Products like Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Zynga, Instagram, and Twitter are the new television — they’re designed to turn our brains to mush by constantly giving us more worthless content to be distracted by — photos of cute cats, pins of houses I’ll never own, tweets from some celebrity whom I apparently adore, some stupid game designed to make me anxious. These companies take us away from our lives, distracting us at dinner, keeping us in bed longer in the mornings, removing us from our family and friends.
Yet these companies are the poster children of today’s startup scene — most investors and entrepreneurs want to find the next Instagram or the next Pinterest, the next service that will have crazy engagement, distracting the consumer even more. This is the bubble we’re in — the bubble of distraction, where startup value is a function of engagement instead of revenue, where creating value for the consumer comes second to distracting them.
The new funding bubble we’re in is terrifying. Given where we are now, our future will inevitably become what was predicted in Wall-E: overweight, disconnected individuals who care about nothing but to consume more and more digital content, meanwhile becoming less creative, less individual, and more overweight.
I’m an entrepreneur and a frothy funding market is good for me for obvious reasons. However, I’d still rather see this bubble burst to return us back to creating value. The real champions of the startup scene are the Redfins, Atlassians, Clouderas, WibiDatas, Amazons — the people who are selling a product or service that customers pay for because of the value it brings them. I’m tired of hearing about investments being made in the next distraction. I want to see investments being made in the creation of value.
There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to building product: 1) sit in a room for months and build what you consider perfection; and 2) build the minimum you need to start getting good customer feedback and constantly iterate. Obviously both of these techniques have worked in the past for certain companies. For (1), Apple is the best success story. However, nearly all companies that try to do (1) don’t get it right the first time, and end up wasting time and money during the months they sit in that room. And for a startup with little money and little resources, often option (1) bankrupts them.
In my experience, and granted I’m not a designer, I’ve never built the right thing the first time. Every product I’ve built that was successful started as a failure. I always built the wrong thing first. Not because I’m not talented (I think I am), but because everyone is different and hardly ever can you truly understand others’ needs. I used to build things to perfection before launching them, but now I don’t, because I’ve seen how much money and time it can waste when things don’t go as planned (and usually they don’t).
I think Steve Blank puts it best: “A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Until you have customer development and market traction, you have very little proof that you’re building the right thing. In this industry the proof comes in the form of customers and product. And without a product, you can’t have customers, and hence you have nothing. The earlier you have a product that’s good enough, the earlier you can start understanding what customers like, what they don’t like, and what they’ll pay for. Surveying them for these things just isn’t effective — they need to use the product.
So my advice to anyone in the early stages of a startup is to decide on a minimum viable product that is simple and represents your core value. Complexity is not good in a product’s infancy — think about the iPhone when it first came out. Keep things simple so customers can get started easily. Get something out there so you can understand quickly what people want and what they don’t want. Even if you’re incredibly talented, which I’m sure you are, you’re still relying on your own instinct for success, which is strictly more risky than having good customer stories and feedback.
Stop saying, “I think we should build …” and instead say, “Customers think we should build …” Of course you don’t need to listen to everything your customers say, but hearing their advice is strictly better than not hearing it.
The map you see below is a heat map of all the rides I’ve done in the last 2-3 years in and around San Francisco. 99% of these rides started at my house on my bike — no driving or car necessary. This map illustrates how truly amazing San Francisco is for cyclists. Without driving we have SO much access to amazing rides on the coast, over mountains, around lakes, through cities and by coffee shops and bakeries. I claim that San Francisco is the best city for cyclists.
Here’s a view of just Marin, the county just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge (which has a bike path). In Marin alone you can ride 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 80, 100, 125 miles starting at my front door and ending at my front door, how ever many hours later.
And here’s a view of all the rides you can do quickly in a morning or afternoon, if all you have is an hour of time:
Have I convinced you yet? San Francisco is the best city for cyclists. And San Francisco as far as pure city experiences go is pretty amazing, too :). I love San Francisco!