We’re Running Completely Blind

Patrick and I had a big realization yesterday: We don’t know anything.

I’m talking about Airtime for Email. We know that people are interested in it. We’ve had almost 100 businesses sign up since launch. We know it’s a validated idea – we have paying customers. Knowing that kind of thing just tells us that we should keep working on Airtime. But the problem is that we have no idea WHAT we should be doing.

Any business has thousands and thousands of component parts. The features, the branding, the colors, the pricing, and the list goes on. And each of these parts is dependent upon every other part. If you change the pricing then it changes the addressable market so you have to change the features. If you change the features then you’re going to want to change the brand to match the new features and the pricing. If you change the brand you need to change the color scheme, if you change the color scheme you need to change the voice that the copy is written in…and on and on.

This is daunting when you’re starting out. As an entrepreneur beginning with a blank slate you get this paradox of choice. Every decision is so important, and has such wide-ranging impacts on the business as a whole that it’s hard to figure out how to nail something down, how to start. It’s like looking at a blank sheet of paper knowing that eventually that blank sheet of paper is going to become a gigantic novel.

When faced with this for Airtime a few months ago, I did what any good entrepeneur does: I just started making shit up. 

“We’ll bill as a tiered monthly service because….”

“We should definitely have a free plan because…”

“We should allow people to display different banners at different times because…”

So when you’re building a product you make everything up at the beginning. Then you go to people and try to sell them on your made up product. We did that too.

We have paying customers, and we’re about to serve our 150,000 email impression. This is all great at the beginning. But it’s not good enough anymore.

It’s really easy to get caught up in building feature after feature, redoing the look and feel of each page countless times, changing the pricing model here and there. But for what? Why? Once you have customers you can’t make stuff up anymore.

And that was my biggest realization yesterday: we’re running completely blind. We don’t know how people are using our product and we don’t know why. Everything we do from now on has to be driven by those two factors: how and why. There can’t be a wall of silence separating the people who build the product (us) and the people who use the product (our customers). Constructing a continuous feedback loop from customer to entrepreneur, and entrepreneur to customer is the only way to run a startup. That’s what leads to a focused, well-executed product that solves a problem for its customers. Everything else is bullshit.

If you read this far you should follow me on Twitter.


23 Feb 2012, 7:17pm | 5 comments

  • Hunter Owens

    I’ve heard that it’s very valuable to go work for another startup before doing your own to learn a lot of fundamental lessons. I’m not sure if you have or not.

  • Dan Shipper

    Good to hear from you man! Yea I think that’s definitely true, I worked at Artsicle (http://www.artsicle.com). That was a great experience and I definitely learned a lot. The problem is that unless your startup is in the same space, you’re still faced with a lot of the same blank slate problems that I’m talking about. There are definitely generally applicable lessons that you can learn from getting experience at any startup (how to grow a team for example) but in terms of product and customer development, if you’re attacking a new and undefined market then by definition there are a lot of unknowns that you can only answer by guess and check – build something and see who uses it.

  • IceCreamYou

    I’m surprised you guys haven’t been running surveys. As Patrick can probably tell you I just started a project about 2 weeks ago and I’ve already run a survey and probably talked to 20-30 people in person plus the people my cofounder has talked to. It’s really interesting to look at the data and see what people say about what you’re doing. For example there is a feature we thought would be really compelling that got less enthusiasm than some others so now we know what to prioritize. And it’s fun to see when the data validates your assumptions. It’s a learning process too though — for example I didn’t realize immediately that we needed to weight the survey results by the demographic frequency in our target population so some of the initial numbers I came up with completely changed once we did that. (We used Amazon Mechanical Turk and Wharton Qualtrics to do the surveys. Qualtrics will get a representative sample to take your survey but their quote was about 10x higher than what MTurk cost.)If you haven’t read it, Eric Ries’ book Lean Startup is pretty much the manifesto of how to do this right.

  • Steve

    Following up on the last comment…if you haven’t read Steve Blank’s 4 steps to Epiphany it’s great for this type of stuff and it gives you great ideas for how to bring your startup from the idea level, to real life product, to early adopters, and then finally mainstream. The biggest thing I learned from it is how much different your product has to be if you want to make the successful jump from early adopter to main stream. Good to see you having success and I hope it continues.

  • Dan Shipper

    Thanks for the comment! I've read 4 Steps to the Epiphany and I thought it was amazing. Now just have to get down to actually applying it a bit better ๐Ÿ™‚


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