A lot of startup advice is tactical by nature and thus varies from one context to another, whereas the most transformative advice is more principle-based and fundamental to your startup approach or general modus operandi.
In this write-up, I will share lessons I learned from working, observing, interacting and interviewing leading entrepreneurs from the Arab region for my new book Startup Arabia: Stories and Advice from Top Tech Entrepreneurs in the Arab World.
Prior to becoming a writer, I was the Director of Marketplace for Souq.com. Having worked in the industry for over 15 years and having collaborated with SMEs in various sectors, I realized the key differentiator determining the the level of success of any given startup is the quality and speed of execution.This factor is of far greater importance than the initial brilliance of the idea.
Here are three practices inspired by successful regional entrepreneurs that can enable a business to flourish.
1- Build a hammer, not a Swiss Army knife
“In 2013, nine months after we had started, someone sent me a job description from Uber looking for a general manager in Dubai,” said Mudassir Sheikha, cofounder and CEO of Careem in an interview for Startup Arabia.
“It was frankly a time of very high-stress for us, but there’s nothing like competition to get you running really, really fast. Instead of sleeping six hours a day, we started sleeping three. We said, we have to launch an app and we have to have it up and running before they come to the market. And we did just that. We were live on the app store in a matter of weeks before Uber came to town. It was very much a basic app, but we were up and running.”
Mudassir and his team at Careem were able launch an app to compete with a world-class rival such as Uber in just a few weeks, demonstrating the power of stripping down your product to its essential functions and focusing on building something that is simple, user-friendly and gets the job done.
Think of building a hammer rather than a Swiss Army knife. You can always add features later once you’re clearer on where they fit into the overall product. In other words, you can dress up the skeleton later, but at this stage your goal is to get that ‘skeleton product’ out ASAP.
And just like a hammer, your initial product or MVP (minimum viable product) must have a singular purpose, be intuitive and reliable. It does not need to be appealing or have multiple usages and should not require a learning curve to use. I'd argue it’s always better to piggyback off existing consumer usage and buying behavior than to try to create a new one. The smaller the learning curve, if any, the better. You don’t want your users to ‘think’, you want them to pick up your product and instinctively know how to use it. That should always be the goal.
That’s obviously easier said than done, but it’s much easier to achieve if you incorporate this ‘hammer’ mentality in your approach to product development, especially in the early stages.
“From the day we decided to launch with the moving service to the day we went live was a grand total of six weeks,” said Bana Shomali, cofounder and CEO of ServiceMarket.
“We launched with a website that was a total of three pages long, that’s it. We called it MoveSouq.com. It had a form that people filled in if they needed to move. Once the form was filled and submitted, the screen said, “Thank you very much. Someone is going to contact you shortly.” Everything we did after that was manual. The data we were processing, every single request that we were getting, was in Excel.”
“Our plan was to launch with just one service in the simplest, most basic way possible and test that to see if it works,” said Shomali.“We’ve adopted that approach with everything else we have done since then. We try to launch concepts as fast as possible and then see if they work, and if they don’t, we tweak them. If it still doesn’t work after two or three tweaks, we kill the idea and move on.”
2- Launch quickly, tweak even quicker
Don’t assume you have all the answers from the outset. Nor should you spend months upon months developing and refining your product – that’s a waste of precious time and resources.
To the extent that your product is innovative, it will be based on a set of assumptions and personal biases, which is okay, but without actually testing those assumptions in a real-life product/user context it’s all an educated guessing game at best.
How are you possibly going to fully understand your customers’ problems and tailor your product to their behavior without having them engage with it? Watch how they use it while you probe and listen to their feedback. The more disciplined you are in this process, the more likely you'll be able to prioritize the correct tweaks and follow a sensible product iteration track. That will enable you to ultimately arrive at a winning version, or what is commonly referred to as ‘product-market fit’.
The key thing to remember is that people are different. Even among your target market there are endless individual variations in terms of the degree of ‘pain’ suffered due to a particular problem, their willingness to expend time and energy to resolve it, as well as their know-how and tech-savviness. So, there’s never a one-tech solution that fits all perfectly. Your goal at this stage is to find the common denominator that makes your product useful and user-friendly across your target market.
The second thing to remember is that there’s a big difference between identifying a real consumer pain point, unaddressed consumer need or underserved market, and coming up with a viable concept, let alone creating a viable and compelling solution for it. Lots of entrepreneurs make the mistake of overestimating the power of their insight or concept and underestimate the turns and twists they need to make to effectively implement and achieve their desired results.
3- You’re better off pleasing 5% of target customers
This is a counter-intuitive approach, especially for highly ambitious entrepreneurs who are out to ‘conquer the world’ and apply the ‘more is better’ approach whereby more users and more customers equal more growth and more money. Sure, all things being equal, more of a good thing is better, and should be the goal of every entrepreneur, notwithstanding impact-related aspirations, which also have their place in a business venture.
Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between a goal and a strategy. Just because you want to ‘get big’ does not necessarily mean you should go big from day one. In fact, going big too fast and too soon might be the surest way to kill a company or at least hurt its future prospects. If you go big with a faulty product, for example, you will disappoint your customers whom you’ll now have to re-engage.
When you’re a small company that’s short on marketing budget, the main weapon you have is your reputation and the word-of-mouth buzz around your product or service. Sure, you can activate an initial ‘early adopters’ market segment by marketing spend or lots of ‘guerrilla’ marketing activities (e.g., social media, etc.), but it’s word-of-mouth that will fuel that fire. Without word-of mouth, that initial spark, no matter how big it was, will wither and die. And you will end up with lots of registrations but minimal usage for your app, or lots of visitors to your website but a low number of repeat visits and a weak conversion rate.
So, it’s always best to tailor your offering to a sub-segment of your target market and really focus on providing them with an amazing and memorable experience. People only remember and talk about experiences they really love or really hate. If your product or service simply provides an ‘“OK” experience, that won’t be enough to get your customers to tell their friends and family about it, and help you spread the word.Without ‘evangelist’ customers who are out there promoting your product or service, achieving scale will always be an uphill battle.
Lots of first-time entrepreneurs make the mistake of trying to bite off more than they can chew. They go after a mass segment from the very beginning, but end up wowing no one and lose momentum. Had they been more methodical in their approach and taken the time to focus on perhaps just 5% of their potential customers, rather than going after the entire 100%, they would have advanced further and come much closer to realizing their potential.
Following the three lessons above will save you time, resources and frustrations. It will also enable you to learn quicker and make better scoping and prioritization decisions when it comes to product development, so you’re always moving along on more solid ground and are better set up for success.