The Curse of Our Culture of Overpromising
The root of many problems in our modern business world stem from the culture of overpromising. Here's why.
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"We are going to change the world" is a slogan of many startups. Every product starts with an idea, and some ideas become so powerful that they conquer the minds of millions of people, including the most wealthy people in the world. Investors are willing to spend millions of dollars to be a part of something big. However, the most promising concepts often break into pieces when they reach the market, and even more, ideas forever stay on the paper or drawing desks.
Why does it happen? The root of this problem in our modern business culture — the culture of overpromising. This culture makes startup founders convey a sense of success way before they create the first prototype of their product. And this sense of future success is so powerful that it makes other people believe that it is true.
"Fake it till you make it"
A good story can convince investors to invest money in a promising new venture. The startup will use funds to grow, hire more people and increase its estimated value. Of course, the money will also be spent on research and development. But at this step, the startup is far from creating something tangible; it is still exploring the space. It uses techniques like fake doors and demo versions to measure the interest in the product. The problem with this approach: Those techniques can never be a replacement for a real product.
The longer a startup follows the "fake it till you make it" approach, the more expensive and dangerous its product development path becomes. We are all familiar with what happened with Theranos, a promising startup created by Elizabeth Holmes. But does her example stop entrepreneurs from pretending that they have innovative technology while they have only an idea? No.
I bet right now, we have dozens of well-funded startups like Theranos in Silicon Valley. Maybe not all of them are so hyped up and worked-on critical domains such as healthcare, but it is likely that the nice story that creates traction is their founders' most valuable asset.
Good design helps to sell anything
Most startup founders understand the value of good design. Design is a powerful tool, and it allows product creators to convey positive emotions and feelings to users before they start using a product. We all love attractive things, and we even think that beautiful products work better.
Startup founders use design to create an illusion of finished products, and this illusion helps them sell their idea to an audience. The illusion can have nothing to support it. No functioning product. No real technology. It's just a neat idea of creating something big, but this idea is so compelling that it makes people believe that something truly magnificent is underneath it.
An idea is worth nothing, execution is what matters
Even the most creative idea is worth nothing unless it is well-executed. When it comes to the execution phase, you might easily find that your product or technology simply cannot be built. Maybe the technological base isn't ready; maybe users aren't prepared to adopt the new product. That's why not your idea, but your idea execution, is worth millions. Still, many founders pretend that they have something without having even the most basic product version validated with their target audience. Why does it happen? Because there are still people that are willing to invest millions of dollars in something that might not ever be built.
Our society has adopted the "fake it until you make it" and "disregard the impossible" approaches. The idea that we all can build something that will change the world is a part of the modern American dream. And everyone, including the wealthiest people, shares this vision. Fear of missing out, not being a part of something big, not getting 10 times or 100 times return on their investment is what makes venture capitalists say "yes" to the craziest idea. That's why there are still a lot of startups that have nothing more than just a nice story.
Will this behavior ever change?
Yes. The post-pandemic world will likely change the way people create products. Economic recession will make investors count every penny, so having a nice vision and a lovely story won't be enough to convince them to give you money. When the economy is shirking, people are less likely to trust words; they trust actions. Hype is no longer a driving force for investment.
The role of design will also change. The venture capitalist evaluation of a new product will be based not on how the product looks but on how it works. Having a working prototype and existing customer base will be on the top of the list during the investment discussion. Design due diligence will be carried out before the investment. So the role of functional design, a design focused on creating working products with good usability and clear business logic, will only get more significant.
Is the culture of overpromising a bad thing?
Yes and no. A culture of overpromising can be a good thing if done in moderation. Steve Jobs famously said, "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do." But it's important to understand that there are no shortcuts in the product design process. Every time you think that you have a groundbreaking idea that will change the world, you have to go through trials and errors to find that it's true.
Steve Jobs, who changed our world with the release of the iPhone, went through a long process of creating the first iPhone. And the design process started way before 2007 (the year the phone was released). The roots go back to the first Macintosh computer released in the '80s, and the first concept of a portable device created by General Magic in the '90s. That's more than two decades of work for technology that eventually changed our world.
Dream big, and work hard to make it happen.