Tip #1: Be the Best in the World at Something

Here’s the first of my series of posts on my top twelve startup tips from Techstars this summer. Remember, they’re in no particular order as they’re all generally important to keep in mind.

I’ve seen Everythingitis kill many a startup. This is the disease a startup gets when it sets out to add more features than the competition This is a fundamentally flawed strategy that presumes that users will adopt a new service just because it has more features. The reality is that most users start using a particular service because it does one thing really, really well. Think about your own experiences and you’ll see that it’s true.

Several Techstars companies came in with a plan like “MySpace + FaceBook + YouTube + kitchen sink.” We coached them early on that they have to be the best in the world at something, and then build from there. We asked them focus on their passion, and to pick the smallest meaningful problem that they could go and solve better than anyone in the world had ever done before.

I love what Ev Williams (founder of Odeo, Blogger, Twitter) says about this:

“Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve that would potentially be useful. Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too. Focusing on a small niche has so many advantages: With much less work, you can be the best at what you do. Small things, like a microscopic world, almost always turn out to be bigger than you think when you zoom in. You can much more easily position and market yourself when more focused. And when it comes to partnering, or being acquired, there’s less chance for conflict. This is all so logical and, yet, there’s a resistance to focusing. I think it comes from a fear of being trivial. Just remember: If you get to be #1 in your category, but your category is too small, then you can broaden your scopeĀ—and you can do so with leverage.”Ev Williams

Guilty as charged. iContact was a company I started a few years back that had a serious case of everythingitis. Oh yes, it did more than any other mobile social networking product that existed at the time (more than Dodgeball did then, and more than Rabble or Loopt does even today). And the market said: “So what?” The market didn’t understand what iContact did better than anybody else in the world. And so iContact died. That’s how I learned that lesson.

Ev’s last point is key. If you’re the best in the world at thing X, it’s much easier to get to X+Y. You’ll have credibility from your customers who already love you for what you do so well. They’ll be patient and willing to help you build Y. It’s a place of strength, and it can be so much easier to arrive there.

If you’re early in in the life of your startup, do yourself a favor and figure out what one thing you’re going to be the best in the world at doing. By all means, don’t stop there. Just spend some time to think about how you can cross the finish line and avoid everythingitis. The market will love you for it.

So, be the best in the world at something. And consider making it something specific and narrow.

Good example:

“We’re going to be the best in the world at driving new attendees to paid conferences.” (simple, specific, meaningful goal, and a clear market that would care)

Bad example:

“We’ll be the best in the world at social networking.” (too broad, no real meaning to put your finger on, doesn’t mean people will care)

Next up: Tip #2: Find and engage great mentors. Coming soon.

file under: Blog, Startups