How to Avoid the Curse of Vision Overload

22 Comments

My Chicago-based startup, The Point, helps people start campaigns for collective actions of all kinds, from organizing a poker game to boycotting a multinational corporation. We’ve been fortunate so far, enjoying steady growth, happy users, and money in the bank. (In February, we raised a $4.8 million round of venture funding from New Enterprise Associates). But hindsight is 20/20 and any entrepreneur, given the chance, would do some things differently.

In our case, we spent nine months developing extra features to accommodate our grand vision instead of focusing on what our users would really need. This cost us precious time, delaying our launch, originally planned for June 2007, to November of that year. Even after launch, the costs lingered — maintaining the extraneous features was a time-consuming distraction from improving the parts of The Point that people were actually using.

Thankfully, we caught on to what I call the curse of “vision overload” — when you put your vision ahead of your users — and quickly reversed course.

This month we’re delivering a major upgrade to The Point, our first release in months, and we’ve actually cut more features than we’ve added. While arguably less grand, it adheres to the critical success maxim of KISS, or “Keep it Simple, Stupid!” All founders face an inherent conflict between their most ambitious visions and the practicalities of execution. Below I explain how The Point addressed this uncomfortable compromise, and how you can learn to KISS, too.

Why didn’t we adhere to simplicity the first time around? We were certainly aware of the KISS principle — in fact, it was uttered frequently around our office — but we didn’t know how to measure simplicity. Obviously a site needs some core features, but where do you draw the line on value added? Our vision was to build a 21st century framework for collective action. This was novel, so how do you determine what is core vs. an enhancement?

The complexity occurred when we allowed vision to drive our feature set. Six months on, we’ve developed a few rules for determining what to leave in and what to leave out at launch.

1. If you don’t mention it in your 2-minute product demo, you don’t need it.

Whether demoing to colleagues or potential investors, we found ourselves glossing over certain features to keep from overwhelming our audience. In the end, the features we skipped over were the same features that went unused. If you can’t fit it into a presentation to a captive audience, then it’s almost guaranteed not to be a factor in the seven seconds the average web user takes to decide whether they’re interested in what you’re doing.

2. Don’t build a race car for foot runners.

Campaigns on The Point don’t go “live” until engagement reaches a critical mass (e.g. 100 participants), so everyone can be assured the campaign will have an impact. So to help organizers determine the tipping point for a boycott, we built a database of 150,000 companies that maps the financial vulnerabilities of boycott candidates like The Gap or Exxon Mobil. Users, however, were efficiently identifying potential targets through simple discussion forums. They didn’t need the fancy tools we had created.

3. Let users problem-solve with the basics first. Then offer the glitz.

We assumed that some campaign creators would want multiple administrators so they could share the responsibilities of management and promotion. Our vision for The Point included group governance, so we spent weeks building a system for proposing and voting on campaign developments. As soon as we launched, we realized that campaign creators managed this task just fine by sharing access to single accounts. The lesson? Sometimes it’s better to let users actually have a problem before you try and fix it; their solution is often simpler.

4. Proselytize your vision in your blog, not your product set.

There are better ways to promote your vision than etching it into your product with features that are unlikely to be used. Write about it on your blog! Speak with community groups on the purpose and potential of the site. Or make a video of yourself in the future talking about how your site changed the world.

Users care about whether you are meeting their needs, not your vision for the company. Save your vision for your investors. Had we focused on the factors that affect whether someone will become a user, we would have had a product out the door months earlier.


Andrew Mason is a blogger and founder of The Point. It is his first startup.

22 Comments

James Gillmore

Hey guys, I think we’ve all suffered from a sort of our “eyes being bigger than our appetite” syndrome–you know when you want to eat the whole buffet and end up with a plate of uneaten food. I think when we get excited about a product, we just want to push it to the max, especially if it’s your product. I’m actually going through this right now, and I think this article has influenced me to trim down the plans a little bit.

Luckily since my method isn’t the most agile of methods, I planned everything out from the beginning–and therefore have the perfect one of those Japanese plans that can be trimmed before development really starts.

I guess it’s trimming time.

James
from
FaceySpacey.com – “The Startup Incubator”

Heidi Miller

Great article, Andrew. I think that first point of yours is the most pertinent. This is what I’d tell my live presentation clients, who didn’t think they could convey their message in a mere five minutes. Really? If you can’t, then your message is too darn complicated. The true value in what you’re offering *will* come through in the first two minutes. The rest is gravy.

PatrickC

Great post. I think a lot of startups feel if they don’t execute fully on their grand vision, that their product would appear to lack features. I think it’s important to find out the fine line that needs to be drawn when adding features to a product.

The more features you add, the more you have to keep up with and maintain in the future. And a lot of times, customer behavior within your product may end up not needed those initial features in the first place.

Pavan K

Again Giga OM hits a huge nail on the head. Curse is the word for Vision overload. Another article to go on the wall above my desk, so it can stare me in the face, all day – every day. Thanks Andrew, this might just have sped us up a great deal!

Harish Agrawal

We are an IT Services and digital marketing company. I could see some of my customers commit the mistake that is theme of your post i.e. “vision overload”, however there is a bigger bunch that commits the mistake called ‘feature overload’. Recently I had a meeting with someone who wanted to build a social networking site with features like Blogs, Forums, Q&A, Groups, chat rooms and internal messaging, ofcourse Superwall like facebook is a MUST Have. I tried explaining them that all of these redundant features will overshadow the CORE concept of site tehy are building. It sometimes is a loosing battle, sometimes you make yourself understood.

Luc

Thanks for sharing.

After re-reading point #2 I’m still not sure what you mean. Can you expand on this.

Thanks

Tony Wright

Great post, Andrew! It’s cool to see founders posting about mistakes rather than triumphs. Keep rocking with The Point– it’s an outstanding idea!

bsamii

Great post! Deciding when ‘enough is enough’ when developing features for a new platform is never easy. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this.

I’m curious how long you kept The Point in private beta before you unleashed it to the public. Also, how different are the features from your pre-launch versus post-launch?

Andrew Mason

Hey Mike – Overall, we (and our investors) are pleased with progress, and we’re largely executing according to plan. We made a mistake with KISS — one that I felt compelled to share because I imagine there are others experiencing the same difficulty measuring it — but it was one mistake among a sea of decisions that we feel were correct.

Justin – No, in fact, our investors encouraged us to keep it simple. But I think they also understood that you need to make some mistakes yourself to internalize the underlying wisdom. When we were just getting started, one of our angels said something like, “you’re going to make 8,000 mistakes, and there’s nothing I can do or say to change that. What’s important is that you can quickly identify and correct them.” So even when they questioned my decisions, as long as they weren’t life-threatening, they realized that staying hands off would, long-term, make us smarter, more self-sufficient entrepreneurs. And it has :)

Justin Davey

In response to what Mike James had to say, did VC pressure have anything to do with putting the cart ahead of the horse so to speak?

I also find it interesting that the best business minds/writers advise having a vision in place before anything else, yet those that actually run startups seems to say that it doesn’t tend to work that way. KISS seems to be the way. Find an unmet niche, develop a solution, offer it to the public and let them decide what the real vision should be.

Mike James

Taking more than a year to get to where you are now, have you seen a lot of pressure from your investors after making so many mistakes along the way?

Do you feel like you were over-capitalized? Have you thought about bringing in someone with experience to guide the ship?

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