People like to say it’s never been easier to launch a tech startup or build a new digital product. They cite the proliferation of free and open source tools, lower upfront costs, more accessible capital, and instant access to global markets.
All true. But while it might be easier to get something started, why does it seem harder than ever to get something to take hold or achieve success?
So why are most new things still failing? Are we not getting better at all this yet?
I have been reflecting on these questions and casting my mind back over the last 13+ years and the many products, side-projects, startups and consultancies I have been involved with.
I was able to observe 3 factors that I believe are essential determinants to the success of new products. I’ll explain why I believe these factors are getting harder and harder to get right, even while other obstacles are getting easier and easier.
You need the right team to have any chance of creating a successful new product. This is the obvious one which would head almost anyone’s list. However there is nuance to this cliche.
Firstly, it goes with saying that you need people with talent, skill and experience.
Next, you need to bring together the right composition of talents. Nowadays that almost certainly means that a single amazing designer or gun developer is not going to cut it. You need to blend strategy, business, user research, design/UX and development expertise together.
This is really hard. Because the skills are constantly varying and evolving. For example, someone is reading this thinking, “This moron didn’t even include Data Scientist!”. They’d be right. Because new skills seem to be emerging faster than we can name them.
Lastly, you need to ensure those people can work together in a way that is collaborative, ego-less, trusting and manages the balance between creative friction and constructive progress.
That’s not just people management or product leadership; that’s Quantum Cultural Magic you’re trying to rustle up there. It’s a wicked, sticky problem of the highest order.
The bad news is that forging a team seems to be getting harder and harder to get right. The competition for such talent these days is immense — not least from them wanting to do their own thing. And sure, the rise of indie workers is beautiful but try to get their schedules in a row. The good news is that some industries already know how to do this.
We need to get substantially better at assembling and running teams before we’re getting anywhere. More than anything, I just don’t think we invest in the time in it. A while back I interviewed about 30 startup founders and asked them how much time they spent finding and retaining talent. Most answered about 10–15%. I asked them how much they wished they could spend; the number went to 40–50%.
The emergence of the Lean Startup movement has been a great shot in the arm for digital makers. It essentially provides a blueprint for how to mitigate risks in starting up.
The idea of Lean Startup is to validate your assumptions about your business, customer problem/needs and prospective solution before commiting to building it.
Cool, right? A few years ago I wrote about Lean Startup being like a giant validating machine.
It’s almost like a magic formula isn’t it?
The problem, born from my own perspective and observing many others also failing at this, is that most time is spent attempting to validate rather than actually validating. You have a crack at a few things, maybe an interview or paper prototype, you glean or torture a couple of hints and you rush to interpret them to be validation when in fact they are not.
People look like they’re validating things, but they tend not to find proof before moving forward.
Why do we do this?
Maybe many entrepreneurs actually want to make something for themselves rather than make something people want.
Many entrepreneurs tend to push their vision forward through the many obstacles and barriers, when perhaps they/we need to be spending more time following users and allowing the answers to come to us.
Until people truly let go of their invariably positive assumptions and start to embrace observable proofs, nothing much will change.
“Validation” is an entirely defunct term, it’s come to mean “prove to be true” rather than “seek the truth”
— John Maeda (@johnmaeda) December 2, 2015
While the first two factors are pretty obvious candidates, this last one of constraints might be the least understood.
When you are creating something that has never existed, your options and opportunities are unbounded. You luxuriate in the many possibilities and your mind races forward to frolick in the lush fields of the vision you have painted to investors, team members, the media and your poor aunt.
It’s an intoxicating thing. It will also kill you.
I learned this lesson (belatedly) when I was having lunch with a seasoned entrepreneur who had recently enjoyed a very succesful exit. He listened as I outlined the grand vision of my startup at the time and at the end, he said,
“That all sounds great. But what you need to do now is to wedge yourself. To remove as many possibilities as possible, to put on blinkers, to give yourself some constraints.”
As soon as he said it I knew what he meant. We had been stretching ourselves so thin trying to do so much. We were tackling all the future challenges of our model right now, which meant we were doing an average job for everything.
The same has been true in some respect on every project I’ve worked on. We spread resources and focus too thin. We fail to embrace constraints, almost pathologically, as though they were enemies (maybe they were in previous work?) when they can be our dearest friends.
Constraints enable focus, reduce complexity and limit uncertainty (three things which can kill any new initiative).
Entrepreneurs seem especially resistant to the idea of constraints as if they’re acid rain on their ambitious parades.
Companies and clients are even worse. They aways seem to want more features, more bells, more whistles, more polish and more of more anything.
Product teams also tend to fall for the same trap. It’s a cliche by now that if you’re not embarrassed by the first release of your product, you launched too late. But I have to admit that every single product I have ever launched has always had too much in it — whether that is features or scope or ambition.
(On reflection, I can’t say that about the first release of Skype In The Classroom and it’s no surprise that product is probably the most globally successful and celebrated thing I’ve ever had a small hand in making).
It is a constant fight on many fronts to embrace constraints over endless possibilities. Whether it’s founders or investors or clients or makers, it seems the human tendency is to want more over less. Even when we know by now that less is so much more.
Each of these factors probably deserve their own post as I feel I’ve only glossed over the nuance and complexity that hides beneath the simple sounding words of team, proof and constraints.
They might not be universal determinants to product success, but they’re certainly the things that I have found to be essential.
The whole point is that if we get better at them, perhaps our new products won’t just be launched, they’ll enjoy some type of success.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about what actually matters about new product success and why it is (or isn’t!) necessarily easier than ever.