Technology can make or break a business. There’s story after story of a startup failure due to badly timed launches, better competition, or bad design.
Sometimes it doesn’t work
For example, Wesabe, a financial management tool, failed because they decided to build their own financial analysis tool, which took much longer. The time disparity gave their main competitor, Mint (later acquired by Intuit), a chance to create an app that was ultimately more user friendly. While Wesabe launched a little too late, Boo.com, an online fashion retailer, launched a bit too early – or, a bit too ambitiously. They failed because their first-day launch was more ambitious than they could handle: their system didn’t quite live up to the demands of handling multiple currencies, calculating accurate taxes, and using multiple fulfillment partners.
But launch failures are not just reserved for the realm of startups. There’s the unfortunate case of the Target launch in Canada, where they decided to use a new (previously unused!) software system in all their Canadian stores. No one knew how to use the new system, and their existing product database didn’t translate well into the system. The result was a fiasco that left distribution centers full of products that never made it onto store shelves, leaving customers to wonder what is going on. Target closed its stores soon after opening with huge losses.
In hindsight, all of these problems seem obvious: why would you build your own system if someone was going to make something much better, faster? Why would you launch without testing whether your system can handle all the currencies, taxes, and partner relationships? Why would you use a new, untested software when entering a new market? The issue is – they’re not obvious. All these decisions are perfectly reasonable until they run into huge, unforeseen technology problems.
How are you supposed to decide what technology to use?
There is no magic formula but some caution and meticulous planning is always a must:
1. Keep your launch simple
When designing your product, start with the customer. Understand their needs (Ask them! Perhaps even us an analytical tool like Kano Analysis). Then, match every feature of your product to those needs. Build only the features that are relevant to them. Keep your initial product lean, covering only the most necessary functions, and analyze the reaction. Add duplicate or additional functions as your startup grows. Essentially, keep the product simple at the beginning, to remain flexible for any necessary changes. This includes not delving deep into any one competency. Always test first.
2. Actively decide your startup’s core competency
After your initial launch, analyze what went well and what went poorly. Re-evaluate your product features and re-prioritize them as needed. Then decide what your core competency should be. (Here’s how to decide what a strategic advantage is and what isn’t). If it makes sense to focus on building a specific tool in-house because your business needs to know every aspect of it, then start building a team that can make it happen. If the tool is only supporting your main business – such as a web-app or a new security feature, you can partner with a technology company that can develop these things for you, so you can go back to focusing on understanding your customer needs.
Over the years, Intetics has had the pleasure of helping several startups use technology to their advantage.
One of the remarkable product launches we participated in was an application for coupon management. The company was focused on making promotions easier and faster for big retailers and wanted to create an app that would automate coupon processing for retailers. Their main focus was on acquiring the relationships with large retailers and understanding the requirements and user experience that they needed to deliver for this application to be successful. As a result, the actual development, while incredibly important, was not going to be their core competency. So, they found a technology partner, who could build the app for them (well, it was us). The developed app was first launched in only 7 retail locations – a simple, careful launch. They were able to gather feedback and put it right back into improving the product. By next year, their app was processing coupons in 4,700 retail locations.
Another interesting launch we participated in was the launch of a new security app. The founder of this startup was actually on his own. He had no team and no time to spend on creating his own team with the right skills. He didn’t want to develop competency in hiring a team or product development. He just wanted the product built. The results from the launch and the quality of the product would tell him what to do next. Intetics helped him build the product, which launched very successfully – the founder was able to raise $14 million in funding.
For every failed example, there’s an example of success. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. What does help is to always focus on satisfying customer needs and really understanding the core competency of your business? After that, everything else – from actual development to funding – will fall into place.