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STARTUP

Remember the Company You Don't Want Yours to Be

When you're building a start-up, it's easy to lose sight of your original vision. I learned the incredible importance of knowing precisely where you don't want to end up.

A lot of energy goes into planning and defining the direction of each and every start-up. Ideas are formed; visions are put into place; prototypes are designed. But the second the company launches and the products hit the shelves, the rock-solid reasoning that created them in the first place...can quickly blur and fade away.

After we released our first crowdsourcing product at Napkin Labs, we immediately started to focus on what we should change and improve about that product. Our new feature-wishlist became endless, driven by customers asking for everything from polling tools to payment systems to better privacy. We also added to the list due to our competitors introducing different solutions to the same problems we were trying to solve.

We built our way through our wish list really quickly. And within months, we had an unwieldy product that was difficult to navigate and quite far from our original vision.

To make matters worse, about half of the new features we built were never used by customers.

Without a clear idea of what we didn't want to become, our vision had been stretched and bloated to accommodate every new employee idea and customer request. While we had spent a lot of time thinking about what features we should build, we had spent very little time thinking about what features we shouldn't. And from what I can tell, this seems to be a common problem in the start-up space.

Faced with uncertainty, it's easy to chase butterflies.

Faced with uncertainty, it's easy to chase butterflies. Maybe your customers are demanding a new feature before they buy again; maybe your revenue goals aren't being met. Tensions start to rise, and often the natural reaction is to start building--because new features often provide a sense of hope.

But without boundaries to define what you don't want to become, it's easy for product adjustments to get out of hand.

In our case, every new feature that customers suggested seemed on the surface to align with our core mission. If we had decided from the get-go what direction we didn't want to go in, though, many decisions would have been much easier to make along the way.

Feedback from customers, employees, or stakeholders should be considered, but saying no to ideas and providing insight into why can help build trust and keep everyone aligned toward a common vision.

When you're dreaming about your start-up, dream about what you want it to be, but don't forget to dream about what you don't want it to be, too. This can be the difference between success and failure.

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Last updated: Oct 9, 2012

RILEY GIBSON | Columnist | CEO, Napkin Labs

Riley Gibson is the co-founder and CEO of Napkin Labs, a start-up that builds tools to help companies turn their Facebook fans into an army of collaborators for new insights and ideas. For more, check out the Napkin Labs blog.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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