Top 10 Product Mistakes Made by First Time Founders

Audrey An ·


The tech scene (especially in the Bay Area) has reached a point where it’s expanded way past techies. It seems successful people from all different industries are drawn to the promise, reach, and money in tech. Doctors, bankers, artists, and even educators are launching startups and talking about MVPs. It’s definitely exciting and inspires me everyday. But, building a great product is sometimes more of an art than a science, and first time founders make common mistakes. From a company that has worked with more startups than it can count, and has seen its fair share of first time product mistakes, here are some of the most common ones to avoid.

10. “We need an iOS app.”

Do you? Really? Why iOS? It’s one of the most difficult to staff for (Swift developers don’t grow on trees, except maybe here at Carbon Five), presents a significant delay to market (app store review process), and has extremely high standards for UI (almost guaranteeing a sprint focused on design polish, at a time when you need it the least). The Apple App Store is an overcrowded acquisition channel, and a terrible acquisition funnel. It’s a costly decision, and we see a lot of founders make this decision because it’s the hip, sexy, investor-pleasing thing to do. It’s a crowded space too, with over 1 million apps in the Apple App Store alone. And, 90% of apps end up getting no love even after download. Just having an iOS app does not guarantee you’re the “Uber” of “insert-phrase”. It does guarantee you a release process you don’t completely control, a tech stack that is relatively rarified, and a roadmap initiative to eventually do Android and take care of the rest of the people you ignored this time around. (Like the entire rest of the world.)

To execute well, your platform and technology strategy have to be strongly aligned with your product strategy. What is iOS getting you that other cheaper, faster, more universal platforms like web can’t? Or even Android, with 60% market share in the U.S.? Does your vision require other successful iOS apps & deep linking? Is your target customer an iOS developer? Nowadays web has animations, embedded videos, location detection, and camera integration. One of our favorite products is just text messages – no app, barely any web dashboard. And it’s awesome.

Think carefully about your platform – it’s a marriage you’re getting into.

9. Forgetting about all the other business stuff

A lot of first-time founders think that writing software is equivalent to building a company. It’s not. The software is just a component. A lot of (especially technical) founders will focus on moving product development forward but neglect all the other business to-do’s that need to be done. Think about the functions that would exist in a corporation. Some things that commonly take a lot longer than founders think, that end up derailing everyone else because they were ignored for so long include:

Legalities. Creating the legal structures around products: writing end-user facing terms & conditions, privacy policies, and nailing down the legal relationships with partners.

Support. Who’s going to answer the emails? Chats? What is a priority one issue that will ring your cell phone?

Customer acquisition. Now that you’re almost done building, you realize … it’s kind of hard to get customers. Don’t wait until you’re two iterations from release to focus on this. If you’ve read Startup Owner’s Manual, you’ll know you should have started Customer Development before Product Development.

Build a backlog for your overall business, not just your product. Map your dependencies, assign owners to big areas, and prioritize your team’s time as aggressively as you would the product backlog.

8. Not simultaneously having a strong vision while also being super flexible on the details of how you’ll get there

It’s hard to be both firm and flexible at the same time. What decisions do you flex on, and what decisions do you press hard on? The balancing act of vision and details is what makes the difference between getting something to market in the right time that works for the most possible people and missing your window as you try to do too much.

7. Not sticking to your product vision

Pivot is one thing, but what if you haven’t even validated your original product vision? A product vision that is truly compelling is unique. And unique things are unique for a reason – usually because they’re actually difficult. Either they’re technically difficult (flying cars, cures for cancer, search algorithms), logistically difficult (getting a book to your customer’s door in one day or less), or regulatorily difficult (needing all kinds of approvals before you can actually do business). You need to focus on these things, the toughest things, at the expense of all other things. That’s ruthless prioritization. If you give up on the toughest things because it seems smarter at the time, you’re compromising your vision. If you don’t have a great reason why you’re compromising your vision, then someone else will eventually come along and do what you wanted to do, and that will be that.

6. Getting customers is hard, so you ignore it

Lean Startup has gotten a lot of tech love recently, and for good reason. But, what sometimes gets lost is that it’s tough to get feedback from customers when you have zero customers. We see a lot of First Time Founders back off of Lean principles when they realize how difficult it actually is from a user base of 0.

Often, founders have raised money and started building before having clear evidence that they’re building something that people really need. And once they’ve started, they’re speeding down that runway.

Marketing is hard when you have no brand. Be aggressive & flexible in your customer development strategy. Your first few landing pages may not work. Your customer acquisition cost on search may be double (or even triple) digits for the first few months. You may hold a few in-person events that no one will attend. You may even need to do a few rounds of problem interviews before you get answers you can trust. There’s no universal recipe to be successful at customer development – there’s only trying new things, learning from failures, and trying again.

5. Not doing enough stuff yourself

Founders often think of features as binary – it’s in the product or it’s not. The truth is that functionality exists on a spectrum – and finding the best point is what’s exciting about building a product. Most of the things that founders think are important can actually be done manually by someone on the team, in order to assess user value as quickly as possible.

Distill down to the core of what you want your product to do: everything else can be manual in your first release. That core has got to work, and work well. It’s better to solve one problem really well than to solve five kind of well.

By the way, these are Things Your MVP Probably Does Not Need:

  • Bug tracking (if you’re talking to your customers, trust me, you’ll hear about the bugs)
  • An admin portal & admin functionality to do lots of cool admin things (if this actually becomes a problem, it means you’ve got users wanting things, and that’s a good problem to have)
  • Social sharing (see the next section)
  • Custom animations for your transitions

If the founder is coming from a very senior position somewhere else – a senior banker, educator, other professional – some of the legwork involved in running a startup can seem really unappealing and unfamiliar, leading to the erroneous conclusion that you need to hire. Or worse, that you need to hire people to hire other people. Do things yourself first. Then hire. And don’t hire managers before doers.

4. Throwing in social, just because

Why founders build it: it’s sexy, my investors will love it, and it’ll help me acquire customers.

Why founders should build it: because it’s inherently part of how I will solve a problem.

When founders start wanting social, it’s a potential indication that they’re in denial about the fact that their solution is not compelling enough. Founders frequently think Social is some kind of sriracha sauce on average lo mein. It’s not. Social is more like the plastic utensils that come with your takeout, it’s not going to change the fact that your product still tastes & smells like average lo mein.

3. Accidentally making metrics irrelevant

Founders frequently instrument analytics tools but then they don’t bother learning how to use them to get the answers they really need, and either ignore that or hire people who’ll interpret it for them. Or, they imagine 10-20 KPIs (MAUs, WAUs, DAUs, session length, bounce rate, blah blah blah) just for completion’s sake and then not revisit those ever again. FYI, MAUs probably don’t actually matter at the stage you’re in. You’re better off picking five or fewer, that really answer your most pressing business questions. Imagine you’re on a desert island with no radio, internet, etc. What handful of questions would you ask someone to find out how your business is doing? Those should be the five KPIs you track. And, if you have cofounders, you have got to be in complete agreement on these. Otherwise, how will you know whether you are successful at various stages?

2. Delaying a release because it’s uncomfortable

Honestly, it’s terrifying & nerve-wracking to decide to launch something. It takes real balls to say, this is good enough, let’s ship it. It’s much easier to sit back and say “If we just add this in, our MVP will be so much more robust.” Guess what? It should feel uncomfortable. It should feel like it isn’t done. And guess what else – it’ll never be done. You’ll always feel that way. Software is a garden. You may never reach a point where you can sit back and say, perfect.

1. Waiting to show stuff to users.

Founders frequently say “There’s nothing we can learn” from user testing. Or, “We already know (xyz feature needs work.)” Or, “We’re experts, we know better than anyone else.”

It’s ok if you did it. Even Apple did it. Check out this takedown of Apple Music’s onboarding flow.

The truth is you’re wrong. 100% of the time I’ve done testing, there’s been at least one user where I was completely dumbstruck by their feedback. You can’t even imagine all the things you’d learn. The psychology of a whole other person is inherently mysterious, fascinating, and unpredictable. Designers worth their weight know this – they learn new things all the time & build testing into a process.

Don’t just gather usability feedback. Talk to users about everything – their lives (part 1 of product vision), their problems (part 2), the solutions they use now (part 3), and what’s missing (part 4).

A good feedback cycle looks something like this:

  • Round 1: ~30 customers. Focus on understanding the customer as a person.
  • Round 2: ~10 customers. Dive down into problem, spend a dedicated 30 minutes with each on just understanding their problem.
  • Next: design & prototype to a level where you can kind of fake the service.
  • Round 3: ~10 customers. Get users using your prototype. Observe, don’t ask, if they like using it.
  • Then: redesign & re-prototype.
  • Round 4: ~10 customers. Usability test.

One of the best books out there on this is The Mom Test. Buy it if you think you’re going to ask a question from a customer, ever.

Even if you don’t end up using the learnings you gather, it’s important to be doing it and just know what people have done. Don’t wait until it’s really late in the game with this beautiful Illustrator file or Invision prototype, with backlog tickets already written, and a dev team impatient to get going, before you start getting user feedback. By then, it’s probably too late.

The advice I give certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s based on my experience and my context, and your product or service area may be unique. Companies that appeal to crowded markets with multiple competitors may well need to invest more in polish. Security startups out there – it might be absolutely necessary to have bug tracking! In any case, use your own judgment. Never fear, as there are many different ways to screw up.

Good luck out there!