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Help yourself – a treasure map for product success

The pressuring environment in startups

You wake up after sleeping for 3–4 hours, and you’re already answering emails. Several tasks that should be paramount seem to get left behind, and you wonder if you should take one of those “learn to manage your time better” courses — if only you had the time.

You arrive at work and few of your team members are there, if any. You start going over all operational aspects you have to cover today, as well as one or two presentations — for investors, stakeholders, partners.

Your main concern is that your investment budget is wearing thin, and you need to make the most of it to find the right product fit for the right market. You need to succeed economically to be able to provide for both the product and the team to continue.

Find your startup’s why

Before you go down this spiral, it’s important to ascertain the common reasons a startup fails and make sure you are not making those same mistakes.

I am assuming that, at some point, you have defined a reason why your startup exists. A why that makes you and all in your team get up every morning, something you believe will make a difference in the world. However, it’s not uncommon for startups to be build on what or how. For instance, building software to connect drivers and passengers is Uber’s how. A mobile app that acts as concierge in this transaction is their what. Their why is neither. Their why is changing and improving transportation throughout the world. So if you haven’t figured out that reason to be for your startup, pause your activities and start with why.

Having a clear sense of why will help all startup team members strive to achieve the same goals, and will enable you to share problems with transparency, receiving insight from the team as to what can be done to solve them. That community spirit of contribution is key to make a startup work.

Once that is set, I see two very opposite stances that lead to failure as being relatively common and should be avoided:

I know my product’s awesome, I just need people to see that!

It’s easy to see what’s wrong with this stance from a distance. But when you’re in the middle of a motivated team and you have engaged stakeholders and a fantastic vision, getting carried away by your emotional “hot state” is not so far-fetched. It takes the willpower of a monk to keep in line with the Lean approach and trust you know absolutely nothing for sure unless you collect data directly from your customers.

This is not exactly what we wanted, but it’s necessary for profit

Decisions that take you away from your why in order to help your startup economically might buy you some time. I am not advocating you should stop making decisions based on what’s profitable. However, if your decision aims on profitability but is in conflict with your why, you must have in mind it will come at a heavy price. Make sure you have a strategy in place for turning the boat around and resuming the path that makes sense with your why as soon as possible.

Challenge common sense

In a Lean Startup approach, knowing your why and ensuring you have metrics for every goal you set out to achieve are possibly the only things that will prevent you from creating a product nobody wants. You see, there are many cases in which the product is indeed awesome, and the team is excellent. But if you don’t iterate in search of how to breathe life into a product that really changes people’s lives, and they really do use and are willing to put money on, you are probably going to bury your startup, regardless of how likable or desirable your product is. Remember, desire is fickle. A solid business is based on creating a desirable product, yes, but this won’t do on its own. Other players will come up with similar solutions, and customer loyalty and continuous engagement will decide if your startup will stay afloat or sink.

The common sense that desirability is what defines a product’s success is disproved by big and small players alike. How many products do you use on a day-to-day basis out of sheer comfort or habit? From ever-complaining Windows users to Applemaniacs in a 6h long queue and Uber passengers that, albeit furious with dynamic fee, would still rather take an Uber than resort to cabs, loyalty is achieved when your customer is willing to stand some measure of inconvenience to use your product.

Challenge your own assumptions

Product managers — myself included — have the terrible habit of falling in love with their product. Taken over by a Pygmalion syndrome, they end up having a blind faith on their ideas. Becoming less prone to effectively focus on discovering a product that people will use makes a difference in key attitudes that will prevent you from pivoting your strategy as required.

The key to Agile has always been the humility in finding you were wrong and the willpower to try again. Inspect and adapt is paramount to improve anything, and we should rely on this mindset above any attachments. This way, your product is already on its path for success.

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