Through the course of my work at New York Startup Lab, I’ve had the privilege of interacting on a regular basis with early-stage entrepreneurs who are looking to get their projects off the ground. These entrepreneurs often come to us with not much more than a basic plan and a ton of passion.
Our job is to get them from idea to minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly and cheaply as possible so that they can do a combination of three things: a) prove the concept (i.e., get some traction); b) build out their team; and c) get funding to bring the project to scale.
The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) has been well-defined, but the application of its principles has only been loosely upheld. Through my involvement with the launches of over 50 products in the last several years — some successful, most failures — I have gained insight on the missteps regarding MVPs and experienced firsthand what happens when someone becomes too product-focused.
As VC Reid Hoffman, best known as the co-founder of LinkedIn, says: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Rapid Iteration Is Key
When you are first launching an MVP (or prototype), you really have zero idea of how the target market will react or who your early adopters will be. You may think you have a clear picture of your user base, but the truth is you probably have no clue.
It really does not matter how much market research you’ve done. Those customers whose doors you’ve knocked on about a hypothetical product tend to disappear once you ask for a check. This inability to forecast the future accurately has paved the way for “the pivot.”
There are a number of factors that govern the success of new products and they have more to do with execution than market research. You may be targeting soccer moms in the Midwest, but your actual users could be warlords in Ghana. Take the case of my company, AlleyWatch. We launched as a New York-centric publication, expecting our readership to be comprised mostly of the Tri-state area and a few other tech hubs across the country. It is now read in 200+ countries. Surprise — yes. Deal breaker — no.
The beauty of technology is that it allows for rapid iterations based on actual data, which allows you to respond to your user base. And a responsive mindset can drive engagement.
Don’t Waste Time on Features
While you can gain and lose knowledge and capital, time is a commodity that none of us are getting back. Your time should be spent getting a core product out to market as quickly as possible instead of obsessing over features users may never use.
There are hundreds of cases that illustrate how bad technologies have turned into good businesses, and where stellar technologies haven’t become viable businesses. The difference lies in the execution.
It is important to remember, when iterating, for everyone who asks you to tweak a function, there are just as many people who are happy with the current state of affairs. They don’t speak up because they are content. A basic statistical analysis of reviews will indicate that people are more willing to complain rather than share a compliment.
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. It takes an incredible amount of hubris to launch a product you think the market needs based solely on your infatuation with building a perfect product. The idea that you can’t roll it out without “X” and “Y” features (because the product will be incomplete) is incorrect. Most of the time, the features you think you need are not critical for your go-to market strategy.
Start With Basics
What you really need is a basic product you can put some hustle behind. The cost of that hustle is negligible. Today, the cost of launching a functional prototype is a fraction of what it once was.
If you are building the engineering equivalent of the Mona Lisa that will change the world, you may be required to pitch investors for that $25 million round. But for most startups, technology is a means to execute on an idea that solves a problem, and that input has been commoditized rapidly.
You can build the Ferrari-type product, but your audience and monetizable users may be Lamborghini aficionados. Start by building a Chrysler 300M — aka a “Baby Bentley” — and go from there. Your business will be more viable.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Reza Chowdhury is the founder and CEO of AlleyWatch, the largest media property focused on the NYC technology ecosystem. Recognized as a thought leader, Reza was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in NYC Tech by TechWeek and is a 2015 NYC Venture Fellow, a world-class, year-long fellowship program designed to help high-potential entrepreneurs scale their ventures. He holds an MBA in Finance and Entrepreneurship from Georgetown University and completed his bachelors in Economics at the University at Albany. A version of this article originally appeared on AlleyWatch. Connect with @rezac1 on Twitter.