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Monday, March 1, 2010

Kevin Costner is Full of Sh*t

Kevin Costner is full of sh*t ... when it comes to startups at least. Build it and they will come. I implore you, do not listen to this man! This line of thinking is out in left field (har har).

I have to admit, I used to subscribe to this tag line. A few years back, I felt that if the idea was there, all that was barring a venture from success was time, effort, and determination. As a result, several of my early projects were drastically over engineered and tragically under utilized.

Case in point, in a 2005 project a friend and I wrote an entire professional network platform. It was Facebook meets LinkedIn (this was back when FB was still only for college kids and LinkedIn was lame). We were going to make the professional network that young professionals wanted and needed to join. We would monetize it somehow, but with the eyes and ears of tomorrow's top earners, we felt this would "fall into place" (don't follow this either). We wrote over 50,000 LoC. It did everything: secure login, password reset, profile creation, group formation, group messaging, secret groups, public groups, photo upload, friend requests, etc. etc. etc. We saw about 150 members over the next few months with few "sticky members." The issue wasn't that we had built a bad product / service, but more that we hadn't done our homework and gathered real world data before setting up shop.

What could we have done differently? We should have given a big middle finger to Kevin Costner and incrementally tested our thesis: young professionals (especially those in major urban environments a la New York City, Boston, DC, and so on) need a better way to network in the work place. At the very least, before we wrote a single script, we should have sent out an email to our friends (we probably could have gotten 500+ addresses, all in our target demographic) and asked if this perceived pain point (them: "we need better networking capabilities!") was a reality. If yes, did our proposed solution solve the problem? Make it worse? After passing these first sanity checks and receiving some initial buy in, we then could have produced a vastly trimmed down initial service (minimally viable product) to test actual adoption and utilization and gone from there. These would have been intelligent, no brainer steps to have taken. But as developers we often don't do this. We get into the groove and let the code fly. Projects like this burn you out both emotionally and entrepreneurially. You only have so much fuel in the furnace and hours in the day, so choose wisely.

This insight sprung up in my head over the past week when discussing a friend's startup idea. (No, not Bad Dinosaur). He had built a great product and wanted me to test it out. I told him I'm not going to be one of his likely early adopters and to go to XX [a popular blog dedicated to people he'd likely want to start off with] and start recruiting people (could even do this before any coding whatsoever). See if they are interested. If so, why? If not, why not? Which of the first features did they think were absolutely necessary, which were nice-to-haves, and which were unnecessary?

When giving a startup a go, you certainly have to have that optimistic dedication and drive to succeed as Kevin Costner demonstrated in "Field of Dreams." But rather than going whole hog right out of the gate, leveling his entire farm, and hoping for the best, Mr. Costner likely should have only hashed out a pitchers mound, picked up a few bats, and laid down some old shirts as bases. Then he could see if a any corn stalks began to rustle at night, or if that voice in his head starts to whisper further instructions ("now add bench seating, we want bench seating" || "no, I meant build a basketball court, dummy!").


Jeff Iacono said...

Discussions from HN:

1 point by SamAtt 28 minutes ago | link

I think usability testing is important(Shout out to Steve Krug: but you can't be a slave to it. These days one of the criteria I use when picking services is "how dedicated does the company seem". After having my stuff disappear with a few failed startups I've come to value someone who goes all-in.
When I see a startup shooting for "minimally viable" I head in the opposite direction.


1 point by jfi 8 minutes ago | link | edit | delete

SamAtt, you have a great point. When building a new product and service you must be dedicated and put something out that is tight and usable. When you are using a service, this is just as important to see in the founders / company.
When I say "minimally viable" it regards quantity rather than a quality, as in "we think the market wants something that does X, so lets build something that does only X right now ... we will build Y and Z if we see further buy in, but we aren't going to build those until we see if our first go at it was in the right direction."

1 point by prosa 13 minutes ago | link

Interesting perspective. I tend to agree -- and with the MVP concept taking hold, it can be tempting to release too early. Figuring out where to draw the line can be tough though, especially when you are operating on a shoestring.
One thought/question: How much of an impact does a high-quality graphic design have on your perception? I'm betting that going the extra mile on the visuals can strongly aide the perception that the company is legit.


1 point by jfi 3 minutes ago | link | edit | delete

prosa, great question - 100% think you must have a graphically appealing product out of the gate, but like you said, it is a fine line that you must walk. I try to test my thesis early and often, but my tests will only be taken serious if I put something out that is engaging. Quality must be there, but be mindful to not get caught up in the "extras" that will delay seeing if you should continue down your current path or course correct.

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