforms, no upload and just embedding. The focus at that time was the competition and we created it in most detail. As we pushed it out we could see that voting would not be an issue.

There are several things we have and are still skipping in what we are doing. We want to keep the system as light as possible as we want to be able to move at a moment’s notice. In order for us to be able to do that we do not tackle some of the bigger problems like sending out news letters, hosting images, our own video player or even hosting our services. We focus on our main problems and leave some of the features out till later. We don’t have an avatar upload yet but do show Facebook profile pictures as avatars if they are using Facebook to sign up with us. We do not do social integration yet, we still need to work on an integrated news letter system. By doing this we currently have less code to maintain and more flexibility when it comes to the future.

Yes we did have some distractions along the way but that is also part of being at a start-up. But as we have been going along we have kept down the amount of distractions substantially by making sure we kept our eyes on the prize and make sure we were not solving the wrong problems while asking the wrong questions.

TL;DR

As a start-up you have enough to do solving one problem let alone two. Don’t do things other can do better and make sure you are the best at solving your own.

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