When you’re an entrepreneur, things move really fast. When you’re an entrepreneur in tech, they move five times faster. You really can’t afford to fall behind and everything is time sensitive - six months is a lifetime ago. The foundation of your company is what allows you to adapt and hopefully succeed in an ultra-competitive climate.
I learned this along with a whole slew of other things from my experience creating SkyPrep, a training platform for businesses, and I’m learning new things with every passing day.
This is a list that is reflective of my personal experience as an entrepreneur, and are the three things I would suggest to anybody looking to start a company. In reality there are obviously a lot more factors to a successful startup than the three on this list. Moreover, these are probably the three most obvious and cliché suggestions somebody could provide, but my startup experience has so strongly reaffirmed these that I can’t think of anything more fundamental. That said, I’ll try to keep them as concise as possible for the sake of brevity.
1. Find the right team
The old adage that I always heard early on: “when venture capitalists look to invest in a startup, they look at the team members before examining the product”. A great product with an awful team is the quickest route to failure, and drawing from my own experience in tech, I can say that this is in fact the case. With a great team comes the possibility of success. Without a great team comes nothing. Having the brightest people of course helps, but you can never overlook trust, synergy and cooperation. You will be spending the majority of your awake time with your co-founders so they need to be people that you are comfortable with and confident in.
2. Identify and solve a real problem
No matter how you cut it, a tech startup is always a risky proposition but in my opinion, there are ways to mitigate that risk. I’ve never felt comfortable developing a consumer social app (or game) as a full-blown venture. Yes, they can be cool and fun, but trying to develop the next Instagram or Angry Birds that spreads like wildfire among consumers is like trying to hit the jackpot. Knowing what design decisions will resonate with users is nearly impossible to predict because you are dealing with people’s creative preferences as opposed to something tangible, like their company requirements. On top of that, you’ll often see startups develop a super cool product before questioning if there actually is a need for that product. Trying to convince people that they need your solution (when they really don’t) is a very difficult thing to do.
For this reason, I prefer to hedge my bets a bit by building a product that solves a real business need. The first thing you need to ask is “what opportunity is there for me to fill a need?”. Do some market research to see where industry shortcomings lie, and analyze if there is an opportunity to fill that need. Only once you’ve properly outlined what problem you are solving, you begin deciding on HOW you will solve it. If the research was done properly, you’ll always know that there is a need for what you are providing - even if the solution you came up with sucks. If it sucks, that just means you have to improve the solution, but the demand is there.
3. Innovate, don’t replicate
More often than not, there will be existing competition in the space you are trying to enter. In the past, I’ve seen startups that look at a successful company and simply try to duplicate their solution with high hopes of success. In fact, my company’s design strategy included some of this early on as we looked at competitor features and tried to implement some of them into our own app. We quickly realized that this was a terrible strategy because it presented two paramount questions: 1) What incentive was there for a customer to opt for our unknown product when there already existed established training-software providers in our space? 2) Who’s to say that the solution competitors developed were the best or only way to do things? In many cases, we actually found that what competitors had developed was counter-intuitive and didn’t solve the customer’s problem as effectively as it could (and should) have.
Don’t tie your creative hands by cloning what others do. Competition is just your measuring stick, not your template. You need to solve a customer’s problem better than your competitor.
Identify the problem you want to solve, develop your own solution and then objectively compare it to the competition. If it stacks up favourably, you’ve developed a competitive product. If not, don’t worry because design and development is an iterative process. Keep refining your product until comparison says your solution is great, innovative and better than the competition - and then improve it some more.
By Sepand Barkhodaee, co-founder of SkyPrep and a March 2014 student.