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"If you build it, they will come." That line may have worked for Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams, but such advice can prove disastrous for a startup.
Most entrepreneurs consider themselves visionaries but rarely is the initial vision of a product market-ready and poised for success. That's why entrepreneurs must fight the urge to simply put their heads down and build a product to completion without engaging customers for vital feedback and guidance. Instead, they must continually ask themselves, "who are we building this product for? And do we have information to back up our theory? Trust me, I know from experience.
Last year I founded Travefy, an online planning tool that solves the coordination headaches of group travel. At the time, I was in business school and I had a grand vision of a product to assist the techno-savvy, globetrotting business-school students.
I imagined a multi-faceted tool that would allow for the social voting of dates and locations, a flight and hotel booking engine to create a master itinerary, a car-sharing tool and a group expense-management platform. And that was just the beginning. Despite believing in a lean startup mentality – that is, pushing out a bare-bone product, getting customer feedback and tweaking based on data -- I wore blinders and just knew this product would be a hit. So, I set out with the team and started building.
Given the complexity of our solution, the team easily could've spent six to nine months developing our dream version of Travefy. But had we simply built to completion, Travefy would have been an epic failure!
Thankfully, we realized in our bootstrapped state we couldn't possibly get all of those features released without running out of cash. Consequently, we ended up adhering more closely to the lean startup model that I always knew deep down would be our best bet.
To build our product, Travefy's features have each been developed and released piecemeal. We've buttressed each release with pre-development customer discovery conversations about what works and doesn't, along with massive post-development testing to iron out the kinks. This feedback has been invaluable both in relation to individual features and continued business planning.
The Travefy you see today does resemble the initial vision the team hatched -- we do allow users to vote on trips, book travel and manage expenses. But the way these features have been developed and how they interact are barely recognizable from those initial sketches. Rather, they have been shaped by user feedback. And Travefy is all the better for it.
From this experience, here are three key takeaways I learned about product testing and proving the market:
1. Develop user stories.
Before ever drawing that first sketch or writing your first line of code, make sure to talk to potential customers to hear what they have to say and what they want. That way you can see how your product fits in, or doesn't.
2. Release features one at a time.
If you release your whole product at once it will be very difficult to decipher which aspects users love, like or hate. By releasing in pieces, you can individually test the response to that feature, learn from it and incorporate into future releases.
3. Be nimble.
Pride of ownership can cause more damage than good. Be open to feedback, be grateful for it and make changes when necessary.
With all of this, Travefy is succeeding. We're continuously rolling out new features that solve the hassles of group travel and our user base is steadily growing.
What's the best way to bring a product to market? Let us know in the comments below.
David Donner Chait is a second-year student at Columbia Business School and the co-founder of Travefy, a free online tool that helps groups simplify their travel. He previously served as senior policy advisor at the U.S. Small Business Administration and worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. He holds a B.A. in economics-political science from Columbia College.