Kristina is a senior User experience strategist and writer based in seattle. She also edits the online magazine

How to not mess up your tech startup

Startups are a special breed. I’ve worked with startups at varying stages of their life cycles, and I’ve become fascinated with what determines success. I’ve identified a few elements that can be controlled.

To make things rhetorically simpler, let’s pretend for a moment that you, sir or madame reader, are the founder of a company with a really freaking great product called FanFix. Let’s say it’s a web app to assist folks in writing the best fanfiction they can possibly write. It has tools for notes, research capabilities, a community, a content-specific image library, tagging, built-in tips, and self-marketing tools.

Given the recent corporate interest in fanfiction, funding was a no-brainer. You’re fully funded, and now have a carefully selected team of really smart folks.

Here’s a high-level look at how not to botch up your startup.

#1: Find value in your product

Every member of your small team should want to shout your product’s name from any available mountaintop. Assuming you’ve hired smart folks (and of course you have), their opinions of the product should be important to you.

There are likely members of your team who don’t need something like FanFix. That’s ok. But if those team members meet an avid fanfic writer, said members should want to plug FanFix.

Because really. If your employees aren’t proud of what they’re working on, how can you possibly hope that outsiders will be eager to use and share it?

#2: Don’t treat your users as idiots

Because they aren’t. Don’t pander. I like how front end web dev Ben Lumley puts it:

Start reading some usability testing studies, conduct your own usability tests (and this doesn’t include getting your spouse, mum or dog to have a look) and start thinking like you’re in 2013 and not 2005.

If you catch yourself thinking that your users won’t understand what you’re doing, recognize that as an insecurity of yours. Trust your team. And whatever you do—and yes, it bears repeating—don’t pander to your users.

#3: Understand the value of culture

Startups are like those little sealed-off biodomes that big-wig executives used as paperweights in the 90s. Those glass globes filled with water, a few plants, and shrimp or little fish. Self-sustaining ecosystems in a delicate, intentional balance.

If something in that ecosystem is sick, it’s toxic. You rip out a few plants, kill off your shrimp, the system falls apart. And be careful with new introductions to the ecosystem. The wrong incoming entity can go invasive species all over your company’s ass.

Bonus points: Check out Scott Anthony’s take on Culture of Innovation. It’s not startup-centric, but definitely worth a read. Or for a more cynical take, check this one out.

#4: Usability testing is not futile

Startups are fast-moving and under great pressure to make money, go “viral,” get lots of users, get brand momentum, and so on. But if you’re not testing FanFix in a pool of people who actually _need or want _the app, well, you’re kind of missing the point.

And yes, your close friends may be users, but they also probably have a good deal of bias. So does your boyfriend/wife/husband/pal.

Of course, if you’re going super lean, and your UX designer is a fanfic-factory-Cumberbabe, you might be able to cut a corner or two early on. But if your UXer had to google “slashfic” upon coming aboard, well, usability testing is probably a great idea. And it’s a good way to discover if something’s just not working.

Which leads me to…

#5: Don’t solve problems you don’t have yet

Creep is a sneaky assassin. And the easiest way for the Creep to, well, creep up on you and your talented team is by solving for problems you only think you have.

For instance, after 2 hours in a design meeting, maybe you’re questioning some interaction in FanFix’s image search tool. The more you look at it, the less intuitive that image selection interaction seems. What if users don’t know what to do when they get here? Better add in a few words to explain. Ooo, better yet, let’s add two whole paragraphs. And four share buttons. Oh, that takes up too much space on a mobile phone? Ah well. Add it anyway. Better to overexplain than—

STAHP! Congratulations. If you get through this discussion without strangling someone (or being strangled), you now have a decidedly worse app. In your fear that users won’t understand something (see #2), you’ve undermined the work of your interaction designer, your visual designer, your copywriter, and likely a slew of others.

Ah, yes, another nice segue…

#6: Hire smart people; let them do smart things

FanFix is your baby. Maybe you even have a big personal financial stake in it. And you probably feel you know best. In some cases, maybe you do.

But in many cases, you will not know best. That’s why you hired dedicated engineers, marketers, writers, designers, communitiy managers, et cetera. I know it’s hard to trust others, but if you trust yourself in hiring, you’ll be doing FanFix—and more importantly your users—a great service indeed.

The toughest thing for a founder to do is recognize she needs to sit back and let those she hired do their jobs.

#7: Have your users represented in planning

Are you building an app for men who love racing? For folks who need better financial planning? For 24-year old lady Tumblrs who write 30,000-word fanfiction about Benedict Cumberbatch falling in love with Tom Hiddleston on the set of Supernatural? How well do you know their needs? Take a moment and seriously consider this, especially if you’re not building this product for yourself, first and foremost.

While usability testing and demographic research do wonders, you’ll never do as well as an empathetic team member. I’m not saying that you need to only hire engineers, marketers, and biz dev folks who spend their evenings writing/devouring fan fiction, but having a key team member who does will greatly increase your odds of success.

Even more simply. If you’re building an app directed at women, make sure you’ve got a woman somewhere in the planning process. If you don’t, well, best of luck.

#8: You can’t have it all…yet.

When you get a modicum of traction, it’s easy to get carried away.

If these fanfic writers find FanFix useful, surely ALL THE PEOPLE will! LET’S TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

~Founder bent on world domination

This can’t be stressed enough. Want your product to be huge? Conquer the small.

Identify your core audience early on, and get to know them well.

If instead you decide to open your arms and wrap everyone in the big warm hug that is FanFix, you have this to look forward to:

  • a watered-down brand
  • an aimless, generic voice that speaks to no one
  • wild, unfocused marketing
  • time/money wasted on features no one cares about
  • an increasingly frustrated team

After all, if you can’t get a focused group of people to use your app/give you money, what makes you think extending your sights is the answer?

And remember: unless you’re extremely lucky, you can’t build and market an app to everyone.

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