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Lessons Learned

Your Startup's First Thousand Decisions Don't Matter (But These Two Do)

My Tinder forerunner got bogged down in choices before it even launched, when we really had just two big decisions to make.

[Photo: Flickr user Biodiversity Heritage Library]

The year was 2012 B.T. (Before Tinder). I was building a mobile dating app called "Find Your Lobster ," which was, to our knowledge, the first mobile app that leveraged Facebook to help you date your friends’ single friends.

People were skeptical. In those years, the general consensus was that no "desirable" (the accepted, politically correct version of "good-looking") people under the age of 30 would ever dream of using a dating app—especially one that made them sign in with Facebook. Why would they? They were good-looking!

But as a startup founder, this was a dream scenario. We strongly believed something that no one else did. Even better, the clues that it would work were everywhere: During customer interviews, we’d ask people to sign up if they wanted us to email them when the app was released. They’d politely decline — it wasn’t for them—but they’d "definitely tell a friend or two about it."

Then, without fail, their email address popped up on our waiting list that night. The interest was there. The willingness to talk about it freely was not. An enormous market was at stake—potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

You know the rest: We blew it. You’ve heard of Tinder, and you haven’t heard of Find Your Lobster. So what happened? We focused on about 8,000 pre-product decisions that didn’t matter one bit. Here's how not to do that.

Meet The "But What If?" Monster

Anyone who’s taken a screenwriting class knows that Act II belongs to the villain. The villain in this story, the one you’ll face as a pre-product founder, is the "But What If?" Monster. We’ll call him BWIM for short. (I picture it as kind of similar to Grimace from those mid-'90s McDonalds commercials. Feel free to do the same.)

We knew our first product had to be razor-focused. Our long-term market was currently an enormous white space: single people on Facebook that wanted to date their friends’ friends.

In "white-space situations" —markets where a direct competitor may not exist (and where your "competition" becomes the existing process, not a product)—it’s tempting to go for the big market right off the bat. But it’s actually even more important to segment your customer aggressively when you don’t have direct competitors.

Why? Because white space means uneducated users; you’re not getting people to switch gyms, you’re convincing them that exercising is valuable, and then you’re selling them a gym membership. This is hard. It means zeroing in on small, cohesive customer segments that actually recognize the problem.

But this isn’t where we blew it. We started out focused. Our chosen first customers would be single people in New York City, all of whom stemmed from our initial 200 hand-picked beta testers. These customers could invite people, and the people they invited could invite people. That’s how we’d grow. Dating sites are notoriously chicken-and-egg. This helped us pre-stack the deck with desirable chickens. We were golden.

How Pointless Choices Multiply

But the BWIM is sneaky. Its first murmurings in your ear sound logical when you first tune into them: "But what if someone hears about the app but doesn’t have any friends? We can’t just exclude users—we’ll only raise money if we show huge growth!"

So we made a decision: We built a flow for users in New York who wanted to use the app but didn’t have friends using it yet. No invite necessary. Keep in mind, we hadn’t launched yet.

This was a disaster. It meant a new login flow. It meant we needed to design for the dreaded "blank-page state," where users with no friends on the app would have zero potential matches when they first logged in. This one, seemingly simple decision triggered an avalanche of new design, development, upkeep, bugs, cognitive overhead for the user, and muddled messaging for marketing.

We built the prototype, and the blank page state was too off-putting. We needed a change. "What if we showed people friends of friends of friends? That’d let us start with everyone! And in every city!" The BWIM had taken control. We built the app for anyone and everyone.

Basically, we built the app for no one.

The Only Two Decisions That Really Matter

Act III: Slaying the Monster. You’ll do this by nailing two decisions pre-product. There are only two that matter:

  1. Who is your very first customer?
  2. What does "great" look like for them?

The answer to every subsequent question supports these two questions. If the answer isn’t clear, the BWIM is lurking.

1. Who’s your first customer?
Choose the smallest, tightest group of customers that feel the most pain and need the least amount of education and start with them.

They should nail the three main characteristics of customers within a market:

  1. They buy the same products and spend their free time similarly.
  2. They all expect similar value from the product you’ll build.
  3. They speak with each other. Ideally, they speak about the specific problem you’re solving.

Your product will be relentlessly for these people. You need to make every decision through the lens of this customer. Get them right. Make sure it truly is a market. Finding one that meets the above criteria is tougher than it looks.

2. What does "great" look like for your chosen customer?
"Great" is hard for two reasons, and neither of them have anything to do with technically building a product.

First, it's hard because endings are hard (again, ask any screenwriter). Satisfyingly wrapping up a story, a pitch, a relationship— we generally aren’t good at doing that. Designing the perfect ending for your user takes an incredible amount of clarity around what they really want. You need to design the ending first and work backward.

Second, delivering a great solution (and not just an okay one) is hard because it might not exist in the first place. There's a limited number of processes in my life that could be made great. I simply don’t care deeply enough about all that many things—and truthfully, neither do you. If you need to convince your first customer that a mediocre scenario they already experience and live with could actually become great, you're already in trouble.

"Great" comes instead from your product being about something: Every decision you make reinforces what you’re about. There can’t be one toe out of line. Every word, feature, button, email—they all need to be supporting a clear message that you’ve chosen. Ambiguity is the enemy of "great." It comes from multiple customers, and multiple customers come from the BWIM.

Endings Are Hard, And So Was Ours

We tried getting to "great" for Find Your Lobster by ballooning our customer base before we launched anything. "Great" for our first customer was knowing that this was a tight, friend-of-a-friend experience that grew out of a network of people who already had similar standards and tastes. It was meeting an awesome person your friend had approved of. We strayed from that. Tinder later nailed it.

And for us, that straying handcuffed our product development. We had so many different types of users that there were too many variables. Our data was crap. Building our product started to feel like running down the beach with a soaking-wet quilt dragging in the sand behind us. And the quilt kept getting longer.

You’ll be faced with countless potential decisions before your product ever goes live. Remember the only two that matter, then answer the rest of them through that lens. And always beware of asking, "But what if?"

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