Normal people… believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet. – Scott Adams
We live in a pretty rich technology world. It’s crazy, really, how quickly the internet moves. New apps or software are released and, in general, the ideas that are launched are then iterated on by copycats who think (maybe accurately) that they can do better.
In fact, it’s a hilarious exercise to go on Angelist and see the product/startup pitches. (Angelist is a social network for entrepreneurs looking for capital and investors looking for founders to invest in). Here are some of the pitches that founders are using to distill their startup down to a single sound byte. Notice how all of these examples riff on companies or products that already exist.
- Uber for Healthcare
- Fitbit for cars
- Building the next Minecraft…
- Apple of Customer Service
You see, in the crowded world of startups, it’s very difficult to differentiate yourself. Put another way, it’s rare to find a startup that is breaking new ground and disrupting a totally new industry. So, in the world of coveting thy neighbors company, you do the same thing, only better. The “only better” part is the tricky part. How do you do it better?
One way is by adding new features that the other guy doesn’t have. How does Yahoo decide to place their weather app for iPhone in competition with Weatherbug? Easy, draw on their Flickr pool to offer beautiful location-based photography behind the weather information. Now weather isn’t as tedious and ugly to look at… it’s beautiful.
There’s a hitch though (always). For every feature, there is an economic dollar value attached to it. How much that is may not be explicitly defined or known, but every feature requires some number of man hours with some number of cost to maintain, troubleshoot, debug, etc.
You may even find that years down the road, and many versions of your software later, the feature that you built is no longer marketed but is still necessary because some small subset of your user base still uses it.
It’s a feature, but you gave birth to it so now you have to maintain it or… break from it (which could have unknown effect).
I often talk to entrepreneurs who are thinking about their new product and building out their roadmap. The more inexperienced ones tend to imagine everything about what their product is going to be, often without any kind of market research as to whether anyone actually wants it. They think it’s a good idea, so they want it in version 1! But then they get to market and realize, no one wants it but, you know, now they can’t get rid of it.
The Lean Startup approach teaches short, discrete cycles followed by feedback and iteration on that feedback. In this way, the product evolves with the user base. You’re not building features that no one will use (and by proxy, inheriting the cost calculation of that feature).
When I talk to entrepreneurs who want to build everything to match the glorious vision in their heads, I always recommend they slim back their Version 1 to a skeleton. Identify the 2 or 3 must have things that make the product essential and unique. Toss everything else onto a white board, a notebook or somewhere that can be revisited later. Build small. Do one thing really fucking well. Then collect your data on launch. Listen to your users. Find out what they think is important and necessary for a Version 2. Maybe it doesn’t align with the entrepreneurs grandiose vision.
But at least then he can make a product his users want and not waste time and resources on features he doesn’t need, but still costs in the end.