if you are building a startup, embrace simplicity

Published on May 21, 2020

Build a simple product.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that startups have over large organizations is their ability to build simple products.

Startups can launch a scrappy minimum viable product, as long as that product serves a specific need that at least one person has. They don’t need to worry about losing existing customers because they launched something that doesn’t meet the needs of a massive user base. Startups don’t have one. They only have an idea, and a product.

If your product is solving a problem, and provides an elegant solution, then there is no reason why other people should not be able to derive value from it. You don’t need to be a big company to build a product that has an impact.

When you are getting started, your goal should be to build as simple of a product as possible that solves for a particular need. Slack, for example, was missing a lot of core features when they launched. The founder of Slack didn’t care, because Slack was doing a few things really well. The things they were doing really well was what customers wanted in a solution.

One of the biggest complaints people have about technology as it grows is that it gets too complicated. If you look at Salesforce today, for example, the platform is significantly more complex than it was when it was initially created.

This is natural, because as companies grow, they get more feature requests. Once you solve a problem for one set of users, you’ll quickly realize that there are other users you can capture if you expand your product. A new feature may help you acquire new users.

The trouble is that, over time, new features make products complicated. There’s no way of avoiding this. While your product may be able to do more, and suit more people’s needs, over time you will have so many features that people start to migrate to look for a simpler solution.

To disrupt an incumbent, a company needs a competitive advantage. They need something that makes them stand out. One competitive advantage you have by nature of being a startup is the ability to be simple. You can launch a really simple product, as long as it does enough to meet one particular user’s needs.

Simplicity, like many other competitive advantages, is not sustainable. If you want to grow past a certain point, you need to do more. Your product will need more features, or extensions on existing ones. It will need to account for new use cases. But, at the very start of your company, you can use simplicity as an advantage.

That’s why adding as many features as you can in hopes that people sign up is not a good idea. Many people who are looking for alternatives are doing so precisely because they want something simpler than what is already out there.

Don’t worry about whether you provide all the features that your competitors do, or the incumbents in a market do. Just provide the features you think your users need, and let them enjoy using your product.

Do you have any feedback on this blog post? Send me an email.
Do you want to hear more from me? Subscribe to my weekly Coffee with James newsletter.
Made by @jamesg_oca. Code on GitHub.