Guide for Launching a Startup
BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Build half of a polished product, not a half-assed product

In an industry that is enamored with shipping features, every startup is working with an in-house or outsourced engineering team shipping stuff at lightning speed. Therefore, it could be a rare advantage to build a highly polished product that actually works and works well.

It can't be emphasized enough the importance of identifying an epicenter of your design—you can concentrate your effort on polishing and refining that to ensure that the end product is as perfectly-crafted as possible.

Engineering and writing real code is too costly of a process for randomly trying things out. When you start building your product from your epicenter outwards, you have a better chance of achieving polish. Wording matters. Spacing matters. Handling exceptional flows matters. When you bring out a product that is polished,

customers, especially those outside the traditional tech-startup-early-adopter crowd, will really appreciate a real tool they can use on a day-to-day basis. That daily usefulness will be infinitely more important than the promised future features for your early customers.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Make your product too good to be true

The difference between "too good" and "good" is the surplus from which you can extract value. To extract value, it needs to be at least "better-than-good". The better you make your product, the more surplus you can extract from your customer.

Once you have figured out how to make your product too good to be true, you have found your business model. This means that the business model is simply a part of your service or product that has excess value of which you could charge for that value. People are willing to pay for it. In a freemium model, everyone could get some free storage, but if you want unlimited storage then you would have to pay. Therefore, your business model must incorporate excess value people are willing to pay for.

If you present your product to a prospective customer and they jump at a particular aspect of your idea and say "that's awesome!" that is where you can extract value from your customer. Nothing that is too good to be true is free. Once it is too good to be true, it is understood that the extra value will be charged.

You want to overwhelm your customers with goodness and the excess of this good-will is where the price or a premium can be applied.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Use a mobile screen as a thinking frame about what your user would want to do

You may not be building a product with a mobile use case, but using a smaller screen such as a smartphone or a tablet as a thinking frame, will keep your product focused on its epicenter. This is likely how someone will interact with your product. The person will desire immediate pay-off and will only devote limited time to your product (a minute or two tops). If you are successful in making your epicenter come alive given the mobile limitations, you know that you have found the right focus.

Obviously, having a mobile strategy helps with the narrative of why this company is relevant and valuable. The mere thought of a person holding the mobile device in his or her hand, at a particular time of a day, with a particular need to fulfill, helps ensure that you keep your product focused on the epicenter.

Another reason why you should try designing for a mobile device is that it allows you, and your user experience designer, to draw inspiration from a rich array of great iPhone or iPad apps that users have come to love. Don't be surprised if some of the elements of your mobile design, even ones you don't intend to build right away, end up influencing your core web or desktop product in a positive way.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Write your user interface, don't just draw it

A common misconception of user interface design is that it is best done by a graphics designer. This is probably because a well put together user interface looks like a picture and not a novel. The truth is, most of us interpret the user interface and learn how to use the system by reacting to the words on the screen rather than looking at the color and texture under the words. We all somewhat know how to write. Try to explain how you can engage an end user exclusively with words.

Imagine that your beautifully constructed website has gone down, due to some hosting problems, but you have the ability to fulfill all the features on your website over e-mail or instant messenger. You can write a dialogue between two people on both sides of the conversation and figure out the words they would use. These words should be used in your user interface designs.

Your visual designer, or even your user experience expert, who is drawing your wireframes, will greatly appreciate this type of human dialogue artifacts. They can extract the words in those conversations and give them the correct visual treatments and emphases that would ultimately create a user interface that speaks to end users in a personal way.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Capture data about what your users do as soon as your site launches

Why? Because you will never get another chance to capture this data once it has happened. Poof!

You don't need to have sophisticated tools to analyze or mine the data and provide beautiful data visualization; those can come later. What you need is to instrument your product to collect data in fairly granular units and store the data somewhere. It would give you a history of how users interact with your site that will form the foundation of the objective criteria of which future features are designed and prioritized.

While standard web packages like Google Analytics are a good start, more application-specific analytic tools like Mixpanel provide a much more precise capture of what your users are trying to do. Some other analytics packages allow you to automatically send e-mails if your user performs certain actions over a specific amount of time.

There are literature and blog posts available on how best to capture and use behavioral data. While some may seem very technical, the insights from the raw behavioral results are actually pretty easy to understand. It is unlikely you will do a lot of automation based on the data points, but having a good core competency in data analytics will distinguish your product as one that is actually listening to its customers one click at a time.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

It's not just about the code. Seek to understand the big picture of technology.

Talk through your technology options with a Chief Technology Officer-level person. Most startups would be happy to have access to a programmer on the founding team or a vendor that can build the first version of the site. This person is likely to use the tools he or she knows to minimize risk. Once in awhile, you may get lucky, and the person's skill sets matches the technical needs of your product perfectly. But most of the time there are better ways to build the product, especially beyond the first version. There are technologies that are more appropriate, easier to evolve and ultimately scale better if your product is successful.

While you don't need to implement many of these technology considerations right away, as getting your first version out is still the most important task, it is probably worthwhile to look one or two years ahead and talk with someone that is a broad technologist. Get informed about the tools on the marketplace and the techniques available in the talent pool you can leverage with when the time comes. Knowing where you may be going helps you understand whether your short-term choices are pointing towards a future destination or a legitimate compromise in the name of getting to the initial launch.

Getting a big picture of the technology landscape gives you an insight that will help you make your day-to-day decisions. It also gives you the terminology and skill sets as you look for potential talents in your daily encounters.



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BUILD / YOUR PRODUCT

Failure is overrated. You can iterate by succeeding in succession.

People sometimes conflate the need to iterate with the need to fail. You should try not to fail because failure means wasting time and chance. There are ways to reduce your chance of failure by avoiding traps and by reaching out to people who have done it before.

One of the most valuable resources available to a startup are professionals. Most professionals who are on solid career paths in various functions and industries all wish in some ways they were in for some exciting startup venture. They just may not be ready to jump in head first the way you have. However, they may be very excited to play an advisor's role and share their professional knowhow and experience with a newcomer in exchange for a fun experience of dipping his or her toes in the startup world.

This is the most beneficial resource for startup leaders as most mistakes that startups make are not unique to startups. They are often legal mistakes, or mistakes related to accounting, technology, communication or management. If you can talk through your plans and your scenarios with the right professionals, you fail on paper but avoid it in reality. You can get a corrective course of action or alternate recommendations that you can implement.

You may be lucky to have 9 lives in a startup. Use them wisely. Recurring failure, despite being a learning experience, demoralizes the team internally and may tarnish your reputation externally. On the other hand, successive wins build up momentum and create more goodwill that gets you more access to talents who want to be involved in a winning team. Failure is sometimes unavoidable, but you should avoid it at all cost.



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