Build Carefully: a Cautionary Tale for Startup Founders

It’s rare to find a startup that’s breaking new ground and has the potential to disrupt an industry.  Occasionally I have the pleasure of working with a founder who has a unique take on things.

I’m working with one now… let’s call him Leonard (I love Big Bang Theory).

Leonard discovered a unique angle in a deep vertical and decided to launch a startup to take advantage of the opportunity.

He assessed his budget, asked friends what they thought of his idea, and proceeded to build a $70,000 website that’s almost totally useless for anything more than planning the next iteration.  If there is a next iteration.

Normal people believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Engineers believe if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet! ~ Dilbert

Leonard also purchased a two-word domain that isn’t very brandable and doesn’t relate to his industry or anything close to it. 

But he liked it a lot… until I asked him to google the domain’s two words and read the results. 

Then I challenged him to ask ten people what would be on a site with that domain name… and if one person got it right, I’d do his entire consultation for free.

Engineers like to solve problems.  If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems. ~ Dilbert

By now some of you are chuckling however; many founders do the same things as Leonard when thinking about their product and MVP.

They imagine everything their product can be… without valid research on whether their prospective customers actually want it.  The founder thinks it’s a good idea and so do her or his friends… so they build it.  Then go to market and find out no one wants it   By now it’s often too late to pivot because they’ve blown their financial and emotional bankroll.

The Lean Startup method is about short cycles followed by feedback and iteration based on that feedback.  Your product evolves for your users.  You’re not building features no one wants.

When I talk with startup founders who want to build everything that matches their vision—and that’s most of you—I recommend slimming things down to a skeleton… by identifying one or two must-haves that make their idea essential and unique.  Everything else should be written down so you can come back to it later.

Research, research, and more research… then build your MVP… which means minimum viable product!

When you build… build small.  Start by doing just one or two things very well.  Then listen to your alpha-testers.

That’s right, alpha testers because you’re NOT ready for beta yet.

It takes lots of careful objective work to determine exactly what those one or two must-haves are however; you’ll be very happy when you discover up-front that your initial grand vision doesn’t align with your customers’ feedback.


  1. Steve says

    There seems to be a contradiction between all this research/reasearch/research and fast cycles of iteration. How much time can you spend doing research and still get something built in a reasonalbe period of time?

    • D.K. says

      What’s a reasonable period of time if you’re building the wrong thing?  Keep in mind, MVP doesn’t mean cheap… in time or dollars! The best way to lower the cost of your MVP is to do solid research, which doesn’t take much time if you know how to do it correctly.

      Many startups have gotten funded based solely on customer research. No MVP, just research compelling enough to make investors want to get in early.

  2. Salmon says

    Hello there! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for the great info you have on this post. I’ll be coming back to your website for more soon.

  3. Katkis says

    I’ve seen the situation happen where it was a new investor that was on the Board. If you’re not taking this stuff seriously as to who’s on the Board of Directors and why, you might be in for a lot of pain.

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