Nearly every startup prides itself on its proprietary software products. And that’s no surprise: Digital systems are crucial to operations and hold most of the value of everything founders and their teams work to build.
Therefore, getting the development process correct from the get-go can have life-or-death consequences for your startup.
After all, young companies know — or should know — that their futures hinge on their ability to hit development home runs. Seven in 10 upstart tech companies fail within the first two years, according to CB Insights. And, in today’s world, practicing a basic agile development philosophy (used for managing product development teams) will guarantee your company hitting a certain meeting cadence and your developers using the word “sprint” a lot — but not much more.
More importantly, businesses developing products need guiding principles and a structure that not only facilitates speed, but also lays out a process to take their projects from concept to completion.
So, even if you’re running pure-play agile — and be forewarned that most companies go through the motions but don’t actually complete this — there can still be issues from a business perspective that come up. By filling in the gaps with a bit of foresight and practical scheduling, you as founder can layer-on your managerial or executive needs to get the strategic clarity your team needs to succeed.
Here are some ideas for how to do that.
Better products require smarter creation processes.
At our company, we follow a process we call “Applied Agile” to ensure that everything we develop works and makes sense for the target audience and our executive stakeholders. This practice has helped us avoid the common pitfalls of development and work together to build stronger prototypes and products.
To overcome development obstacles and create better products, do as we do and stick to these three principles:
1. Clarify and support the communication network.
Who is responsible for what? Who knows what comes next, what came before or what the target audience needs? Begin every project by highlighting resources for knowledge and their availability, and standardize an approval process to keep development and design moving as swiftly as possible.
Teams can’t make incredible products without incredible collaboration, and collaboration starts at the top. Research covered by the Harvard Business Review found that 3 percent to 5 percent of employees contribute 20 percent to 35 percent of valuable collaboration. So, in line with this finding, set up your entire development team’s success by ensuring employees have access to and knowledge of all the information they might need. Run your meetings in a way that gets everybody involved.
We run retrospective meetings frequently for all our projects. In these meetings, we give people time to write down their individual thoughts on our process and then share them with the group. People who choose development as a career are typically not the most outspoken type, so we find that giving them a venue to share their thoughts in a way that’s comfortable helps us uncover a lot in terms of improving our processes.
2. Think about the hard parts, and prototype accordingly.
Easy wins feel good, but they don’t push development the way hard-won battles do. Save the easy stuff for periods of low energy, and get the team focused on the hardest parts of the project as early as possible.
The New York Times wrote about the “urgency effect” last year. This phenomenon explains why humans are more likely to tackle small tasks with deadlines than more important tasks without deadlines. Unfortunately for startups, the hardest part of every project tends to be the most important.
So, focus energy on the tough stuff first to create a working prototype as quickly as possible. We get a lot of experienced developers coming to our company asking for help after seeing that only the easy, front-facing elements of systems have been developed, which gives a false impression of progress.
Aytekin Tank, founder of startup JotForm, has written in Entrepreneur how he believes in doing the hard work first. Every morning, he wrote, he tackles his writing tasks first to set the stage for the day to come. Regardless of whether he even feels like writing, he keeps that schedule to make the rest of his day run more smoothly. Tank credits that proactive approach to his company’s impressive growth, now at 130 employees and 4.3 million users.
Functioning prototypes allow developers to test their assumptions on use cases and address obvious issues early. Skip the luxuries and work on core functionality to get something that works, if only just barely, in the hands of the target audience. If the team starts to get bogged down, break down the beast into smaller chunks and celebrate the completion of those segments to keep spirits high.
3. Adjust to feedback and real-world results.
With your team pulling in the same direction and a prototype in hand, get out into the world and put it into the hands of users. These users, who have never seen your product before and lack the context of what’s gone into developing it, will apply a critical eye to your work. Don’t ask them whether they “like” it. Rather, observe and get qualitative feedback on how they are using your product. Do they understand it? Are they seeing the value you are providing?
Answers to these questions are vital to your product’s success. Never assume that your initial solution will be the correct one in the end. Not only does stubbornness lead to bad design, but it can also push out good employees because they want employers that are more likely to listen to users.
Great developers and designers want to work on things that are meaningful and will seek out this feedback and validation. Managers who don’t listen to and support their staff are one of the most common causes of turnover, according to the Work Institute.
This final step depends entirely on the success of the prior two principles. If your team does not focus and do the hard work first, you cannot test to reveal that crucial, meaningful information. Without great communication practices, you won’t be able to define a prototype.
Focusing on these principles will ultimately save you time and money; otherwise, your company might waste months (maybe years) working on a product that will ultimately miss the mark and require more expensive adjustments later on.
This is why it’s so important to (gratefully) accept feedback from all sources, whether employees or users, and take it seriously in the early stages. This will help you avoid compounded losses later and complete that product you had faith in all along.