Lessons from a failed startup
Focus on the problem, not the solution
In failing to build a company, I have learned many things. Core to all of them is that a company is not a product. Ideas change, products change, people change. We “pivot”, rapidly, relentlessly, sometimes ruthlessly.
Managed well, change is a catalyst. Managed badly, it can be catastrophic.
In this series, I try to explain the various ways in which I failed to understand this, and how I would endeavour to do better next time. You may notice that the style of these posts is more instructive than usual. Remember that these are mostly addressed to my future self, and as such, I am telling myself what to do; you, my dear autonomous human, can do whatever you want.
A product company often forms around an idea, a vision for the future. We start talking with a friend about a problem, we get excited, and we decide, “we can solve this”.
It’s a beautiful and necessary thing, but it’s fleeting. You don’t understand the problem space nearly as well as you think you do, you have no idea if there’s a willing customer base, and you haven’t considered the countless different solutions.
Fortunately, none of that matters, as long as you still agree on the problem you’re solving. So make it a big one. If your problem is “there is no affordable turn-key solution for flexible, extensible to-do lists”, you’re going to run into serious trouble when you discover that no one wants to pay for that. You’ll pull in one direction, your co-founder will pull in another, and you’ll quickly discover you really wanted different things.
Instead, talk about the future. Perhaps you and your company co-founder can agree that “people and organisations aren’t able to accurately write down their near-term tasks, causing them to keep far too much information in their heads”. Now we have a people problem, at a much higher level. Sure, you might still find yourselves wanting to try different solutions, but there’s a much bigger collection of them floating in that problem space.
(Can you tell I have Some Thoughts™ about Jira?)
Perhaps you can go further. Talk about why you’re solving this problem. Maybe “we believe that one of the leading causes of anxiety is the lack of collaboration at the task level, and we endeavour to make it trivial and enjoyable.” (Yes, that sounds trite; you can do better than this.)
Agree on it, write it down, and refer to it often. It’s your guiding light.
More in the series
- Focus on the problem, not the solution
- If the company goals change, the company should probably change too
- "Do research" is not a corporate strategy
- Your corporate values transcend your product vision
- Trust your gut, understand your heart, and open your mind
- Go to therapy with your co-founders
- Explore the terrain first
- Unless someone cares, don't waste your time
- Code is a liability; ship without coding, if possible
- Do less, and do it better
- Agile methods are tools to try more ideas in less time
- Until you have traction, money is a trap
- If you don’t know how to do it, that’s your biggest problem
- Roles can be fluid, but they must be defined
- Camaraderie is helpful, but no substitute for working together
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