I can’t tell if he wants to laugh, cry or punch me. His emotions right now are about the same as mine were 5 hours ago. I’ve been up for 39 hours.
My head is throbbing.
I’m unsure if it’s from the stress of this huge decision I’ve been considering through the early hours of the morning, or the 4 cans of Walmart’s own brand energy drink.
I’m shaken from my microsleep by his reaction:
“Honestly, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve just said.”
He releases a sigh that carries with it the colossus weight of the codebase I’ve just unburdened him of. I sigh, sharing his relief, and slump down into my chair.
Reminding me why I love having this guy as my equal partner, he’s immediately into action mode:
“OK, it will take me a few days to rip it out. I need to make some changes to the API, database, figure out the UI changes… But yeah, let’s delete it!”
Reading the data from every angle, reviewing every single customer conversation over the last 9 months, and spending days obsessively Googling over the competitive landscape… nothing prepares you for the decision to delete a huge feature. A decision better shared with a cofounder.
Especially a feature that’s cost you $150,000 of investor’s cash.
Here’s the journey that led us up to making this decision, the lessons I learned about being a product manager, and how it’s totally changed the way I think about building products in early stage startups:
Building Great Products Is Really, Really Hard
It’s a simple disclaimer, and one I find myself saying to other SaaS founders a lot. In my opinion, no rules, laws or frameworks can guarantee that you’ll create an amazing product that will hit $25k MRR after 6 months, $1m ARR after 18 months…. You can’t even have a guarantee you’ll hit $1k MRR!
I have read the Lean Startup. 8 Times. I’ve given workshops on the Lean Startup principles. I’ve read hundreds of posts from talented product managers.
And yet in the real world, outside of the perfect lab environment that these fool-proof frameworks are described, the overwhelming number of variables at play mean that building a new product is messy, sticky and a bit unpredictable.
What Exactly Did We Build That Was So Bad?
I’m humble enough to say Trakio’s product vision in 2013 was vague and naive. We were going to help SaaS companies with their customer lifecycle marketing (I’m a big fan of Pirate Metrics) in some kind of way, because we had decided to build this cool customer analytics database, and it seemed like a good thing to do with the tech.
As part of our vision to solve “Every and any problem a subscription company might have…” we thought that selling Trakio would be easier if we added a marketing automation and mini CRM feature onto our basic analytics and metrics features.
After all, a few of our early customers had said they thought it was a great idea. It would save them money on having to buy a separate emailing tool!
This means our tool would now be better value – because customers would get all of these extra features included – so we’ll sell more subscriptions! More features means a better product!
Of course, I now know this is bullshit.
We made 3 big mistakes here.
Mistake #1 – More Features Makes A Product A Lot Harder To Sell
Dropbox – we store your files.
Box – we store your files, and have collaboration, and have these cool business controls, and special enterprise compliance options, and these services to help get setup, and…
Box has had a long and painful struggle, and is valued at $1.7Bn. Dropbox has had life pretty easy, and is valued at $10Bn.
Simple is easy to sell. And I learned this the hard way on sales call after sales call. (And just as painfully, watching the conversion rates tank in our analytics).
When we’d finished playing with it, our new “we do a bit of everything” landing page dropped to <1% conversion on signup. Previously, we’d seen as high as 7%.
Our 1 liner pitch at meetups became messy. Investors stopped reaching out to us cold (a strange, but in my opinion, satisfyingly correlated metric of how obvious your marketing messaging is)
We started to go weeks without a single new paying user, and I started to seriously lose faith in pitching the product to anyone.
Mistake #2 – More Features Makes It A Lot Harder To Build Everything To A Great Standard
I think in todays startup ecosystem, it’s too easy to forget that writing amazing bug free code, and making sure it has an amazing design and UI, is really difficult.
We’ve become obsessed with “MVP”. This idea of minimal. Ship a feature in 4 hours. Next card. Apply Twitter bootstrap UI. Next card.
We create a load of half-assed features. And these half-assed features build up.
I’m sure you justify that you’ll “Double down on the ones that get traction!”. But that never happens. Because your engineers and designers are too busy being pushed into shipping the next new feature.
If you double your features, your product quality will probably halve.
Many founders who I’ve said this to have disagreed with me.
- “Double the team size”
- “Hire more senior coders”
- “Just hire an office of developers in India!”
These founders are usually ones with a lot of half-assed features, and they’re probably halfway through the process of lying to themselves about that, like Matt and I were.
Mistake #3 – Your Customers Should Not Be Dictating Your Product Strategy
“Get out of the building.”
We’re told to go out and talk to customers. Get people to pay you before you build the product.
But what happens if you get out of the building, speak to 10 Accountants at an event and convince all 10 to pay you, but after building the tool no other accountants buy it?
You probably go back to your 10 customers and ask them what else they might like. You add more features, they pay you more money. Now you have an even bigger and more complicated product.
Taking product strategy advice from your customers can be poisonous.
Listening to your customers is recommended, for sure.
But it’s your product and your vision, not theirs. Your customers should never be telling you what to build. You decide what to build, and then test it on them.
The Costs: $150,000 And 9 Months
When we ran the numbers, we estimated we had spent $150,000 of our investor cash and revenue building these extra features, and the marketing & design that went along with them.
But much more seriously, we lost around 6-9 months of time. This opportunity cost was huge to us.
The Happy Ending?
Firstly, we have amazing investors. They understand building something awesome is a journey, and the investment they made was an investment in the team, not simply purchasing code.
Good investors know that the founders’ personal development is part of the startup process, and I think this is something that our more recent investors have recognised when we tell them our story.
Secondly, deciding that we needed to regroup on the product and re-discover our original vision (and conviction for that vision!) pushed us to apply for top tier Startup Accelerators around the world!
We were flown out by YCombinator for a whirlind experience meeting Sam Altman. We were lucky enough to be a part of the Techstars NYC application process (and meet the amazing team at IA Ventures). And we were eventually seduced by B2B focussed accelerator with close ties to Stanford, Alchemist Accelerator!
Joining an accelerator allowed us to go back to 100% product focus. We ripped everything apart. We hit delete a few more times. We looked deep into the code, and deep into ourselves, and what we found was the passion to rebuild the platform into todays Trakio!