Startup founders are often “sipping their own Kool Aid”. In the early days of a startup company, the founders often envision and believe with almost cult-like intensity in a product or market need that sometimes no one else can see. Although the expression “sipping their own Kool Aid” can be taken pejoratively, I would would argue that in the early days of starting a business, the Kool Aid is sometimes the rocket fuel that will perk up fatigued company founders motivating them towards their goal.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with Tom Lehman (Founder of Genius) after his Fireside discussion at the Fordham University 7th annual entrepreneur conference. Tom was a high-energy speaker, funny and engaging, and one of his insights that he shared to the crowd of young entrepreneurs was that “you had better make sure that you are amused by your own product” because it is really REALLY hard to succeed through all the pitfalls of building a business. “Everyone is going to want to quit at some point during the journey”, noted Tom. I think back to my own dark days when my beloved Clausehound.com was buggy and I was running out of money. Our products stemmed from the desire to improve the training of the junior legal staff at my small business law firm and so for us, the integral functionality and usability “wins” that made life easier for our own lawyers were often the fuel that kept our team forging forward in hard startup times.
At Genius, it was apparent that the love of music and the stories behind the lyrics was a passion that made the hardship of startup manageable in the early days. Passion-driven product building is a point that was reinforced for me by my recent conversation with Tim Slater at Fat Lama - a platform allowing users to rent any product - who confirmed for me that he and his colleagues are also their website’s own power users, renting their personal video projectors, DJI Mavic Drones, smoke machines, DSLR cameras, even a VW Campervan through their company’s platform. Tim’s thinking is that, while it is straightforward for software engineers to develop in a lab a product with one scope to fit a purpose, without the passionate testing and usage of that product by the very same team, it will be harder to create something that people will love and want to share with their friends.
An obvious benefit is that for the growing teams at Clausehound, Genius and Fat Lama, encouraging our teams to be power users of our own sites, helps, for them, to bring their specific roles into context and to build empathy with the site’s users. It also gives our startups the shortest possible feedback loop. By knowing our own platforms inside and out as actual users means that if something annoys us about functionality or there are problems with a feature, we know about it first. Sipping our own Kool Aid and/or being our passionate users in the early days is often a substitute for data-driven decisions (because there’s a shortage of data as Tom at Genius pointed out). Being our own user community also means moving quickly to tidy up or remove useless functionalities, and to design new and better features.
Be bold, but “keep it real”! I should point out that from wireframes and onwards our team will “demo” our products to potential users - this helps us to prioritize feature decisions and to understand price sensitivities. Our intuition is no substitute for the external validation of someone who is willing to pay for a product.
Think you might be ready to create a new product? “Wouldn’t it be great if such-and-such existed?” is the start of many a company founder’s successful story. What happens next for that founder is the (potentially years of) tireless economic and emotional commitment to see it through. So, if you think you’re that founder, you had better REALLY like your product idea, want it to exist, and be delighted by every crappy version of it. If you really love it, chances are someone else will too.