Get More Customers or Build a Better Product? How Startup Leaders Do Both
One of the most popular ways to kill a promising young company is to spend too much time perfecting the product. But we tend to do just that.
Most of us entrepreneurs are builders, we’re tinkerers, we’re scientists. And so we’re very quick to slide down a rabbit hole of adding just one more tweak, one more feature, one more cool little trick to make our rocket ship fly that much higher.
Why? Because we’re all aware that the other really good way to sink a startup is to launch a product that isn’t perfect.
If we’re lucky, we launch a perfect product and the money starts coming in. When it does, a trickle seems like a waterfall, and so the chase is on for more sales, more customers, more revenue — which will give us more fuel to keep perfecting the product.
If we’re unlucky, we build a perfect product that nobody wants.
I’ve been there. Let’s avoid that.
The truth is, we’re all scared
Whether we admit it or not, none of us want to put something out for public consumption before it’s ready.
But doing just that is one of those entrepreneurial slogans that advisors constantly shout at you (me included): “If you’re not nervous about your launch, you’ve overbuilt your product.”
It’s those same people (me included) that tell you to fail early and often. What all these people gloss over (me included) is that these things suck. Launching something that isn’t ready and having all your hard work dubbed a “piece of shit” by some random guy on the Internet, that sucks. Having to shutter your business and letting down a bunch of people who believed in you sucks.
You don’t ignore that fear. Ignoring that fear leads to either never launching or launching crap. You need to embrace that fear. But you need to embrace it with two brains.
Sales Brain and Build Brain
There’s a ton of psychology and history and economics I could get into on this topic, but to take it out of theory and put it into action, I’m going to boil it all down to Sales Brain vs. Build Brain.
Every good company leader accesses both of these brains. When you get to be a big enough company, your sales people will drive the process with their Sales Brains, and your engineers or scientists or tinkerers will go deep into the Build Brain.
But when your company is smaller, under 20 people or so, you and everyone on your team will be two people, living in two worlds, with two brains. The smaller your company, the closer to 50/50 you’ll be living.
Here’s the main takeaway from living between those two worlds.
The Sales Brain is the maverick. It needs to respond quickly, without much thought, and the results from its actions need to happen immediately. The Sales Brain is playing for right now, not tomorrow, the finish line is the close of business today.
The Build Brain needs time to think. It needs a runway and a roadmap. It needs to focus on usefulness and value and it needs to find the shortest distance between those two points.
There are a number of ways you can balance these two brains and chase more customers and a better product at the same time.
Prioritize your roadmap knowing that the Sales Brain will constantly be interrupting the Build Brain
I just launched a big new feature and I did it wrong, even after all this time and all the prior mistakes in my past.
I bit off way more than I could chew in terms of timing. Not in terms of the feature itself — I knew what I wanted to do, how to do it, and I gave myself plenty of time to get it done. But I didn’t break down the phases into small enough chunks. I underestimated, again, the impact on my productivity from all the interruptions from my Sales Brain.
When I say “small enough chunks,” I’m talking about complexity. I stacked too many functional elements on top of one another.
So what happened? You know how when you’re working on a complex task and when you get interrupted, it takes anywhere from a few seconds to a lot of minutes to get back into the mindset you got pushed out of? The more complex the task, the more minutes it takes from you every time you get interrupted.
An email comes in — potential new customer. 10 minutes. A Slack notice — unhappy customer. 10 minutes. A team member has a question. 10 minutes.
Here’s what I should have done.
Go small and clean up often
Solution 1: Only build those features that are going to provide instant value to new and existing customers and build in a break point as soon as value is implied (not clear, just implied). Then release and come back later to finish the features only after you see how customers use them and how that impacts your top and bottom line.
Solution 2: Dumb the build process way down so that you can close out logic, user flows, and use cases so you never have to come back. In other words, instead of “Customer buys product,” you need to build “Customer pushes Buy button” and then “Customer enters credit card” and then “Fulfillment is notified” and on and on. It sounds remedial, but remember, your Sales Brain doesn’t care where your Build Brain left off.
Don’t rebuild your product with every release. Make small changes, review and test them. Then when everything is together in pieces, come back and clean it up into a big picture story than turns implied value into clear value.
Document everything so you can come back to it later
When I was just a builder (a coder actually), I learned that putting off the documentation of release notes until the end of the development cycle is one of the most painful things you can do.
Whether you’re slinging code or hammering nails or anything that produces a tangible product at the end, document everything you’re doing while you do it. Not only is this going to save you tons of time at the end, but it’s going to be like breadcrumbs when you get pulled out of Build Brain and have to come back.
Sometimes, Sales Brain can take you away for hours or days (even weeks). It’s much easier to review the documented logic you’ve created than to stare at the half-built thing and try to remember what you’ve done and where you left off.
Other times, Sales Brain can trigger changes in exactly what Build Brain is working on. Again, it’s a huge help to be able to make changes in documented logic first than it is to undo half-a-complete result and start re-tinkering and breaking stuff.
Only support customers who want to be customers
The Sales Brain doesn’t get a pass for its insistence on an immediate response. Not every potential customer has to be converted.
I’ll get flack for this, but don’t waste your time bending over backwards for customer prospects who don’t see the value right away, especially detractors. You don’t have to be mean, but if they’re going to walk away, let them walk away.
I get constructive criticism all the time, and I listen to all of it, and most of the time it’s spot on. But sometimes, and it happens more often than you’d think, the criticism comes when the critic assumes I’m building something that I’m not.
For example, in the beginning, Teaching Startup’s main criticism was that it didn’t offer online classes for entrepreneurs. And those critics were correct, online classes were not and still are not anywhere on my one-year roadmap.
That’s not to say they will never be, but the fact is I’m not building Ed Tech. It may look like Ed Tech, because there’s “education” and “technology” in the mix. But if the critic really wants online classes, they should probably go to one of the zillions of Ed Tech companies that offer a small, unfocused niche of classes for entrepreneurs.
Marry your Sales Brain and Build Brain by automating customer acquisition
So let me throw a bit of a curve ball at you. You can always make peace between your two brains and build (or buy) technology that automates the acquisition, onboarding, and support of more customers. There are two great ways to do this.
The first method is when Build helps Sales do their job. In the customer conversion funnel, create hooks, breadcrumbs and whatever else you can think of to help the customer discover more value more quickly.
The second method is to automate the customer conversion process as much as possible, by using tech for the customers to sign themselves up, onboard themselves, quit on their own, and resolve their own payment and onboarding issues.
That’ll show your Sales Brain who’s the real boss.
And that’s the main point. Entrepreneurs will always overdo it on the build side. This is who we are. But you can’t build what customers want until your Sales Brain reports on what those customers want.
When these two brains are working together, the possibilities for scale and growth increase dramatically.
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If you want more direct startup advice, look into Teaching Startup.