Sick Start-up Syndrome

While managing DSX Labs for the past year, I have come across a variety tech start-ups in South Florida, mainly because we were running tech start-up pitch events in Boca Raton at The Greenhouse.

They range from 1 guy with just an idea to 3 people with a full blown app or website. They can have 100 years of combined experience or none at all.  We had a few 15 to 17 year olds interested in starting their own tech company.  There have been 1 or 2 where the entrepreneurs were in their 70s

Out of the 100 start-ups we met with, there were common patterns you could immediately identify.  These patterns can be success related or potential failure related. I call them patterns because they appear over and over again.  This is a generalization. I am being specific about a start-up.  And you know that generalizations could be wrong.  So this is just opinion.

Here are my list of start-up syndromes you need to look out for.  It’s like looking at your body in the mirror.  Some symptoms are obvious, some are not.

No Strategic Advantage
I have run into this myself.  You get going in some specific tech start-up direction.  You have a product.  You have built out some serious code!  Yet, you or you and your partners can not come up with a strategic advantage vs. a competitor.  Face it, you are building a commodity product at this point!

How To Fix: If it is early on, you can pivot or change something slightly that makes you competitive.  But pivoting will take some serious pain and some capital.  It may not be possible. You have to have a compelling reason or value proposition for customers.  Find it immediately.  Sometimes it is right in front of you and you are ignoring it.

Tech Svengali Has Taken Over The Show
This I have seen many times.  The actual business owners have been mesmerized and persuaded by some tech guy to let him make all the decisions. Yet, either he or she is not really all that he says he is or really has no clue what the market wants.  The tech Svengali may actually have their best interest at heart for you. But they are not you!

How To Fix: Sadly enough, if this has gone on too far it could be the death of the start-up.  Start-up owners need to be in charge of their ventures and give it direction.  The solution is often to let him go and if it is too late, it could be time to shut down the operation.

Money Looking For A Place To Spend It!
Sometimes in some rare cases, there is a partner or a person with a boatload of personal wealth looking to hit the next one out of the park.  They are looking at Facebook and saying “hey I can do that!”  But they are forgetting one thing; they don’t know anything about tech, or their knowledge is cloudy because they themselves are not the demographic they are serving.  So they spend like crazy, hire tons of people and find themselves in a pickle.

How To Fix: My recommendation to these want to be billionaires is stop being the owner and start being the investor when you have the capital. There are a good 20 ventures in south Florida right now that could use $50k and have a great start-up that needs capital.  Instead of spending $300k on your “idea” (which is just an idea) become the investor and invest in 6 start-up ventures. At least then you will have 6 lottery tickets and not 1.

One Feature Does Not Make A Solution
I have had a bunch of start-ups come to me with a concept that is simply a smaller piece of a larger puzzle.  For instance, I have heard of a few improvements to dating businesses.  So the start-up concept is a small piece of what dating sites do, and can’t really be a product unto itself.  Or another good example is a site that just does nice 3D products for sale.

How To Fix: Typically I would recommend that the start-up goes back and rethinks the whole idea.  Just a small part of something bigger is not enough.  One way to fix this is to pivot into being a B2B software provider. So instead of selling 3D products yourself, your start-up provides the technology for other e-commerce companies. Different market, but then you can focus on a narrow feature you offer!

Nobody Is In Charge
A single person building a start-up without a partner or team is an issue. What is a bigger issue is a group of founders with nobody actually in charge.  When they ask you, the consultant, to be in charge and be the decision-maker, you know they have bigger issues than you can really deal with in one session.

How To Fix: One of the partners has to be the CEO.  There has to be an ultimate decision-maker.  If you can’t make that decision, then maybe the start-up should end now.

Can’t Describe What You Do
I have had this problem myself several times.  It is a common problem. Why does this happen?  My answer to why it happens to me is if you spend a year or longer on a start-up you start to lose you way (and you mind) and you end up changing the business around,  You get lost as to what you ultimate do. This is especially true if you are pivoting or evolving to something else. And we are always evolving. What is your service and can you describe it?  If not, you have to recognize the problem and fix it.

How To Fix: Best to meet to mentors and advisers and figure this out.  I had a great question asked of me recently about my start-up. That question was “What Was The Aha Moment?”  At that moment I went back in time and thought carefully about that moment. This is the moment when you first had the idea.  Sometimes that moment describes the problem you are solving and ultimately putting together a solution statement solves that problem.

That’s it for now.  I could add a hundred of these items to this blog, but I am publishing anyway.  Maybe there will be a part II.

Have a great day!

Dealing with Feature Overload in Web Product Management

Simplify, Simplify Again, and Simplify a 3rd time

Having come into contact with at least 20 different websites and start-ups over the past 2 months, plus having to manage all the features in our new start-up Krowde, I am starting to see the light on the words “Simplify, Simply Again, and Simply a 3rd time”.  Back when we were at Caffeine Spaces in Boca Raton, someone wrote this on the dry erase board.  It has a lot of meaning to me and can be applied to so many aspects of building out a website or mobile app from design, functionality, marketing, architecture and other aspects of these tech start ups.  I am focused on product management in this context.  (but I could write another article on any of those disciplines)

Feature Junkie

It has a lot of meaning to me because I am a feature junkie. Everytime I come up with a new product or concept, I can think of  a million cool features.  This is what we do as creative people and when you combine that with a technologist, more specifically a web developer, you can have a thousand little features that are cool and different and meant to change the world, even a world within a world.  But overall, what you are doing with complexity sometimes, is really showing off your ego.    We all want to show off what we can do, how smart we are, and we are, but not always in business.  Trust me, it’s my downfall.  In web product management too many features and quite often the wrong features can be the death of a product or at least delay it indefinitely before it goes live.

What’s The Delay And I Want It All Now!

Now, if you think about it, how can you produce all these features when your time is limited.  That is not the real question.  The real question is what features are really needed first, and what features can’t wait.  I can’t really expound on the features in Krowde that I am talking about, but I can come up with an imaginary app that I probably will never create.  Let’s call it Park Finder, and let’s say it was being built for iOS and Android.

Anyway,  you have spec’d out the mobile app.  You have come up with a dozen great features from a map with icons, a search of that map, a link to that park’s page, a listing and a small profile per park, the ability to share that Park with your friends instantly via Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, an ability to talk about that park, an ability to upload pictures about that park for others to see, rate that park, a list of parks by ratings, park contact info, park office instant chat.  Wait a second!  Park office instant chat.  That needs to go into the list of “Would Like” stuff.  And that is the issue.  In fact, that list has a lot of cool stuff, but ultimately his park finder app could actually be live and working with just 3 features, a search, a map and a link to the website for that park.  All the other park finder features sound so good in your head and they are, but the customers don’t know what they don’t know.

Customers Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

I like saying this line and it has come back in many conversations, because it is really important and tied to the simplification concept.   The second issue with product complexity occurs in the mind of the technology founder.  Sometimes they think that more is better.  They think that the value increases with number and breadth of features.  But it is not exactly the same for the customer or customers.  Customers don’t always think the same or use the same features.  When only 5 out of 1000 users used that feature, then of course it was not very important.  Also, from a development standpoint, what about getting the thing finished and out to the market.  That is what is important.

Timing

Getting the Park app out into the market, with limited features is the best way to do it.  It is what Fried says in Rework, Brad Feld says in his blog and it makes common sense.  If you want to get your product out there and in the market, only include at first the core features, the features that make your product usable.  It will not fail because it does not have all the final pieces and bells and whistles you envision.  It may be that the park finder app may have been well received and done very well with only these basic features.  You have the time to add new features after that.  Add your sharing, commenting, rating and other features later on.  It is painful, but worth it and the difference in your app making or not making it to market.

What Can I Live Without?

In the end people are the problem, because even I have fallen into the “I want it all” trap.  And then I was the problem. You think you can have it all, but sometimes more doesn’t necessarily sell your product.  Sometimes less does.  Sometimes doing a small thing well is more critical than anything.  There are products and services that are bigger, feature rich, etc, but they are not for the small boot strapped start-up.  There is a cost associated with more, and sometimes those features never amount to anything or any usage.  The people you can’t always control, because they may be in charge and have the purse strings.  But at least you understand yourself what the issues are, and can say to yourself, what can I live without?