Building a great product in a weekend – is it possible?

So I’ve been thinking a lot about advice I have seen on Twitter about getting your product out there super-fast. In particular, I have pondered about the statements that encourage entrepreneurs to build a product in a weekend, launch it, get feedback, iterate and, if you can, charge money for it; all within a few days.

What I’ve been struggling with is:

Is that reasonable? Could we have done that?

Even more so, what kind of traction is reasonable to expect?

How long would it take to demonstrate enough traction to raise an institutional (VC) round from such a fast time to market?

As an early stage entrepreneur we hear a lot about finding the Product/Market fit. Which basically means figuring out if you have solved a problem with your offering that a significant number of people have.  The way I describe it is ‘do we have a winner?’ i.e. is this a winning, big idea concept if we keep going with it?

However, finding Product/Market fit and have a mass-market appeal product are different. You can probably figure out if you have Product/Market fit with Innovators as well-described in the Diffusion of Innovation Graphic:

Diffusion of Innovation

And this is a tremendous milestone in itself, because it is very hard to get product/market fit with any sized market. But then there is the next major milestone which I call 80% product/market fit.

To me, 80% Product/Market fit means that the significant majority of users in your target market can use your offering successfully. In other words it solve the jobs they do in order to want to continue using your product again (and again). This does not mean having certain advanced features that leading edge / pro users want, but solving the problems the vast majority will need in order to adopt your product on a regular basis.

80% Product/market fit from a time perspective can occur somewhere between the latter portion of ‘Early adopters’ and the early ‘Early Marjority’. Why isn’t it a specific milestone on the graphic? Well because I am separating the product development cycle from the customer acquisition and distribution aspects of technology adoption. The graphic shows when users actually adopt the product. The product may be ready for the vast majority at times different from when users actually start using them due to the  acquisition capability of the organization (sales force, channel management, social media etc.).

There is a wide spectrum of what it takes to get to Product/Market fit at the 80% level. While by no means simple, it is pretty fair to say that the timeline varies by the types of offering you are developing. Some very successful products like Instagram, Twitter, eBay, surely had a much shorter time-to-market compared to complex applications like most EA titles, enterprise software, ad serving technology and popular analytical tools like Google Analytics.  An interesting observation is that many of the companies that have had shorter development timelines seemed to have large amounts of user generated content and participate in markets with network effects.

There are some companies like SAP which started in 1972 and took years to build to solve enough problems (aka ‘jobs’) to become an option for large corporations in the early 90’s with R/3. Most of Microsoft’s products took several iterations to find 80%Product/Market fit.  The period between MVP launch and 80% Product/Market fit could easily be measured in years (decades?).

Why I am writing this post? Well, we certainly could have been in market several months sooner if we just built what we released as our MVP.  As you might recall, after building several workflows, we removed a large amount of functionality for our public release with the expectation that most will be added back in at a later time.  However if we just built the MVP to start I don’t think we would have gotten our Product/Market fit to the 80% level much faster. In fact, we may have slowed it down.

Let me explain…

Because we were designing and building a product that was striving for the 80%, we made several architecture and infrastructure choices and investments that we would not have anticipated upfront had we just been building our MVP.  So while we may have gotten some early traction with Innovators and very early adopters, it may have taken us longer to get to the 80% level by having to re-architect various aspects of our product at a later date (see my post The Biggest Decision). John’s perpective on this is almost always ‘better to do it now while the patient is open’, and after four plus years of working together he is usually right.  Of course, it was very possible we made some investments in areas that turned out to not being needed or important so that may have worked against us. We also missed some feedback that we should have gotten sooner (Launch & Learn – quickly adapting to insights from our users), luckily that wasn’t too costly. However, on balance we feel confident we will move faster once in market to quickly get to 80%.

Since traction is so important, our speed to 80% product/market fit is what we are solving for; so that we get hundreds of thousands of users not dozens or hundreds of Innovators or Early Adopters. If we got the right initial product/market fit then our speed will be the key to our success.

If someone else has a new product that can be built in a weekend and get 80% product/market fit right away (and ideally benefit from network effects) that is awesome, and I commend them with coming up with such a great idea and opportunity. However, those opportunities are rare. I think the significant majority of meaningful companies require several months to get to 80% product/market fit and in many cases even longer.

Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus

One of the biggest challenges in an early stage startup is to have enough talent on the team to do all the tasks required to get stuff done right.  If you only have a handful of people in your company (i.e. four or less) it is almost impossible to have all the skills needed to deliver a new offering, especially if it is some type of consumer application like ours.  So how do you find all the people to do all the work that is needed?

For many years now I have talked to people I work with about people I would label ‘Swiss Army Knives’ and others who I would call functional experts.  Swiss Army Knives are basically like the metaphor suggests, they are talented individuals who can perform multiple types of tasks well enough to accomplish the required objectives. This does not mean that they are experts in any specific functional area, but in a startup environment they are able to figure out what is needed and to make it happen. Almost always Swiss Army Knives are choosing this breadth vs. depth capabilities. My experience is that they are very smart and flexible individuals and if they chose to go deep in any specific functional area (and usually they have at least one or two in which they have gone deep) they would be world class in that area.  I started my career at Procter & Gamble and they really encourage attracting and developing Swiss Army Knives, and a lot has to do with their philosophy of promotion from within, general management skills and an upward spiral career path.  Which basically means that at P&G high performing employees are encouraged to take multiple cross-functional roles during their career as they move up the ladder. Being able to perform well in multiple functions and appreciate different functional roles is a critical leadership and career skill.

A few additional thoughts on Swiss Army Knives, while I don’t have statistical data on this I have found that only a small percentage of people fit this categorization, even in great organizations. What’s even more interesting is that I have found that SAKs tend to find each other and hang out together. I really don’t know why, but it just seems that they tend to have similar values, experiences and outlooks. Also, not being a SAK is not a bad thing either, having deep functional expertise is necessary in almost every company especially when combined with the depth of experience that the SAK will almost never have.

So how does this relate back to driving a successful startup?  Well, if you are small and can only have a few folks working full time in your company I would suggest having as many of your early employees being Swiss Army Knives as possible. By having as many people on your team who are able to get things done (in a ‘good enough fashion) within your team means that you do not have to tap outsiders (contractors, consultants, agencies etc.) to help you get them done.  Kind of obvious, but it all start with who do you have riding on your startup bus.

My partner John is a Swiss Army Knife. Not only can he tackle just about every technical aspect of our product (such as architecture, web service integration, functional coding, presentation layer functionality, HTML/CSS, dB management, operations etc.) he also has a unique appreciation of consumers and marketing from his past experiences. Thus when we discuss new features or user feedback we can immediately have a great, productive discussion about what to build and translate the conversation into new requirements.

However as you grow your startup you can’t do everything yourself and you can’t hire full-time people for every role that need to be done. There are lots of ways to address this issue via contractors, interns, consultants etc.  What we have found to work pretty well for us is using oDesk (  We use oDesk for both product development and marketing-related experts. oDesk is a great resource if you use it properly but it is certainly not a silver bullet. In fact, our experience is that unless you put a very big effort upfront into hiring and managing the functional experts you find you will be very disappointed in the results. Leading a team on oDesk takes as much effort if not more effort to coordinate (to account for time zone, language and not being in the same room).  In fact until we developed the right process and tools for the team, it was hard for some oDesk people to succeed was a challenge for them. But as we have found if you get your ducks in a row and find the one or two key people that ‘get it’ and can ‘do it’ the bang that you get for your buck compared to hiring locally really pays off.

To-date, getting the right people in the right seats on the bus has been a long, iterative challenge with our efforts finally paying off. We are happy where we are today, but of course it is a never-ending battle as we try to grow and keep up with all the new changes to our product and small company.

Good luck to you on getting the right people on the right seats on the bus – and may as many of them be Swiss Army Knives as possible.