We’ve worked with enough startups to be able to discern a pattern of perilous thinking that is our job, as consultants, to thwart. Many entrepreneurs – and we’re talking specifically about the entrepreneurs launching products that merge hardware and software -- share a typical mindset. Everything from the ground up, they say. Just one more feature! And, no, we can’t change course now.
This tendency to want to build everything from scratch and to innovate around every single aspect of a product stems from passion for a product and its mission. While passion is indispensible, it needs to be tempered with rational thinking. The ability to adjust focus and zone in on what’s critical will reduce risk and maximize chances of success. Here are three pieces of advice we give startups that need a reminder to keep it simple:
1. Be rational, and repurpose.
Entrepreneurs often want to make everything themselves. We remind people there are a lot of good products out there. It is important to know when not to reinvent the wheel. In many situations, it is okay to repurpose to save both time and money, which are both limited resources in the product development world. Finding good partners -- vendors, sources -- is almost always a better move for a startup than building everything yourself.
We worked with one company that developed a product to disrupt the hospitality industry. They thought they needed to design a tablet from the ground up. That isn’t as crazy as it soundseems, because there are companies that will customize an off-the-shelf tablet design. After laying out the development costs and risks, they decided to make a custom case rather than a custom tablet. The custom case fits around commercially available tablets and required a much simpler development process that saved considerable resources.
Choose your partners very carefully, because you’re going to be dependent on them. If at all possible, figure out a second source for the components. Have a backup plan you can execute if needed, and don’t let yourself be at the mercy of a single supplier. Be smart about who you choose. Do your due diligence to make sure they’re stable and dependable.
2. Keep it clean.
Added features often make products harder to use, but entrepreneurs often struggle to limit their product features. Keep things simple and don't add features until those features are absolutely necessary. Development-wise, everything you add is another layer of design, testing, documentation and debugging. Any complexity -- another color, another button -- will end up costing more money and more effort.
A product does not have to fulfill every user’s requirements right from the beginning. In a perfect world, an entrepreneur will launch a minimum viable product and then add more features and variants as you attract more customers. It’s more important for someone to be able to use your product without having to consult the user’s manual than it is to include every last feature that will appeal to every last customer.
Every time you believe something needs to be included, ask yourself why. Does the device really need an app? Does it really need to function on different platforms? Is that feature absolutely necessary? It might help to strip functionality from the product and test it with consumers to see whether or not it still works. If the product still works, then it might be best to leave any extra features on the cutting room floor.
3. Kill your darlings.
Aspiring writers are often advised to “kill their darlings,” meaning cut the self-indulgent phrases, paragraphs or chapters that sound pretty but don’t move the action forward. It is often the hardest thing a writer has to do. The same goes for entrepreneurs and startups. Not every product needs to see the light of day. It’s important to know when to kill a product altogether and start over. At times, it is necessary to scrap a project and start over, even if a great deal of money, time and energy has already been spent.
When we started E Ink, the company that makes the electronic paper displays for Kindles and Nooks, we actually started out developing a signage product. We put a lot of time and effort into building it. We got it through design and engineering and had even started shipping before we killed it. Had we been a little bit more honest with ourselves and a little more strategic, we would have killed it earlier and saved some money.
Look for early indicators that a product should be scrapped. If product development team members start to question the direction a product is headed, or if something just doesn’t feel “right,” it is wise to really consider whether or not to move forward. You may have made some bad decisions, either because you didn’t have enough information or because you learned as you progressed. It is hard to do, but it could be time for everyone to sit down and decide to redirect efforts.
The silver lining: A lot of valuable learning comes from all of the above missteps. At E Ink, what we learned about production and development from the signage slip-up significantly informed our next moves.