Building…one at a time

I recently tweeted a really interesting insight I heard from Mike Maples, Jr of Floodgate at a recent Draper University closed-door event:

This is so true, and a common mistake that founders & product leaders make while building new products. Looking back on my own startup, while I rigorously tried to execute Paul Graham’s “Do things that don’t scale” philosophy, I still created unreasonable expectations in my own head around user growth for each MVP iteration. This was probably due to the baggage I was carrying from my previous experience of working at large companies like Alibaba, where numbers were talked about in Millions & sometimes, Billions.

When the absolute user numbers weren’t met, my morale as a founder would get hit with each iteration. In hindsight, hitting numbers shouldn’t have been the goal at all. The ideal 0-to-1 mindset is like that of a scientist, with curiosity being the core driving emotion, backed by an iterative product development approach. The target outcome of this approach should be to gather insights that help refine the hypothesis.

Similar to how scientists drive their research process one experiment at a time, I have realized that building any new product or service from grounds-up requires moving one “unit” at a time. It’s up to you to decide what that unit should be – acquisition, activation, frequency of use, revenue or even just getting qualitative feedback!

In a scientific process, more than just the number of experiments run, what’s important is taking the learning from each experiment & applying it to the next one so it becomes better than the first.

Similarly, a good approach to building anything new is to delight one person at a time. This automatically focuses the building process & anchors it on an actual customer, thus making it easier to ship something that solves a monetizable problem for someone in the real world. Trust me, this is a non-trivial hurdle that many startup teams are unable to cross.

The 0-to-1 stage can be highly fuzzy but breaking it down into one unit at a time helps give more clarity to the team around the exact short-term goals.

The most profitable way for a product to grow is via word-of-mouth. The above approach naturally optimizes for it. And once the testimonials & organic growth start kicking in, traction compounds with minimal incremental effort.

Of course, the key to executing this building approach well is patience. Again, think of a scientist. A larger research budget or more headcount can’t necessarily speed up a breakthrough. Similarly, building one unit at a time requires a small team committed to iterating over a long enough timeline for customer compounding to kick in. A lean & capital-efficient operating model is a requirement of this approach as a long runway significantly improves the odds of success.

Learning from my mistakes as a founder, as I have now started working towards regularly putting useful startup & investing content out there, I am consciously following the approach of publishing & learning one unit of content at a time – blog post, Twitter thread, LinkedIn post etc.

Same for my angel investing, wherein I am trying to help each founder, co-investor & startup employee I meet, one week at a time, with whatever resources I have – network, expertise, capital etc.

This approach is helping me to first put the core enablers of my venture investing craft in place that then, hopefully, self-compound. Therefore, I feel much better this time about hitting my long-term goals.

PS: on a similar note, I really like this post by a16z on how creators only need 100 true fans to build a business. Whether this number is 100 or 1,000 is less important. The real insight is that even a small number of dedicated fans are needle-moving.

Also, in case you are interested in other similar startup insights shared by Mike Maples at the DraperU event I referred to earlier, check out my Twitter thread on it.


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Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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