Wednesday 18 September 2019

Startup diary: Don’t waste time looking for a silver bullet solution when lots of lead ones are what’s needed

Biting the bullet: Startups need to put in the hours, rather than looking for quick solutions
Biting the bullet: Startups need to put in the hours, rather than looking for quick solutions

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

The startup world has lots of little phrases that are repeated like mantras. Most of them are quite smug. You should find them amusing. They are gross simplifications of nuanced ideas and lessons learned over time. Last week, I wrote about 'eating your own dog food'. That means using your own product - if you won't, no one else will, let alone pay you for it.

This week, let's talk about the desperate, and tempting, search for silver bullets. Silver bullets are what you need to kill werewolves; just one will do the trick.

Silver bullets are the magical 'one weird trick' that will either save your startup, or take it to the next level.

Because startups are so often on the cusp of death (just because you closed one funding round does not mean you'll close another), founders, and boards alike, are tempted by the potential of quick solutions to very serious problems.

The battle-tested advice is to use lead bullets, not silver ones. Lots of lead bullets. That means rolling up your sleeves and simply plodding through the work that has to be done, despite the ticking clock.

It's hard work to do; you have to stay focused and ignore the tempting silver bullets that keep popping up.

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz discussed his time as product manager for Netscape in the early days of the internet. His product was not the famous web browser, but rather the server product that Netscape also produced. And it was slow. Much slower than the rival product from Microsoft (that war was fought on many fronts, not just browsers).

Horowitz came up with multiple silver bullets: strategic partnerships, potential acquisitions, that sort of thing. But a more experienced colleague pointed out to him that his product was still five times slower than Microsoft's. There was no getting away from the slog of fixing all the issues and making it faster. So that's what they did and created a $400m (€359m) product. Sadly, it wasn't enough to save Netscape, but the lesson is still valid.

Voxgig is now at this point. We've done our MVP, we've done our client trials, and now we're doing our wait list invite phase. And we've got a virtual stack of big reports, user interface feedback, and feature requests large and small. Plus, it's clear that some pieces of the system need to be rejigged to work faster and more smoothly.

There are hundreds of open tasks. This can easily overwhelm a small team. And we still have to look after our clients. It is tempting at this point to try to find silver bullets. We could hire another software engineer. We could spend (a lot) more money on servers.

We could stop feature development and rebuild the core architecture to be more performant. We could hire more people for customer support. We could start a bug bounty scheme - that's where we pay people if they find bugs. And so on.

There are lots of tempting quick fixes, most of which cost money, and all of which don't solve the underlying issue.

We've just built a new software system, and there are lots of bugs and issues to iron out.

There's no need to panic. But there is a need for sustained effort. The irony here is that this big, long list of issues is exactly what we wanted from our early customers; it's how we'll improve the quality of the system. So we have to keep our heads and focus.

The other thing to realise is that this situation is the new normal. It will really never end. The system is now in production, and maintenance is as important as new features.

This is a different mindset, and one of those classic transitions that a startup team has to go through. It's not easy, and not everyone can make the transition. Maintenance is not quite as much fun as breaking new ground and building new things. But it is even more important to the business now.

The ongoing quality of the user experience impacts an important metric in our business: churn.

Churn is the percentage of users that leave the system in a given time period. If that sounds bad, trust me, it is.

You spend lots of marketing money getting a customer, only to lose them again before you've made any profit.

That is a very bad thing. High churn rates are caused by many things, but one of them is definitely a low-quality user experience. It doesn't matter if you get all the major features right if there are lots of little irritations. That's what we have to fix now.

I did promise some new metrics for this new phase, so let's start with issues in the system. This week, we have 57 open issues, and 169 closed issues.

I'm using the term 'issue' to mean a bug, minor change, or small feature request; all of these impact client use of existing functionality.

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