Start Right Maintain Focus
“A startup is not just about the idea: it’s about testing and then implementing the idea. A founding team without these skills is likely dead on arrival.”
These words from lean start-up guru Steve Blank sum up the founder’s mission: Get a useable product in the hands of customers as early as possible to test your underlying hypothesis. If you can’t assemble a team with the discipline to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) without taking shortcuts, your chances of success are greatly diminished.
Steve Blank’s lean start-up philosophy disrupted the teaching of entrepreneurship on business school campuses around the world. And yet, there’s at least one aspect of lean start-up that we take issue with: Failing fast implies early testing, which is good. But failing at any point is decidedly not. As the far less entrepreneurial pop artist Billy Joel said in 1977, “Get it right the first time, that’s the main thing.”
Most of the time, founders have one legitimate shot to find product-market fitness, and so they and their teams need to maintain laser-focus on developing an MVP that customers will use and – more importantly – pay for. As a founder, you have to start right, right out of the gate.
But how? If it were easy, more start-ups would succeed than fail. But it’s not, and they don’t, so in order to maximize your odds, you need strict adherence to a set of guiding principles that can keep you focused on your critical path to MVP success.
1. Build a team that will protect and preserve your company’s intellectual property and institutional knowledge.
From the start of your ideation phase, you need to be laying the groundwork for scaling your business upon completion of a successful PoC. One of the most important things you can do as a founder is assemble a team that has longevity. The institutional knowledge you build over the course of the first months and years of product development will be irreplaceable. You don’t want that institutional knowledge to walk out the door with an ad-hoc group of people you brought in to help you launch the company in the short term.
Relying on friends and/or relatives to help you out as a side gig may seem like a viable strategy to get started, but the dynamic will inevitably change as they get busier with their primary responsibilities. Too often, these side arrangements fall apart within the first 90 days. At the same time, the knowledge your team develops over the course of these initial months will never be fully transferrable to others, so building a team with long-term intent is crucial.
2. Take no shortcuts along your MVP development journey.
In an effort to save time and money on the way to an MVP, many founders choose to bypass critical steps, like building and testing a working prototype. Prototyping brings clarity to the business purpose and allows the team to agree on key attributes like the visuals and the user experience. Spending two or three weeks in a prototyping phase offers several distinct benefits:
- Time spent on prototyping allows the team to coalesce around an emerging company culture;
- A workable prototype allows the founder to validate the experience with customers and demonstrate something tangible to investors;
- The prototyping process allows the team to develop a product features backlog.
3. Be Ruthless in managing the scope of your MVP.
The sharper your focus on what you want customers to test, the better off you will be. Scope is always the battle in developing an MVP – not quality, not price. The development team will undoubtedly discover new problems along the product development journey, but in the drive to get an MVP to market quickly, it’s essential to come out with a product that will allow you to test your underlying hypothesis.
Sometimes you will encounter problems that are bigger than the one you initially set out to solve. In such cases it may be important to change the feature set of the MVP. As a rule of thumb, we recommend that for every new feature the founder decides to add along the way, the founder also agree to remove two others from the MVP. Adhering to such strict measures forces the founder to carefully weigh the value of the proposed new feature before deciding to alter the scope of the effort.
4. Get out and test your MVP as early as possible.
The founder is essentially in a race against time. The competition and market are evolving on a daily basis. The founder needs to compete by getting a product into the market quickly. But the iteration you bring to market must be usable and free of bugs. As Steve Blank says, “It typically takes multiple iterations and pivots to find product/market fit – the match between what you’re building and who will buy it.”
Blank is also credited with having said, “Only by moving away from the comforts of your conference room to truly engage with and listen to your customers can you learn in depth about their problems, produce features to solve those problems, and learn what drives customers to recommend, approve, and purchase products.”
The goal is to put your product in the hands of people who don’t know you so you can get impartial feedback. Remember that friends and family will not be honest with you. The reaction you get from early customers will help you decide whether to continue to iterate, go live with your product, or abandon the effort.
At Creative Chaos, we have developed a model for MVP success based on best practices and first-hand experiences working with a vast range of start-ups, early-stage companies and established enterprises. Our Agile MVP Development Framework (which we’ll detail in our next blog post) addresses each of these guiding principles and offers founders a clear and compelling path to building an experienced team that can deliver a clean, working MVP within four months, all while safeguarding your institutional knowledge and positioning your company to scale for the future.