Look Out… Tweak… Innovate..

If you have been searching long, you might already know, that possibility of hitting that “revolutionary idea”, might be hard. I learned one more approach for this, which I like to call..

“Look Out… Tweak… Innovate..”

The market-driven approach is quite simple. It essentially means is to find a startup idea that:

  1. Is already making money for someone else in a growing industry.
  2. Interests you.
  3. Aligns with your skill sets.
  4. Once you find such an idea, simply carve out a niche within the industry by
    1. addressing pains of an under-served segment within that industry
    2. or, making it much easier to use than existing solutions
    3. or, disrupting the market by making your product accessible to masses at a much affordable price.

And once you dominate a particular niche, expand from your niche with your eyes set on the largest player in the market.

There is a lot going on here, so let’s break it up.

Finding a Startup idea

For most entrepreneurs, this is perhaps the most difficult phase of initiation. I know people who are ready to wait for years for that golden startup idea to strike. Truth is, even if you wait for years, startup ideas that are born out of vacuum almost never work.

As Steve Blank says, no business survives first contact with the customer. So, why not skip the whole idea-game altogether and simply go ahead with ideas that other people have tried-and-tested?

This is what market-driven approach is all about. Pick a growing market and simply make a better product.

Here are some essential ingredients of a market-driven startup idea:

Pick a growing industry. This is important because a growing industry means that most probably a strong leader is yet to be established and the field is open for many new players, one of whom could be you. If they can do it, why can’t you?

Industry that interests you

Aim is to not just make money but have fun on the way, right? Hence, it is important to pick a startup idea in an industry that appeals you. Even though eCommerce industry for ladies bags and purses might be growing, if you don’t see yourself passionate about it, don’t pick it!

Industry where you have a chance

It is bit obvious, but there are a lot of things in life that appeal us but we’ve got no chance (for geeks: most obvious example is dating a hot lady!). For example, it goes without saying that even if machine vision industry is growing and people are making money licensing such technology, if it requires a PhD and you don’t have it, probably it is not worthwhile to pursue an idea in that industry.

The key idea here is to find an industry where you know people are making money. Appeal to you and are relevant to your skill set. Finally select any one of them (though in most cases you will end up with only 1 or 2 i which satisfy all three criteria).

Don’t be ashamed of this activity as we are not “copying” business ideas, we are simply using information to select which industry should your startup should belong to.

But there are competitors in an established market!

That’s precisely the key to this approach. Lack of competitors in the market is serious indicator that nobody has found it profitable. So, you would want to pick a startup idea which has competitors. In addition to signalling that a market is profitable, competition also helps in positioning your startup. When you are new, nobody understands your offering and frankly nobody has time and patience to understand it. They are simply too busy to digest an entirely new idea or product offering. However, when you position it against established competition, you instantly have their attention and they instantly understand the differentiation. Now customers don’t have to understand new concepts, they simply understand what’s so different about you.

Even with all the benefits, many entrepreneurs still fear established competition. In previous step, once you pick an industry that you would want to start with, find a niche which you can dominate initially.

It is important to become a leader in at least one aspect of your industry.

A differentiation of your idea could be usability and ease of use. Most likely, customers in any industry are fed up with existing, bloated solutions with hard to use interfaces. Simply pick an industry and make it drop-dead easy to use. People usually drastically under-estimate how big advantage ease-of-use can be for a startup. However, simply look at some examples. File sharing existed before Dropbox. Social networking existed before Facebook. What all of these products did was to dramatically simplify the key activity in an industry. You can do the same.

Key point here is that it is important to carve out a niche that you can dominate with your startup in order to get noticed in a growing industry and get initial set of customers.

So, is this the end of my startup story?

No! In fact, this is just the beginning. Niche domination is not the aim. Industry domination is the aim. It’s going to be hard but not impossible. Idea is to expand feature-set horizontally and gain prominence outside of your niche slowly and steadily. Eventually, you should replace industry leader and in fact become a source of market-driven ideas for other startups.

Industry leading companies are run by people similar to you and they probably followed the path your startup is going to follow. So, there is no question that you cannot be an industry leader someday. It is a nice feeling to be a niche dominator, but don’t feel satisfied with it. Always set eyes on the industry leadership position! That’s where the big bucks are!

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Launching a buggy product! Good Or Bad?

I was thinking this recently & thought you might have also thought this sometime:

You’re about to launch your product, but there are several bugs with it. They’re not very serious, but they are still bugs. The engineering team wants more time to fix the bugs, but you’ve already announced the product, marketing has done a bunch of prep for it, and there are customers waiting for the new version of the product.

What do you do in this scenario? Do you delay shipping or do you launch the buggy product anyway?

Difficult decision huhhh! The first clue is the axiom of software development:

There is no such thing as perfect software. All software has bugs.

For example (might be wild), NASA spent millions and millions of dollars developing the mars orbiter, verifying and testing the software. But as the satellite reached mars, a software bug caused it to crash, sinking the entire $125 million mission.

That doesn’t mean that your software is going to crash and burn, but it just means that you can’t protect against bugs – You need to figure out how to deal with bugs out in the wild.

The most important thing with software is to launch v1 of the product and get it out in front of your users and customers. It is important to see how they use the product and listen to their feedback, and work on that to improve your product. There is no point sitting by yourself in a cubicle trying to fix every last bug.

There’s no glory in having a perfect piece of software that never gets used – because it never launched.

Facebook actually has codified this mantra – “Done is better than perfect”. It is far more important to get your code launched and out the door, instead of waiting around for it to be perfect. That’s actually a trick statement, because there is no such thing as perfect software.

There are some simple things we should do to deal with bugs in production.

  • Do percentage releases:

The way large web companies deal with this issue is to do what is called a “percentage rollout”. Usually, there are several load-balancing servers that run the app. When there is a new version of the software, only one of the servers is updated with the new version of the software, and a small percentage of the total traffic is sent to this server to see if the new version of the software is stable and bug-free. Once there is confidence in the new version of the software, it is rolled out to 2 servers, and then slowly to the rest until all the servers are upgraded to the new software.

  • Have a way to auto-update:

The era of shrink-wrapped software is over. Nearly all software running today has a way to get to the internet, so all software should have a way to update itself. This is really important not just to fix any bugs, but also to push security updates. Without this, you leave your software to be very vulnerable. Even for complicated, enterprise software, an administrator should be able to pull an update if they run into the bug.

This is becoming more the norm now. Some software like web-browsers have actually started auto-updating without even notifying the user. Mobile apps also have a way to automatically update through the respective marketplaces. Operating Systems and other major pieces of software even have a way of classifying some updates as “recommended” or “critical”

  • Have automated crash/error reporting and tracking:

For mobile apps, web apps or even desktop apps, you should build into your software a crash-reporting system. If the app encounters an error or an exception, it should not just crap out on the user, but also capture the error/stacktrace/core dump and send it back to your servers for analysis along with some diagnostic information. This kind of system will give you a real-time view into how your software is behaving out in the real world, and alert you early to problems customers may be experiencing.

So, should you launch the buggy product?

Unless you have a serious bug that wrecks the user experience or a security issue, you should generally prioritize launching the product vs waiting for it to be perfect.

But again.. that’s just me!