Most companies fail not because they don’t have what it takes to build a successful product or service. They fail because they build an unneeded or unwanted product or service. For many tech startups, this happens because they built too much, too early. They identify a problem in a particular market, and they try to obliterate that problem with possible solutions.
To avoid this, take notes from Eric Ries, the forefather of the The Lean Startup Movement. As a result of his work, we are seeing a radical shift in way startups are solving customer problems. Today, garage-office startups and Fortune 500 companies alike are approaching product development with a more “scientific” approach. The principles that anchor the Lean Startup help entrepreneurs avoid wasting time and resources on products or features that will have little positive impact on customers.
Here are three ways to avoid providing too much, too early to your customers — and possibly ending up with nothing:
#1: Start with the real MVP.
You have heard of a minimum viable product, right? Have you ever built one? Probably not. Most of us are educated under a more waterfall-driven product development approach — we design something robust, and then we build something robust. It’s a linear model which doesn’t leave much room for flexibility. One of the major issues with the waterfall model is that it does not provide an adequate environment to gather quick quality feedback.
The purpose of an MVP is to test your idea as an experiment as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. This can be a banner ad that measures the conversion rate on people responding to your offering (AppSumo’s Noah Kagan and Tim Ferriss are pros with this method) or it can be a series of prototypes trying to solve an overarching consumer problem (like the guys at Aardvark, acquired by Google). At JoynIn, we built what we thought was an MVP, but found out (after months of development time) that adding too many features made it difficult to really test our idea. By building too much, too soon, we made our solution hard to validate. Even worse, we made our users have to dig to find the true value of our product. Lesson learned.
#2: Hit one value proposition out of the park.
Another huge lesson we learned was the more assumptions you try to validate, the harder it is to validate just one. Spreading your team’s focus too thin leads to mediocre features, customer service, and even affects your user. Quora is a good example of a startup that takes on a fundamentally simple value proposition and knocks it out of the park. They aimed to provide people the easiest way to find answers to questions on topics they cared about. Many believe they did this better than Yahoo! Answers, Aardvark, Answers.com and LinkedIn Answers by using semantic data that give users the answers they’re looking for.
When you are looking to solve your customer’s problem, focus on the best possible solution rather than five good ones. Simplicity, clarity and leverage go a long way.
#3: Don’t forget the most important question.
When you are building a product or marketing to an audience, always ask the “Why?” Ask this question from the point of view of a customer. Why do I want to spend $49 on this shirt? Why am I looking at this label over the others on the shelf? Why do I want to click the ‘Buy Now’ button? Don’t create unnecessary steps for the user to get to where they want to go.
At JoynIn, we imagined that before each step our users took — whether it was clicking a button or filling out a form — they would ask themselves why they were doing it. The “Why?” had to justify the action and effort. For example, take a look at Groupon: the primary call to action is the “Buy!” button. Before clicking, I intuitively ask myself why. In this case, the reason is clear: to get 60 percent off a Swedish massage. Next step: confirm the purchase and enter in your credit card number. Why? To get a great discount on a Swedish massage. The effort to click a few buttons and pull out my credit card is worth it because of the deal.
Resist the temptation to solve all the world’s problems right away. Pinpoint your focus and embrace the Lean Startup principles. Doing so will help you understand where to spend your precious time, effort and money.
Brenton Gieser is a social entrepreneur and currently the Direct of Channel Partners at Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform. He is also the Orchestrator and Co-Founder of Be Social Change a community organization that empowers people to be the change they want to see in the world. Previously, Brenton was the Co-Founder of JoynIn and the CEO ConvoSpark.