Less is More Part II: Startups

A few days ago I read a post by Jason Rushin that made me think about the importance of quality of quantity.  Jason talks about how at his last company he actively sought ways to get people to unsubscribe from their newsletter.  The logic being that they want to cull the best leads so that their sales force can maximize their time spent on follow ups.  Most web marketers I know try to do the opposite – gather as many leads as possible in the hopes of selling them something they may or may not want.

My second job out of college was in real estate.  I was doing rentals in Boston.  My initial approach was to get as many leads as I could and deliver average (or mediocre) service to each of them.  That didn’t take me very far.  Out of frustration, I installed some CRM software on my computer (does anyone still use ACT?) and focused on quality over quantity.  I put an almost inordinate amount of time in individual high quality leads.  I went from worst performing agent to best performing agent within the month.

That lesson has stuck with me and I think about it every time I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.  I find focusing on quality over quantity is particularly relevant in almost all walks of start up life.

The first thing every start up is looking for is usually money.  Ironically, I think less money can actually increase your chances of success.  Less money means you have to think much more carefully about how you use your resources.  It forces you to focus in on doing one thing really well.  When you get to the point of actually doing something really well, it forces you to maximize your time and money by picking the most effective channels for marketing.  Ultimately, less money forces clarity.  That kind of clarity can be lost when you’ve got 24 months of runway in the bank.

Where you get your money from is equally important.  Being selective about your investors can be very difficult.  Your responsibility is split between making sure that your company has the resources to survive _and_ making sure that you have the best resources to thrive.  Not all money is created equal.  Some investors may try to exert influence on your decisions that you don’t agree with.  Some may not be experienced investors and you’ll have to shoulder the burden of potentially losing their life savings.  On the other hand, some investors will open doors and give you invaluable sage advice.  I like to think of early stage investors as partners that have skin in the game.  You don’t want to be at odds with them.  Olympic teams don’t have room for any less than A plus players.  Start ups are an olympic sport.  Having a few high quality investors will take you a lot further than a lot of investors that provide money without adding value.

Building a product from scratch is hard work.  If you make it past assembling the right team members, selecting the right technology, and acquiring the resources to get started (funding and equipment), the real fun starts when you actually start building your product.

To start, less people is more.  Having less cooks in the kitchen that agree on a unified product scope will take you a lot further than a big team of coders with their own ideas about how the product should be built.  At my last company we never had a clear product definition but we had 15 people gently pulling the product in different directions.  It seemed cool because we would have all these features that would satisfy everyone.  The problem was that it took us two years to get the features completed and poorly integrated.  In the process we didn’t take the time to build the company culture right and had a whole bunch of conflicting egos on the team.  I cannot stress how important it is to focus on having as few high quality people as possible.  Whenever I add a person to my team, I ask myself, how much value does this person add?  If the person isn’t adding value, they’re taking it away.

Every hour spent developing a feature costs money.  That might not seem like much if you’re two guys living off $3k a month (that’s $14 per hour each based on a 50 hour work week in case you were wondering).  However, it costs you something much more valuable than money: precious time you could spend building a feature that really matters.  Each feature will undoubtably take three times longer to complete than you project.  You’re probably right in that it will take one unit of time to build.  But you need to factor in one unit of time to debug, and one unit of time to integrate.  The bigger your project and team, the more challenging the debugging and integration will be.

My approach has become to realistically storyboard the entire product before any development.  “Realistically,” as in people I show the wireframes to ask if they’re screenshots of a real website.  I show the storyboards to our target users and get feedback on the product before it’s built.  For the current version of Find Me Fit, I met with 20 people I didn’t know before hand and got their feedback on what we wanted to build.

In the process I’m looking for things we can cut out.  I’m not trying to build more, I’m trying to build less.  Up until I heard the term “minimum viable product,” I was using the term “minimum success solution.”  I like minimum viable product more.

If a feature is taking too long to build as we’re developing, Jason and I will talk about whether or not we can “save” it for later.  The key question we try to answer is, are people more likely to use this service because of this feature?  Sometimes this question can be hard to answer because the feature is somewhat intangible.  For example, when we started developing the user interface for Find Me Fit, Jason and I spent some time debating whether or not to AJAXify the search page.  In the end we decided that the improvement in usability would be worth the extra programming time.  That decision has probably cost us about 3 weeks of additional development time to get it right, but I think it’s been worth it.

The flip side of quality vs quantity in product development is when you have to decide how far to take quality.  You want to release a usable product as quickly as possible.  Sometimes that means taking shortcuts.  Bad code tends to haunt you for a long time, so deciding when to take those shortcuts requires some good judgement.  Generally, Jason and I take the approach that if it’s worth building, it’s worth building right.

As mindful of feature creep as we are, it’s still taken us 4 months to get to closed beta.  Along the way we’ve probably spent two or three weeks building unplanned features or code we’ve thrown away, but for the most part what we’ve delivered is identical to the storyboards I created before we started.  That’s a lot of time for two self funded guys to work on one product without a public release.

If there’s one thing you can guarantee with startups, it’s that every startup experience is different.  Some companies, like Demand Media, seem to be incredibly successful focusing on quantity over quality.  I like to think that a healthy obsession with quality over quantity has increased our chances of success and resulted in an amazing product.

I can honestly say that I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve produced.

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