I’ve noticed that lately I’m treating startups much more critically. Today I chewed into an entrepreneur who was pitching me a new thing that was sort of like Oink, or maybe it was Foursquare, or maybe it was Foodspotting.It’s the third company I’ve told off lately. I figured it was worth talking about why I’m being so harsh behind closed doors to entrepreneurs lately. The bar has gone up. What do I mean by that? Well, Bizzy, a Foodspotting competitor, has recently closed its doors. Why? Because no one was harsh enough with it. The marketplace is far harsher than I am and I’ve seen signals from the marketplace that entrepreneurs better heed: there are too many startups, too many things to try, too many apps that really don’t do much more than Google.
What I learned today is that entrepreneurs are often being given bad advice “ship now, and iterate,” I learned from the CEO I was chewing out today. “Oh, how did that work for Color?” I asked. See, the market is very crowded now for certain kinds of apps. Especially location-based and social network ones. So, if you’re gonna pitch me something it better provide magic. Angels better sing when I open your app up. Otherwise, why should I use your app instead of Instagram, Foodspotting, Foursquare, Yelp, or my new ones, Batch, SocialCam, or Oink? If your design isn’t better than Flipboard, or at least as neat looking as Oink, why are you even trying?
1. Have at least one very clear, and cool, use case. I.E. have something you can show someone else that makes them say “oh, my, that’s freaking useful.”
2. Make sure every piece of your app at least matches the competition. The other day I was using a consumer electronics pricing engine and the search just wasn’t working. Oh, really? I still might run their video but it sure doesn’t feel good.
3. You gotta bring something really useful and new to the market. “But we let you search your past locations” isn’t good enough. I can do that with Google and Foursquare. Telling me “but we have better social network features than Facebook,” isn’t good enough. Google has spent half a billion on Google+ and even IT is struggling to get people off of Facebook. You really think you’re better than +Larry Page and +Vic Gundotra? Well, here’s a hint: no you are not.
4. You gotta make it easy and make it work for all users. We live in a world now where we give apps only about 30 seconds. OK, maybe 60 seconds. Instagram hooked me instantly (and the entrepreneurs LOADED THAT APP FOR ME). One entrepreneur showed me their app this week, which had +MG Siegler on it. “Give it to me right now,” I demanded. After they resisted they admitted that they probably wouldn’t be able to deal with my contact list. Another company tonight that I met showed me a similar app, when I started it up (I do that while you talk to me) it gave me an error. Gone.
5. Your product must match your story. If you tell me “we’re going to help you find great TV” but then you force me to build yet another social network first, I’m going to feel ripped off. So many companies present one thing, while saying another.
6. I hate the term “minimal viable product.” That’s like telling me “we’re shipping without any features because, well, our investors and advisors told us to ship and fix the product later.” Good companies do ship, but they pick the right features and they ship magic. Siri? Magic. Flipboard? Magic. Instagram? I had five comments within two minutes (and that was back when there was only 80 users on it). Tonight I used SocialCam again for the first time in a while. Within 60 seconds I had likes and comments. That tells me that that system has users and has a feature set that gathered lots of users (the CEO has a whole story about how they hid their best features and users keep praising them — the future version he showed me tonight is making those features easier to find).
7. If it doesn’t do something with both Facebook and Twitter (with Google+ to come) then you are gonna look lame. Why? I watch 33,000 of the world’s best users and if they aren’t using your app I probably will delete it after a few days and forget it. It’s amazing how forgettable so many apps are. The best ones? Keep getting discussed and shared over and over and over again. How many times have I seen Foursquare used? Evernote? Instapaper? Mint? Foodspotting? Instagram? Thousands and thousands of times.
Anyway, one reason I do this is:
1. I want better technology to use. Many entrepreneurs have the right instincts. They are scratching their own itch, which makes for interesting products, but they often don’t take into account the competitive landscape. After all, they don’t have time to code all night AND keep up to date on what +Kevin Rose or +Kevin Systrom or +Alexa Andrzejewski are doing.
2. My own brand goes up if I support great companies. If I bring you more Flipboards and Siri’s people take me more seriously. If I bring them more Bizzy’s, that flounder in the marketplace, people take me less seriously.
3. The stronger entrepreneurs are, the better my employer does. I work for +Rackspace Hosting and if we’re hosting companies that go all the way and get big and important then we do better economically. Even if you’re on a competitor I want you to do well. Why? Because generally as companies do better they need better service from their hosting partner, which puts us in play for that business.
4. I remember when +Gary Vaynerchuk chewed out a winery on air that had just put him up, had given him 250 cases of wine to throw a party, and I always respected him for that. It’s so easy to just rub the back of someone who is showing you respect. It’s another level to lay out the harsh truth. I find that laying out the harsh truth isn’t easy, but generally builds better relationships. People remember what you did for them, and if you tell them to take another two months to get it right it might hurt, but it’ll hurt a lot less than to go through the pain that Color or Bizzy went through.
All that said, I don’t have all the answers. Some things that I missed have gone on to be major companies (LinkedIn and DropBox, for instance). Sometimes I’m too much of an early adopter, so my advice can turn out to be wrong. And sometimes companies will go on just to prove me wrong. So, I try to be humble about it and I try to put myself in their shoes. But, if I was building a product or a company I’d want people to give me the harsh truth too (it’s why I always read my comments and especially consider the critical comments. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong, but I almost always learn something by listening).
Anyway, if you’re an entrepreneur, I’m getting harsher. Bring your A game and it’ll all work out and if it doesn’t, there’s lots of other journalists now, so you don’t need to go through me to have success.
One promise, though: if I am harsh to you, I will always give you a second, and probably a third chance. Why? I’ve invested in you my time and my instincts and I want to make sure I’m not wrong when I do that.