For most of 2012, I was embedded in Dogpatch Labs working with early stage startups, such as ByteLight, to create the core product and get them to the next level. All faced the challenges of a pre-MVP product and small team. Here’s some of what’s involved, the challenges faced, and approaches to tackle them.
#1 Establish Vision, Create Focus
What defines success?
The answer to that question will change. Possibly often. You should ask it regularly and make sure your whole team understands the answer and the reasoning behind it. The answer will likely change based on how far out you look: what defines success for the next month will be different than 3 months or 12.
You may struggle to identify a single definition of success but it’s important that you do so (or attempt to as best as possible). Back up the goal with ways to measure it. Benchmark team progress regularly against it.
Give your team a clear sense of why you are there, how you are going to take over the world, and that they are expected to be a big part of that.
- Being customer ready (if you sell a customer you can actually support them)
- A product that demonstrates your direction strongly enough to incite new interest from press and investors
- Getting enough app usage to demonstrate that, yes, the market really is there
- Getting the “hockey stick”: non-linear growth in app usage, downloads, conversions, sales, or whatever else is the most important success metric for your app.
- Generating enough revenue to get you bootstrapped
#2 Continuously Re-Define Your Product
While keeping your eye on what defines success, re-evaluate your product design. Evolve. Tweak. Change. Nothing is sacred. Get as much feedback and input from press, investors, peers, and users as possible. Then evaluate and digest it. Let it challenge your vision but don’t go chasing every idea or feature thrown at you. Resist all impulse to get lost in feature design. Stay focused on who your users are, what they want to do, and what you want them to do.
#3 Start Hiring. Now.
When hiring for a small team you want to hire heavy hitters who can help you drive towards the goal line. Unfortunately, so does every other company. Expect it to take at least three months to hire someone (especially the right someone). For engineers, designers, and front-end devs the market is shot. It’s been that way for a while and it’s only going to get worse.
Establish a hiring pipe (personal networks, word of mouth, meetups, even recruiters) and keep it full. Someone who’s not available (or interested) now might be a few months down the road. Don’t wait for positions to really open up; starting filling the pipe as if the position were open now (though I’m not advocating leading people on).
If time is against you, consider hiring a consultant (shameless plug). It’s by no means a silver bullet but the right consultant can add acceleration and experience where it’s sorely needed.
#4 Understand Your Team
My first priority with a new project is to get my bearings. To a frustrating extent, nearly everything that comes out of my mouth early on will be a question. I want to know the state of things and how they got that way. This extends far beyond technology.
- Who are the founders? Who are the key influencers (founders or not)? What is the dynamic between them and the rest of the team? Who makes the decisions? Who really leads?
- What technology is in place now? Why was it selected? What issues have they had with it so far?
- What are the skills of the current team both technically and non-technically? Do they have good communication skills? Do they understand application architecture? Have they ever scaled anything or worked with large data sets? How do they handle conflict and stress?
Keep asking “why” until you really understand your context. If needed, take someone out to lunch or ask small questions in the break room. Tease out perspectives you can’t get in a group setting. Paradoxically, humans are what make software difficult and understanding the team is critical.
While this is especially true for an outsider it’s often true for the core team as well. The better a team understands itself the more it will function as a cohesive unit. A founder who understands his team can utilize their strengths while both protecting against and working on their weaknesses.
#5 Focus on Quality
Quality is the visible, tangible thing that gives your users, the press, and investors a perception of value. Make people want to use it and share it. Quality also shows that you’re serious and should be taken seriously.
Make it work. Make it beautiful. Make it fast.
Which factors have been important getting your product off the ground?