I would know: I’ve made them all.
1. If I build it, they will come.
If this were true, we’d all be using that social network for disabled dogs that your friend thought was such a good idea. But we’re not, because we don’t care.
With the way the media paints the startup industry, it’s hard not to get sucked into what we’d all like to believe is reality: a world where anyone with a computer can teach themselves how to write a little code, come up with an idea for an app that lets people share some form of media with some group of people in a slightly different way, code it up at the kitchen table (while attractive women in their underwear take bong hits in your living room like it’s no big thing), and put it online so that millions of people can go, “Thank god this finally exists. I don’t know how I ever lived without it.” But unfortunately, it pretty much never works this way. Yes, it’s true that almost anyone can (and should) learn to code. And yes, it’s also true that sometimes, sometimes, people come up with ideas that solve such universal problems that they explode of their own accord. But in the majority of cases, even a fully functional, well-thought-out app will struggle to tread water without a brilliant strategy.
Instagram, for example, is an app for sharing photos with friends. In a nut shell, it’s Twitter for photos. But if the Instagram team had literally gone ahead and built just that, chances are it would have been dead on arrival. After all, TwitPic has been around for years, and serves essentially the same purpose. So what did Instagram do to afford them such success? Filters.
There were already apps on the market for sharing photos, and others to add cool filters to them, but none did both, and it’s the combination of the two that makes Instagram so deadly. Think it about it, what do you do when you take a photo? Your natural instinct is to make it look as awesome as possible, so you throw some filters on it, and now that you have an amazing looking photo, you feel compelled to share it–which you can do right there in the app. Boom. Package deal. And it works in reverse too, because if you want to send your friend a photo of something in particular, like the Grand Canyon, you obviously want the photo you send to be your best composure, so you reach for a filter to spruce it up a little bit before you send. Conveniently, it’s there at your fingertips.
Basically, the fact that Instagram built a photo sharing app is only secondary. What matters is that they figured out a way to harness people’s natural instincts to work to their benefit, and they channeled the results of those instincts into their product. That is why it worked.
So before you build, ask yourself not why you would use your product, by why someone else, someone who doesn’t know or care about you, would want to use it. Often times this is the hardest part.
2. People will understand my idea when they see it.
As I mentioned earlier, there are seldom products that are so desperately desired by the community that they simply take off, without any explanation needed. Chances are that whatever you decide to build, regardless of how revolutionary it may be, it’s going to come off as foreign to people at first. And that’s not a bad thing! A revolutionary idea by definition alters the status quo, and encourages its users to do something in a way they’ve never done it before. Once you’ve convinced them to make the switch you’re golden, but that’s no small task! People are stubborn in their ways, and are reluctant to learn new things, so unless you make it painfully obvious what you want from them and what they can get from you, you’re gonna have a bad time.
3. People aren’t using my product because it doesn’t have enough functionality.
The words “minimum viable product” don’t exist for no reason. I’ve discovered (the hard way) time and time again that if a product can’t be launched with a minimal set of features, adding more features to find the user’s attention isn’t going to help. It will, however, waste a huge chunk of your time.
If your product is truly something that people want or need, they’ll use it regardless of whether or not you’re building the extraneous niceties. And if they aren’t, more than likely, it’s a problem with the core theory of the service, not a lack of functionality. In fact, I’ve seen more than one case where an overabundance of functionality is precisely what made a product just confusing enough that users didn’t want to spend the time figuring out what the product did, and so they just lost interest and moved on.
A good rule of thumb: ask yourself why you’re building a feature before you build it. If the answer starts out with “we’ll need this when __________”, it’s not worth your time. Build what you need now, and only what you need now.
4. People are as passionate about my idea as I am.
Your own eyes are a cloudy lens to be looking through when coming up with ideas, because your passions are shaped by your own personal experiences. Furthermore, your enthusiasm is in abundance, because you’re the one who came up with the idea. Pride tends to discourage entrepreneurs from considering the possibility that their idea might not be as useful for everyone else as it is for them.
Next time you go to pitch an idea, instead of telling people how awesome it is, try asking them how awesome it is. And for obvious reasons, ask people who aren’t your friends! Yes, you then risk the possibility of a less than enthusiastic response, but at least you’ll figure out which parts of your theory need work. If you can’t convince someone face to face that your idea is great, how on earth are you going to do it through a website when you’re not there to walk them through it?
5. I can make anything go viral.
This is a peeve of mine, because too many people these days come up with ideas for which the core strategy is to gain traction through viral growth, as if growing virally is just one of many options that you can select in a dropdown box.
No matter what anyone tells you, no one chooses to go viral. Yes, you can take steps to increase the likelihood that your product goes viral, but whether or not it actually does is a function of luck, mostly of the “right place right time” variety. This does well to explain why there are some cat videos on the internet with many millions of views, and other, nearly identical videos with next to none. So if virality is your core strategy for growing your app, I wish you the best of luck. But just in case it doesn’t work out, you had better have a backup plan.