Startups Need External Deadlines

One trick I’ve found when starting a company (and it’s particularly useful at the very start, before you’ve launched a product) is to create external deadlines.

It’s hard to be sufficiently motivated by internal deadlines and plans. When there’s no clear negative consequences, it’s all too tempting to slip a deadline by a few weeks in order to add an extra feature or to fix a few bugs. However the most important advantage a startup has is speed, and in most cases the best thing you can do is to get your product out there and in front of real users and customers as quickly as possible. This means you start getting feedback sooner, you start learning earlier, and you can iterate more quickly.

For me at least, I’ve discovered that setting external deadlines means I’m much less likely to slip. I think most of us don’t like disappointing people or failing to live up to our promises. I’ll illustrate with two examples of my product launches.

It was late 2007. I had recently left my full-time job and my two co-founders and I were holed up in a makeshift office in my living room working on Omnisio, a new tool for sharing educational videos online. We had grand plans and the whiteboard was filled with sketches of all the amazing features we were going to build. But we needed to get something out there. The concept of a ‘launch’ doesn’t really mean much when you think about it. The company is still the same the day after as it was the day before, except you hopefully have a few more people using your product. Furthermore it’s common these days to have alpha and beta and ‘soft launches’, and rare to have a big bang PR launch. So what is a launch then? I think it’s actually a very important psychological point in the early development of a startup, where the team switches from a “we’re building this cool new thing” mode of thinking, to “we’ve built something and now we need to grow our user/customer base”. I think it’s important to get to this point as quickly as possible.

Anyway back to my story. We knew we had to launch something, and we figured an external deadline would be a great forcing function. The first technology we were working on enabled us to synchronize powerpoint slides with videos, and we realized conferences might benefit from this. Often times you want to watch a recording of a speaker at a conference, but you either end up squinting at a grainy video trying to read what’s on the slides next to the speaker, or you somehow manage to obtain the slides separately and try to follow along with the video. This is easy to fix with technology.

I learned that a friend of mine was organizing a conference on social network platforms - a hot topic that was sure to draw a lot of interest. Perfect. I contacted him and told him about a cool new product we had built for showcasing conference videos, and asked if we could put videos of his conference online. He loved the idea. The only problem was that we didn’t have a product yet, and the conference was a week away. This is the kind of external deadline I’m talking about that provides the motivation to work at the speed of a startup.

I vividly remember the scene a week later at the conference. I sat there with my video camera filming each speaker, while my co-founder Julian ran around with a USB drive asking speakers for a copy of their powerpoint slides, and my co-founder Simon sat there on his laptop writing the code that would glue it all together. Needless to say we got it done, although I think it wasn’t all working until a few days after the conference. We set up a private page with all the videos in our new video player, and the conference organizer sent out a link to all the participants. We had our first live users and our first real feedback! It would be quite some time before we did a public PR launch of the feature (we launched some other components first), but the important thing was that we had passed the first key psychological barrier and we now had actual users to please.

I’ll finish up with a second story about the launch of Kaleidoscope, which is a mobile fashion app that I’m working on at my current company, Inporia. We conceived of the idea in early January, and decided it would be best to launch during the spring fashion season, - New York Fashion Week in particular. The problem was it was only 6 weeks away and we didn’t have a product yet (do you see a pattern here?) We reached out to various media partners as soon as we had created screenshot mockups with the hopes of securing a launch partner to help promote the app. We ended up building an embeddable web widget version of the app, alongside our Android and iPhone apps, so that we could piggyback off the traffic of our launch partner.

We officially launched on February 14 to great press coverage, and had our widget embedded on modelinia.com. The outside world never saw the fact that Simon was still fixing critical javascript bugs the night before (yes the same Simon), and Sarah pulled an all-nighter making sure all the content was loaded and everything was working (side note: this is why you need an awesome team when building a startup). We repeated this again for Paris Fashion Week a few weeks later, this time securing a partnership with AOL’s stylelist.com. That brought a crushing level of traffic and took down our servers almost immediately, but with Simon on hand working to fix things combined with the elastic scaling capability of today’s cloud services (thanks Heroku) we were up again in no time and the partnership was a great success.

I hope those stories give a little insight into what life is like in the very early days of an embryonic startup, and serve illustrate how important external deadlines can be in getting past the first critical hurdle - launch.

 
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