February 13th, 2015

Build for Now

You’ve started a company with a product vision – a premise that your idea will change the world in some way. And your thinking has been somewhat validated by the seven figure check you were just handed. Investors bought into your three year product roadmap and pitch deck with the tidy multi-year hockey stick growth curve.

In a pre-product startup, optimism is high, and you begin to think that there isn’t anything your small team can’t handle. But a company-wrecking temptation lies in these over-confident early stages: Building for tomorrow.

It’s what happens when your “Build it and they will come” strategy doesn’t leave the four walls of the posh office you just rented. It’s characterized by over-planning, over-designing, over-engineering and over-building a product that you’ll ship a year too late. Too late to find out whether your assumptions were correct, or whether you should have built something else.

Unfortunately, the Field of Dreams strategy rarely works. Even Google has had to find this out the hard way.

Where’s the focus?

This lack of focus is a common occurrence in SaaS/Social technology startups, because many problems aren’t technical anymore. It’s too easy to add a sweet feature (which will only take a week) that your team dreamed up over lunch at Sushiritto, or to spend months building for scale even before you’ve acquired a single customer.

The longer you wait to validate your product vision with real customers, the further you are from Truth.

Building for tomorrow ultimately bogs down the company in unnecessary technical complexity and lost time. The longer you wait to validate your product vision with real customers, the further you are from Truth. Even when my team has been right about the market, we’ve always been surprised by customers’ reactions to specific features. It often turns out that the sweet feature, which you spent a week building, really wasn’t so sweet after all.

Showing restraint

Every feature I design has consequences. I often have to remind myself of this, because designers have the tendency to be clever and ask for the world. We get excited about our work and often spend time selling our ideas when we should instead be looking for ways to remove features, reduce complexity and unburden our engineering team.

Find Truth before you build

Building for Now ultimately starts with searching for Truth. Not necessarily religious truth, but truth begins… and ends with customers. Ideally, most of this Truth work would happen before a product was designed or a line of code was written.

Truth begins… and ends with customers.

I was impressed with a startup that I met with recently. They saw an opportunity in a new market, but didn’t have a lot of experience with the end users. Before raising money and beginning to build, they shadowed members of their user-base for several months. They spent hours watching their customers do their jobs, and found the real pain points.

It turns out that their initial intuition – that complex algorithms could eliminate much of the end-users’ workload – was proved wrong. Instead, they found the absolutely necessary core feature set, and began to build only what was needed. Meanwhile, the CEO was out selling an informed, cohesive vision that immediately resonated with customers. Before the product was finished, they had customers in two different industries ready to buy.

Build for Now

Building for Now is a discipline. It means that your team has agreed to spend enough time with customers to remove internal assumptions before a feature is conceived. Building for Now requires that you wait to see if tomorrow’s problems are real before expending resources on them.

Building for Now gives your startup the opportunity to survive and thrive. That’s ultimately the goal, right?