Startups: Keep It Simple, Stupid

Why some startups soar to great heights while others stumble and fall is almost impossible to answer without digging into the detail of each, on a case-by-case basis. So many factors affect success — from funding and timing, to experience, execution, competitive landscape and even luck. There is also the strength of the idea itself, and whether the competition is better, faster, stronger than you are.

But strip back some of the complexity and there are some basic overriding principles that make it more or less likely a startup will succeed. And the simplest of all these rules is simplicity itself.

Like any good pitch, if your idea can’t be conveyed in a sentence its survival is already in doubt. Above all else: keep it simple, stupid. This may sound really obvious but judging by many of the pitches that pass through TechCrunch’s inbox there are still far too many startups that haven’t learnt this lesson yet.

Take a look at some of the startups that have succeeded and consider how easily what they offer can be conveyed. YouTube: upload your videos. Facebook: an online yearbook. Snapchat: self-destructing picture messaging. Twitter: real-time text updates. Instagram: fancy photo-sharing. Pinterest: an online pinboard… and so on. Or, moving away from startups to products — this, from 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone as: “an iPod, a phone, an internet communicator”.

On the flip side, consider ideas that aren’t exactly flying, Microsoft has clearly had trouble getting people to buy into its Windows Phone platform and I would argue that part of its problem comes down to trying to sell a complicated message and explain the usefulness of concepts that aren’t immediately obvious — such as Live Tiles, or the OS’s panoramic view. These features might make sense after you’ve used them for a while but most people won’t get that far. So it’s not just startups that need to keep things simple. However it is far more important for startups because they don’t have the advantage of being an established brand – or millions of dollars to burn on marketing.

Your idea might make perfect sense (to you) after you’ve explained how each of the various components work together to form a ‘unique marketplace offering’. Or explained how your service fills a very specific niche between two other established services, thereby ‘surpassing its rivals’. But the longer you carry on talking, the less likely it is your startup will succeed. The strength of the idea is not enough. It’s about whether it resonates and clicks into place in the mind of your user in a heartbeat.

No matter how great you think your idea is, if it takes more than a few seconds to explain you are on the wrong side of today’s chronically fatigued attention spans. This is especially important in the consumer space where your users are the mainstream public, not specialists or business buyers with some kind of vested interest in gaining access to your product. Never lose sight of the fact there are thousands and thousands of others – apps, services, startups — clamouring for a few seconds of people’s face time. There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should bother taking time to learn about your startup. A cursory, disinterested glance is the very best you can hope for.

(As an aside, keeping things simple also applies when pitching to journalists. Above all: keep your pitch concise. This article was sparked by a tortuous series of email exchanges with a startup CEO who answered every question with elaborate bullet-pointed screeds that delved into infinitesimal detail about granular eventualities and possibilities he apparently thought it useful to bring to my attention. The result: I have zero desire to communicate with that startup ever again.)

Starting from scratch means you’re undoubtedly sweating blood to build your startup but don’t expect other people to do any kind of perspiring on your behalf. The harsh truth is that no one cares about your startup (yet). You have no audience. The only thing you can take for granted is people’s disinterest. And that in turn should keep you focused. Concentrate your sweating toil on removing barriers to entry by making whatever it is you do effortless to understand and easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to try out — and get out of if need be. Trying to box people in to something that has no value to them yet is another sure-fire way to put them off.

If your big idea is actually a series of interconnected features/services don’t be fooled into thinking that’s a selling point. Less is more, so once again: keep it simple. An established app or service needs to grow by adding new features in order to stay fresh, relevant and competitive but piling on scores of features from the start in a bid to grab attention just gives people scores more reasons to ignore you. Every new feature you shout about puts additional weight on the side of the scales marked ‘I just can’t be arsed’.

Don’t bore people. Don’t make people do homework. Don’t expect them to do any legwork. Don’t make them feel like they have to raise a finger on your behalf. Expect nothing, and offer just one useful thing: your main idea, presented in a form that’s both easy to understand and effortless to tap into. It’s no good having a simple idea if your interface is convoluted and frustrating. Frustration is an ogre that eats good ideas for breakfast.

Sure it’s fine (and probably advisable) to have a roadmap of how, in the future, your startup can branch into a series of services that augment and reinforce each other — and hopefully blossom into bountiful revenue streams. But shut up about all that until you have built a community that cares. Until then, your mission is simple: focus, simplify, condense. Do one thing. Do it exceptionally well.

At this point presentation is also extremely important – it’s a vital part of ‘doing it well’ – but even stupendously great presentation won’t save a concept that’s drowning in its own complexity.  So before you start polishing, make sure you’ve pared everything back to the uncut diamond of your idea, the essence of what makes it great. Now the beauty of keeping things simple means it will be even easier to polish that gem up, to make it look and feel as awesome as you know it is. To make it so easy for someone to drop into their life they’d be crazy not to. And then maybe — just maybe — your startup is in with a chance.

[Image: by cliff1066™ via Flickr]