When I first dabbled in coding years ago, I got delusional. I think it happens to a lot of people… Looking at many of the companies that are getting funding today, it’s easy to think “I could build that, and if I do people will flock to it, which equals a successful business!”
It’s easy to think that a web application, with the right features and API connections, equals a business. But, from experience and making lots of mistakes, I’ve realized how important it is to balance technology, content, and users, instead of planning and building just the technology (or product) assuming the other two will follow.
I’ll use DeviceKnit as an example. It was started in early 2010 as a user-generated content site where people share the ways they’re using their own electronics together to help others find ways to get the most from devices they own.
We set out with an audience in mind, but instead of talking to potential users as much as we could have and developing the content, we spent way too much time building the site itself, and then, only after months of development, started getting it in users’ hands and getting feedback, and finally started creating content.
It was very easy to get locked into thinking about cool features we could build, but at the time we didn’t realize that’s completely useless if no one has told us it’s what he or she wants.
Working this way lets you come up with a grand idea that’s far from a business. Warning signs: you pitch as “we’re going to build a platform for _” or “we’re going to build _, and then the same thing in many different verticals!” or your pitch sounds more like a list of features.
DeviceKnit got into an incubator too early. We should have had a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) generating revenue before even thinking of applying to any kind of accelerator program. Here’s a quick overview of DeviceKnit from late 2009 to today:
- Had basic idea
- Had more ideas to make it into a huge business
- Got carried away looking at it from a high level
- Designed a few wireframes (almost technology/product, but not really)
- Realized how bloated the idea was
- Removed the ridiculous parts that wouldn’t be included for years
- Got into an incubator (and got money) to work full time on it
- Contracted an AWESOME designer (in hind site, the best investment we made, but it was too early… this is the first bit of the “technology” part)
- Started building prototype (Finally! some “technology”)
- Spent months trying to build our first version and integrate it with our designs with wayyy to many features and without talking to people about it (technology)
- Launched with a little content and no committed users (lack of content and users)
- Raised a little more money from angel investors so we could pay ourselves to keep working on it full time (Probably the biggest mistake: raising money to pay ourselves to work on an un-tested idea full time!)
- Added content slowly and spent money quickly (content)
- Slowly started making revenue, slowly added more content (content)
- Started taking features out and refining it (based on feedback) into what should have been our minimum viable product as the site grows (technology)
If you watch people pitch at the Launch conference or TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the biggest things you’ll hear VCs and other judges ask many of them about is “distribution”… or if you build this idea, how will people find out about it? How will your application break into their workflow?
Think about building up an engaged audience (users) FIRST. DeviceKnit could have started as a simple blog that featured the kind of content we wanted people to eventually submit on the site, even if we just reblogged other content from around the Internet. The technology part would already be built (WordPress or any CMS), and then we could start building content ourselves and conversing with people about it (potential users). What is the blog-only equivalent of your idea?
My recommendation: Start with the users and content. Find communities and content that are out there now. What are all the potential substitutions for the content or technology your planning on providing? Talk openly with everyone in the communities about the application (the technology or product) you’re thinking of building. Ask what would make their lives easier. What they would pay for?
Gauge how excited these people are about any ideas you propose and LISTEN, instead of shaping their feedback to fit your idea and the features YOU think it should have. Re-read that last sentence. You will probably hear things that don’t fit perfectly with your grand idea, but remember, that’s why you’re talking to people now and haven’t built anything yet!
Then, start small with whatever content or software your audience thinks will provide the most value. Don’t write a business plan. Don’t try to raise money. Don’t try to get into an incubator/accelerator program, and don’t spend days designing your logo. Start building and keep it simple. Learn Rails and deploy on a cloud service like Duostack or Heroku. It is FREE up to this point, except for the time you’ve invested. You can’t code? Give this a shot: http://innonate.com/hope/ (I only recommend Rails here because it’s easy to deploy. If you want to go with PHP that’s fine, too.)
Build something, but don’t get too attached. Remember to think about people and quality content, not just technology. For lots of ideas, it’s easy to whip up the technology/product aspect in a week or even a few days. Just look at the products that come out of hackathons! You’re idea is mostly worthless until you start getting it into people’s hands and hearing what they think of it. Then, you can iterate and shape it to best fit their needs.
In my opinion, only now is DeviceKnit reaching the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) stage. I rebuilt it from scratch a few weeks ago to be only focused on content, leaving out many things from the original version that we thought were absolutely necessary when we launched it, and as it gets simpler it gets better: people are less confused, traffic is going up, and it is making more revenue.
You don’t have to take my advice, I just want to help people avoid the same mistakes I made. Do you have feedback for me on this article or DeviceKnit? Hit me up on twitter and let me know your thoughts, I’m @gohnjanotis.
I wrote this guest post on Venturebent after getting to know some of the writers while living in NYC for the summer to get a new project, Broodr, off the ground. I was amazed how strong the startup community was here, the quality of tech talent, and how many great new people I met through random startup events. If you’re looking for a change of scenery and interested in getting a company started, New York is definitely a place you should consider.