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You Don’t Need A “Great Product”

Published: May 21, 2016

There’s an uncomfortable truth about product development:

It’s possible to hit the numbers and grow quickly with a crappy product (and/or crappy organizational culture). It’s possible to have a grand exit even when your team knows it is all snake-oil.

You can throw Lean Startup, 4 Steps to the Epiphany, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, and Zero to One in the trash, and still do awesome. Yet we obsesses about “Great Product”.

It will not last and at some point, you’ll end up paying for it. But if your goal is “up and to the right” there are a million ways to grow. If you’re lucky, you can keep this up for a long, long time. Long enough, perhaps, to never have to deal personally with it. Long enough to enjoy a personal exit event, take a break, and come back ready to build a “real” product.

I’m not talking in the very early stages. You’ll need to do something right at that stage. Shortly after that you will see the signs. I spoke with a friend recently who took a roller coaster ride with a big startup in NYC. “Everyone knew from almost the beginning,” she explained, “that our model was unsustainable and flawed. But at a certain point, you just get tired of making the case. Everything was growing and looked good on paper, so we just went with it.”

I hear this over and over. Those on the front-lines sense the problem very early, but it can take years to work it out of the system.

Why does this happen?

Most tech startups make central assumptions about economies of scale. The thought is that eventually, at some point, you’ll figure something out. Someone will want to buy you for your tech (or people), you’ll find new and cheaper channels, or you’ll find the right “synergy” with an acquirer. A lot of tech innovation hinges on long term shifts in usage for “mainstream” business (e.g. Bring Your Own Device, Enterprise Mobility, Big Data, etc.). So it is possible to drink the Koolaid — maybe even spike it — for a long time.

The temptation to just keep growing is just too strong. And frankly, at a certain point it can be tempting to cut product corners and leave certain assumptions unvalidated.

So, let me get to the point. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself about what you value. What is your mission? What matters to you?

If it’s “go IPO”, “have an exit”, “make shit loads of money”, “get acquired”, or anything like that … well, embrace the optics. Embrace all the ways you can keep the train moving. Play that game.

If it’s “build stuff people love and make a difference” or “build a sustainable model that keeps people employed making great software” (my personal favorite) then embrace that. Let that muse guide you. You’ll need to resist all sorts of temptation to cut corners early on. You’ll need to grow more slowly and be intellectually and emotionally honest with yourself. But just let that be your thing. You might even find that the prior goals just happen organically.

Pick a path with no regrets.