My learnings are unfortunately from a failed startup, LocalReplay, but you learn more after you fail (while you are failing, you are still seeing the world the way you want to see it).
Lesson #1: you don’t learn anything that your customers don’t teach you
Go live and iterate. Rapidly. Now. Eliminate long development cycles – you’re not learning while you are in a long dev cycle. If you are not learning, you are going backwards. Iterate rapidly, quickly analyze customer usage, measure, subtract, add, measure, build. Quickly – your analytical and predictive capabilities are not as good as you think – more important to move as only by moving will you really find the path.
Our successes at LocalReplay came when we made changes based on user feedback (direct and observed), but we were doing too much analyzing and not enough iterating, so we were moving too slowly.
This doesn’t mean only build what customers ask for – they don’t know the future and think of extensions more than disruptions – build your dream, build your disruption, but do it in small, quick, measurable steps. Update: came across this great graph from Ash Maurya which demonstrates this well:
Amazon, from the outside, seems to do this very well.
Lesson #2, “system functionality” is an oxymoron; UX is everything
At LocalReplay, we too often prioritized functionality over usability. System functionality doesn’t mean anything – users define actual functionality – what they perceive, how they use the system, how they don’t use it. Put expertise, time and dollars into UX. It is a science. It is an art. It is absolutely critical, especially in today’s ADD society with our low signal to noise ratios. It is there but users haven’t started to use it yet? Then it isn’t there and doesn’t matter.
Many Google products are good examples of hyperfocus on usability – consider the simplicity of Google’s search page compared to Yahoo’s – and that was before the overwhelming noise of today’s web.
Lesson 3, KISS, hyperfocus, don’t get distracted
We had a KISS strategy – we’d succeed in one type of community in one local market – and then expand. But we didn’t stick to it – we had some growth in other areas and lost focus on our initial set of simple goals. We started building cities before we really nailed the first building. Ironically, our belief was that the big social networks – mainly Facebook – were too big and too horizontal and more focused startups could provide users with more value in specific verticals. And yet we didn’t KISS – we immediately made our world more complex than it needed to be. Hyperfocus is an advantage of being startup, one of the few you’ll have, don’t let it escape.
Lesson #4, forget about going viral
Lots of things can succeed if they go viral. The fact that your plan works if you can get network effect doesn’t mean much. Learning how to succeed on a smaller scale is invaluable and you won’t do it if your plan is built on going viral, including goals, cost management and design decisions.
Lesson #5, move to plan B based on pre-set criteria
We had a plan B, multiple plan Bs, but never pulled the trigger. You are partially blind when doing a startup so you may see a red flag as a small bump in the road (or rationalize it that way). You’ll make changes to deal with the bumps, but will stay on that street. You need to establish some pre-set markers to force you to get off that street when it is necessary. You don’t need to abandon the course – you may well come back to it – and you may still get to the same destination. Twitter may be the best current example. I don’t know their evolution track, but I know their initial plans were nothing like what evolved.
Lesson #6, go with your gut
Not enough information to make the decision? Welcome to start-ups. Keep moving – don’t use too many cycles for individual decisions. You’ll make lots of good decisions and many bad decisions but the sum of your decisions will be positive as long as you keep moving and keep learning.