May 31, 2019
There's something about the startup playbook of the past decade that is doesn't seem right anymore. Namely, it feels more than ever like a linear track to follow, where product quality has been de-emphasized. I'm not the first to write about this, but recently it has seemed more true than ever.
**A lot of this is more relevant to consumer products than services or operations companies.
Marc Andreessen wrote awhile back about which is the most important factor for a startup: Product, Market, or Team. He posited that Market wins out over anything else, and today most people in the startup world agree with him. Some people advocate for Team being most important. After all, a good team can pivot to a better market. No one ever says Product is most important.
I don't think Product is the right answer either. Market and Team do make more sense. But emphasis on product has been thrown aside by most early stage startups. Partly as a result of this, product quality is now an overlooked opportunity for differentiation and defensibility from day one.
For the past decade, the prevailing startup playbook has been to build an MVP, ship it early, and then iterate your way to success. But the environment in which we build products has evolved quite a bit.
Today, there's so much capital in the startup ecosystem, and so many tools that make it cheap and easy to ship a product, that baseline applications have become a commodity. Most users can intuitively feel the cheapness of the average product today, and their app fatigue is at an all-time high.
MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product, and I want to specifically emphasize the word "viable." We're continually experiencing quality inflation as app-building frameworks get better. As it gets easier to build basic applications, the floor for what is actually viable rises.
The problem today is that most founders' idea of what constitutes a software product's MVP is outdated.
My friend Wilson Cusack brought up a good point this week regarding the startup world these days: it feels a lot like a pre-planned track. In an interview earlier this year, Peter Thiel said, "Tracks work less well when everyone knows them and everyone is doing the same thing."
Elaborating, when every startup pursues the same strategy, it's more competitive and less effective. Less of an art, more of a race to go through all the steps. Now you can grind through the track at Goldman, grind through the track at Google, or grind through the track from YC to your Series D.
I personally wonder if the playbook for startups will evolve in the next few years to become less lean and more product-focused, at least for companies building software that humans use. Not because the current playbook has always been wrong, but because it needs to adapt to the environment.
Of course, startup teaching will always lag behind companies that succeed using a new strategy. We'll see companies break the mold and win before the startup playbook changes. And I think we're already seeing some of those companies emerge today.
Some products have such a devoted user base that they have become memes on Startup Twitter. Among these are Notion, Figma, Airtable, Superhuman, and Discord. All of them are defined by an extremely high quality user experience.
If these products were shipped as MVP's built by stringing together commodity libraries, the founders might have concluded they were just in a bad market, then gone on to build more MVP's forever.
But taking Notion as an example, their story couldn't be further from the norm. If I understand correctly, Notion moved their team away from Silicon Valley to Japan and spent a year obsessing over their product before launching their v1. This led them to a highly differentiated product that people are obsessed with. They can reduce a lot of spending on advertising and sales, since they naturally grow via word of mouth.
Notion isn't totally throwing out the rules. They started by getting a small group of people to love them. They shipped an MVP and iterated. But they chose a much higher quality bar for their MVP than most founders do today.
I'm personally excited to see more teams pouring a lot of effort into their product from day one. If you know anyone doing this, let me know on Twitter.
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