Pick the right stuff to work on first

Startups

In product development, you have to unbreak before you can invent

“You want to make things better? Here’s a mop.”

The vision is to build something new — something that makes a difference. The reality? You’re spending more time in product development crushing bugs instead of “it.” If your life was a movie, this would be the 30 second montage between good parts.

Someday soon you’ll earn the privilege of shipping big improvements. The type of releases that people won’t see coming, instead of saying “what took so long?” you’re able to release features that your customers might not have asked for, but love once they see it.

Right now? You’re working on things that aren’t as glamorous. The password resets and email unsubscribes. Hearts and minds are rarely won in the transactional emails, but they’re easy to lose if you forget to have them.

In product development your early users are sherpas.

They guide you along the path to what’s worth building next, and they’re right most of the time. Compatibility with a new system, ability to edit titles, etc. Surprising your customers with a brand new and novel feature may sounds good, but it’s not the best problem you can solve for customers right now.

With a stable full of horses and a bunch of stranded people, even Henry Ford would fix the problem before inventing an automobile.

This kind of “let’s make [insert feature here] less terrible next” thinking wears on people with a bigger vision. Three months into fixing bugs you step back and ask “When do I get to build the parts we planned on? The stuff nobody else is doing, and sets us apart. Is this what it’s supposed to be like?”

Yes.

A remarkable number of companies steadily unbreak things under the radar for at least 2-3 years before anyone hears about them, especially in SaaS. They hide in the noise of TechCrunch features and VC Twitter hailing the latest unicorns as benchmarks for success. Of course, there’s nothing immediately wrong with this.

Which article would you rather read?

  • “This startup just raised $3M to change how you experience linear time”
  • “This startup just made another weekly release that makes their app more stable”

The long tail update isn’t as notable. By the time the world discovers these companies, it’s a multi-year “overnight success” since the months of baby steps are rewritten into a grand effort. Good product development is made in the trenches with these small improvements. Good press sometimes overlaps, but only as a nice side effect — never because it’s the goal.

The future-minded get discouraged when they see relatable teams ahead of them. Meanwhile they’re stuck trying to fix another edge case with a Google API integration. Their Minimum Sellable Product foundation just isn’t done yet.

It’s normal. You’re doing fine. Focus on the stuff you need to get done to help the people who rely on you. The rest will sort itself out.

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