Be Honest About Whether Your Product Really Makes A Difference

Editor’s Note: Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur and VC at Upfront Ventures. Follow his blog at BothSidesoftheTable.
Startups in a world of massive markets can be confusing. The law of large numbers; platforms that can make your company blow up unexpectedly and the trendy nature of tech markets are deceiving. Success for many is ephemeral.
I have written about the deceptive nature of early successes before – in particular in the SaaS or B2B world, where it can lead to a phenomenon called “shelfware.”It’s vitally important for a startup to understand the phenomenon, which is why I loved Brad Feld’s recent post about the “illusion of product / market fit.” This, too, is a must read for any entrepreneur.I’m obsessed with the topic because it has become my job. I have many investments with early traction and the entrepreneurs I work with must be tired of my constantly saying,

“Are we really making a difference? Are our users addicted to our product? Are we making their lives better? Will we win the battle for share-of-mind every time they pick up their phone or log into their computers?”

I have seen many companies move rapidly up-and-to-the-right by Google search rankings only to crash when they rewrite the algorithm or start competing by offering the same service directly on the SERP. It’s ok to live-and-die by Google early. But if users don’t come back to your product directly and often, I question whether you have a sustainable product or company.

The same thing has happened on Facebook. How many video companies went through the roof when FB promoted video only to go into a free-fall dive when they don’t promote the app and when core users aren’t addicted to the product.

There are also those app companies that went viral due to spammy friend requests to download in an app store only to have a community backlash and subsequent crash. “Hacking” growth is only sustainable with a truly great product.

This is true in mobile games where some products (think: Words With Friends, Angry Birds, Clash of Clans) where the game is used to get friends connecting, where the characters resonate and draw people back again or have something else sustainable beyond the initial rush of a new game.

And of course it’s true in personal productivity apps, SMB apps, B2B software and so forth.

Nowhere is this more obvious than eCommerce, where many companies juice growth through massive over-spending on customer acquisition only to hit a break wall when consumers don’t love the brand and keep coming back once the heroine-induced traffic disappears.

So you need to really know what to measure as a definition of success.

There is no better post to read on this topic than Ev Williams “A Mile Wide and An Inch Deep.”  I wish I had written this myself since it’s a saying I often espouse. His point is that you should figure out the metrics that truly matter in your business and hold yourself accountable to these. Not vanity metrics. And for fuck sakes please don’t use cumulative numbers to make yourself feel great unless they’re warranted.

Push yourself hard to be honest with yourself. I promise you that products that aren’t truly valuable eventually fade. They are most susceptible to being disrupted by better versions. If venture capital is propping up your business performance – good luck when the spigot slows one day.

Only truly great products, making a difference, and becoming embedded in a business activity or personal life are sustainable.

The rest eventually become shelfware.