Advice for start-ups

I was dropped an email by a start-up who was grateful that I had helped them gain a wider audience by my having blogged about how useful their service is. They asked me about what I would change regarding their product; was it’s performance good enough and what features would I like to see?

They also asked me about doing performance ‘video shoot outs with other cloud-based services’. I have edited the email so that the identity of the start-up is protected and have included some annotations:

Congratulations on making a product that harks back to the golden days of web 2.0. That is where the web is a platform, the product is useful and its design is focused. Too many have gone down the Facebook / Microsoft route and festooned their products with features that slowed them down and obscured their usefulness to the point of complete obscurification.

I as a child I used to read Car magazine during its golden era of the mid-1980s when the likes of LJK Setright had a regular column in the magazine. Whilst my parents thought that it was was waste of space; it actually taught me a few lessons and probably improved my reading age. One of the concepts it taught me more about was that of performance. It was more than numbers on a set of Top Trumps card; an important lesson that I thought about back when processors seemed to be all about clock speed.

Performance

In the words of the Rolls Royce car salesman the performance is adequate. But that’s all that you need, you can get to a point were your efforts won’t be rewarded with extra users. Performance is also measured beyond speed in stability. _______ is just like the light socket on my wall; it just works.

Bottom line: don’t obsess on a metric view everything holistically. The next section on product features is self-explanatory:

Features

I would advise you and your colleagues to think very carefully about features. Consumers are dangerous creatures, they never truly know what they want, but they know that they have to have an opinion of some sort. Everyone flatters themselves that they are creative or original thinkers – but they’re not. They are sheep and they need a good shepherd to lead them. The biggest challenge you will all face is one that I deal with every day at work; not doing something for the right reason.

Currently your product works because of it’s laser focus. Additional features poison that focus, but could be ideas for another new product: keep them in a scrapbook marked ‘new product ideas’.

If you make a product that really matters to consumers will want you to be paid. Advertising doesn’t work that well, paid models be it a one-off payment like Pinboard.in or subscriptions a la Flickr and Newsblur are the way forwards for web services.

Future

Your product is so useful that I do worry about how you will make money to keep it going. If you were going to add one feature make it a yearly subscription.

Lastly, my take on their proposed comparisons with other web services:

Your videos
I was thinking long and hard about your videos and thought that whilst impressive, they not be a good idea. As a user of your service, I don’t think of ______ as a cloud product. I just think of your service as something that solves the ____ ___ _____ problem. Secondly I wanted to draw your attention to the product designer Dieter Rams.

One of Mr. Rams rules of design was that ‘Good design is as little design as possible’. Which is a focus on the essential element of the product. However it could also be considered to have a shadow meaning in that the product design would appear self-evident to the consumer – having tried your product it makes perfect sense that it should be that way, that there could be an alternative doesn’t make sense. Making videos, even if they show off the awesomeness of your cloud technology suggests to consumers that there are capable ______ substitutes and the very act goes against the ‘Good design is as little design as possible’ principle.

Usually the problem with start-ups is that the substitute products are readily apparent, which wasn’t the case in this instance. Secondly, unlike many products out there is is well designed. Competitive comparisons negated much of these advantages.