I graduated college in 1994. One year later Netscape went public, kicking off the beginning of the consumer internet. Most technology innovation over the following decade was about infrastructure — making sure people had broadband to their homes, developing phones with real computing power and growing wireless connectivity.
Fast forward to now. With most of those technology challenges (and many more) settled, many disruptive opportunities today aren’t technology challenges at their core. Think of recent successes like Uber, Instagram & Twitter. These concepts were rapidly adopted by a large number of people because they got the “human” element right.
When I met technical founders five years ago, I got jealous; they could build a product, while I, as a non-developer, had to pay someone to do that. Now I feel the exact opposite. My advice to people who can code is to slow down.
Before you begin the typical “feature march”, focus on human behavior. Today, building is the easy part for many types of startups. The challenges today are brand, design, engagement and distribution.
Before writing a line of code, the founder in this podcast (at minute 33:42) describes how he spent four months talking with customers and industry experts to understand the human challenges of his industry. And I bet he spent many more months thinking through the idea before he ever had the first of these conversations.
When I think of local founders who share this philosophy, two that first come to mind are Ugo Ezeamuzie & Miguel Oller of Bloveit. When Ugo first realized that he needed to solve his own problem around dating he did three important things before ever writing a line of code.
First, he wanted to see if other people had his same problem. He researched this by talking to random people in coffeehouses to get as broad of a perspective as possible. It wasn’t easy to walk up to strangers and ask “do you ever have trouble finding cool things to do on dates?” Nevertheless he did it, and this allowed him to see how people responded when he brought up the issue. Their answers gave him important insights.
Then he asked a dozen couples to plan dates that he would pay for to get as much feedback as possible on every stage of the dating process. This allowed Ugo to get process down: to figure out what consistent problems people have and what specific points were the most painful.
At this point you’d think that he would be ready to build, right? Nope. At his core, Ugo believes in the Five Whys theory. So he keeps asking “why?” until he gets at the core human motivation for each action.
As the last pre-build act of research, a week before Valentine’s Day the Bloveit team opened a Facebook request offering to send individuals the three best date recommendations for them based on Google survey forms that they filled out. Twenty-eight people took them up on it and, like the AirBnb founders putting mints on the beds of early customers, they did lots of manual work to make sure the experiences were perfect. People loved it.
At this point the Bloveit team was finally ready to code. As my Switchyards partner Blake Brynes says, they had “earned the right to build product.” They identified the problem, understood the process and had operated the business manually.
This philosophy is not common and, while there are certainly many ways to launch successful startups, this example shows how I believe the best founders think about new ideas. For more detail on this topic, my full blog post is here.
Image via Bloveit. Inline images via Jason Seagle.
David Payne is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Switchyards, a B2C startup hub in downtown Atlanta. You can read more about his startup journey here. Follow him on his blog and Twitter.