Every day you go online, you encounter little annoyances, even things that infuriate you. An entrepreneur won’t just chafe at these irritations, said Posterous co-founder Garry Tan at last weekend’s StartupDay, but turn frustration into innovation—creating a new product isn’t just a labor of love, it’s also a labor of hate.
“You’ve got to connect with what you hate, what you can’t stand. You’re starting up a company because you want to fix it,” Tan said.
At Posterous, Tan set out to build a blogging platform that would skip the annoying step of having to create yet another login. Users can create posts by simply emailing text and photos to the service, which automatically uploads and formats the content.
Tan’s talk on the three steps of a “product-driven state of mind” was a highlight of StartupDay 2010, hosted by Seattle 2.0, an organization dedicated to providing resources for tech entrepreneurs and startups.
Hate the problem is the first step towards creating great products, according to Tan, but completely fixing the problem is not necessarily the best second step. It’s counterproductive to be too perfectionist at the beginning, Tan warned. More important than creating a perfect product is creating any product at all. The second step is to ship the solution, Tan argued, even an imperfect one, because “until you can interact with the product, it doesn’t exist.” And what doesn’t exist, you can’t improve.
Another StartupDay speaker, Jan Miksovsky of “online family organizer” suite Cozi.com, struck a similar note. At one point Microsoft was venturing into the family organizing space, but the competitive threat dissipated because their product never shipped, perhaps because Microsoft only ships products that meet the company’s high standards, Miksovsky speculated. Cozi, in contrast, as a startup had the luxury of improving their service iteration by iteration, providing “incremental design goodness.”
“Designs that don’t ship are meaningless,” Miksovsky concluded.
Turning customers into evangelists
Building a startup is not like building a car, Tan said, a mere logistical and technological challenge. “What we’re really doing is throwing an amazing party.” To do so, you take care of every single detail to make sure that your guests have a great time. Or, as Tan puts it, the third step towards creating great products is to love your users.
Monica Harrington, Chief Marketing Officer at Seattle startup Intersect, and previously at Valve and Google-acquired Picnik, also stressed the need to build a customer-centric company. “You can’t be too obsessive about making users happy,” she said. If you listen to your customers, they can help you build the product and become evangelists. In fact, said Harrington, “they’ll often have better ideas than you.”
But before you can embrace your customers, you first have to embrace the idea of being an entrepreneur.
“All along I was waiting for someone to sign my permission slip to start a company,” said Tan, “but the only person who could sign it was me. Sign your own permission slip.”
Peter Luyckx is a contributing writer to Seattle Local Health Guide and to Flip the Media. Previously, he was the Managing Editor at Flip the Media, and a Web Producer and Editor at Microsoft’s MSN Health & Fitness and MSN Shopping. He is a graduate student in the MCDM program and can be followed on Twitter @peterlux.