A lesson I’ve learned from both working in a start-up, and more significantly, working with so many start-ups for the last 15 months, is how easy it is to look at a marketplace and see nothing more than a list of must-have features. If you’ve got user profiles, you need a messaging system. If you’ve got a site, you need an FAQ, support section, and a blog. If you’ve got activity, you need activity streams, RSS, and all that jazz. If you’re selling stuff online, you need a reviews section, after all, all of the big players have them, right? You’re not a big player. You’re just getting started.
Be careful what you copy
It’s tempting to look at any dot com success and assume that all the features they have today are what made them take off. It’s almost never the case.
In fact, most of the success stories launched with what seems to be an impossibly small set of features. For example, when Basecamp launched in 2004, it didn’t support file uploads. Their solution was to let you upload a file to your own server, and then hotlink it. Sounds ridiculous now, doesn’t it? Nor for that matter could you receive notifications by email, edit a comment that has been posted, reply by email, or assign a date to a to-do item. Put simply, they didn’t start out the way you see them today. They were just getting started.
Similarly Amazon launched in 1994, but only added book reviews in 1996; they focused on getting users first. They didn’t add CDs until 1998, and it was 2001 before they even posted a profit. It’s easy to ignore this, and look at their success from this point onwards, but you’re not starting out where they are today. You’re just getting started.
Sure they have changed the market, and changed expectations, but if you’re going head to head with them, you can’t do it on features. Furthermore, they didn’t decide to add these features just because everyone else had them. They made the decisions based on market knowledge, their customers, feedback, what technology was available at the time, and more.
Don’t play to your weakness
Start-ups have some significant advantages over the big players:
- No Customers – Surprisingly, this can be a big advantage. If you want to remove a feature because it doesn’t work right, you don’t have to explain yourself. In the early days you have total freedom to shape your product, you can simply select the code, tap the delete key, and you’re done.
- No Public Shareholders – You don’t have to answer to a higher power, who may not appreciate the way you are developing your product, or how you’re wasting time testing how a feature sits in the interface.
- Agility – If you’re starting out, you probably don’t have a massive code base, with an impossibly large database, which means updates and migrations take hours. If you want to see how flickr integration would work, you can knock it together pretty quickly, add it, test it, and then make a informed decision about including it.
- Freedom – You don’t have to use a feature just because you implemented it. Sure, you might have paid a developer, who did an excellent job, but ultimately if the feature sucks, then you have the freedom to get rid of it. It’s not easy for Microsoft or Google to shitcan 7 months worth of development, or abandon their product roadmap, there are billions of shareholders’ dollars at stake, never mind the established reputation of the brand. On the other hand you can do what you want in the early days.
- You can stand out – As the young upstart, you can get away with a lot more crazy stuff than an established business. Whether that means a funky homepage, a marketing campaign involving chocolate covered grasshoppers like Grasshopper did, hilarious sales confirmation mails like Derek Sivers did with CDBaby, or just personally mailing a hand-written thank you card to all of your customers, like Wufoo did. You need to play to your strengths.
Choose your battles
When I see start-ups looking to go toe-to-toe with established multi-million dollar businesses, I think “wow, that’s courageous.” When I see that they want to take them on at their own game, feature by feature, product by product, price by price, I worry a lot for their future. Playing to your weaknesses in a head-on competition is a surefire way to destroy yourself. You’ll never have the budget, the customer base, the data, or the experience to pull it off. Discretion truly is the better part of valour.
Think of it this way, If you had to compete with Ryan Giggs, and you could choose the game, would you really pick soccer? I hope not.
When you’re planning your product, remember that you should start off with just the useful features, unless you’re funded to the hilt and are taking on the large corporations. Also, remember that some features require customers and data before they’re even remotely useful.
A few key differentiators is all you need to make your mark. Wasting time and money on ancillary “nice to haves” isn’t good for your application. If you ask for a “feature to let customers post reviews”, and you need it yesterday, don’t laugh when I say you might have to wait two years. Wait until you have customers, and we’ll see what’s so important then.