Be Your Own User
After bootstrapping my own startup for a year and half, I came away with some important lessons, and new opinions of how I would do things the next time around. When I started Fancite, I was trying to solve a problem that I personally faced. For me, filtering quality sports articles and opinions among the noise was something I felt I needed. My cofounders and I built a product that solved that need. We used it for a few months, but quickly realized there was a larger market opportunity if we focused on celebrities and entertainment. We pivoted after this realization, to something like a Reddit for pop culture. It was exciting at first because we saw more users and growth, but it soon became a struggle because we were no longer solving a problem that we cofounders personally faced. Our target demographic shifted from my cofounders and I, who were interested in sports, to younger Beliebers and the like. We were fishing in the dark trying to understand them and their needs. Since our target demographic was a younger, visual crowd, we had to guess what features would work well, and why they were even using our product. My experience led me to conclude that you need to be your own customer (user) to have a much higher chance of success.
Experience the pain point
A founder needs to have personally felt the need of what he or she is building. If the founder is a user of their own product, they’ll throw away half of the bad ideas in their mind before spending any time experimenting to see what works. Personally experiencing the pain point gives a founder the right context, understanding, and direction to solve a problem. The more you know about the problem, the more likely you can head in the right direction to solve that problem.
Startups should be looked at as optimization problems. A founder wants to reduce as much risk as possible to optimize their chance for success. Being your own user, or having once really experienced the pain of lacking a solution reduces one of the main risks of building a startup—Which is, not knowing that the problem is real and whether or not the solution you offer fixes it.
I look at every successful startup and see solving a personal problem as a pattern. All of the successful founders I can think of built a product to solve a problem they had personally experienced. If you can think of any successful entrepreneur that looked at the market first and then looked for the problem, let me know!
At Fancite, we knew entertainment is ripe for disruption, it’s just we really didn’t know what problem we were trying to solve. Because of this, we would add features, but we couldn’t tell why something would work, and something else wouldn’t.
I’d go so far as to say, if you’ve started a company specifically to be in a particular market, and then started looking for problems I’d suggest you rethink your strategy. Look to build something that would help you or someone you know first. When it grows and you know it’s something worth committing for, start to look for the market. You would put yourself in a better position to determine if you’re on the right path.
It’s really hard to decide start a company. With Facebook, I didn’t start it to start a company, I started it because I really wanted this thing personally, and I believed it should exist globally although I wasn’t quite sure if we be able to play a role in doing that.
A founder needs to be able to know the customer more than the customer knows themselves. Everyone in the startup community will tell you this. The hard part is actually doing it. Solving your own problem makes this a whole lot easier.
I’ve found it’s really hard to be honest with yourself when building something. It takes a conscious effort to be critical of anything that you build. Be honest with yourself in asking the question “Would you use your product?” One thing that happened with us at Fancite was that we adapted our behavior to fit the product. Everyday we put ourselves in the shoes of our users trying to think like them. If asked that question, I would have told you “Yes I would use our product if I was a 14 year old obsessed with xxx.” This was a byproduct of me wanting our product to be successful. Thinking retrospectively, I wasn’t honest with myself.
Using your own product means that you are your toughest critic. I imagine, what does Sendgrid use for email transaction, what does Olark use for customer service, what does Buffer use to share, what does Hipmunk use to search for flights. They’ve got it figured out in that they use their own product and can critique their product decisions from within.
I don’t think it’s necessary to be your own ‘current’ user, to be successful. I rather think the cofounder has to have experienced the pain of the problem at some point in their life to be successful. Clever is a great example of cofounders who were IT administrators in secondary education as part of Teach for America. They witnessed how inefficient the IT and data infrastructure is for public schools and decided to solve that problem. While they aren’t currently their own users, they experienced the pain point and would have been a few years ago. Their experience allowed them to get to the core of the problem quicker—something that us at Fancite couldn’t do.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. I’ve just recently formulated this opinion; so if you’ve been successful tackling a market first, let me know!