Four things I learned by failing at building a product

This is the story of how I failed to build a product. I believe to this date that we had a great idea (and the current market proves that), and we put together a good team. Why, then, did I still fail?

I had this great idea that came about when trying to solve a problem for myself. I was a potential user of my product, so I would be eating my dog food, to use the overly used expression. I had received a scholarship for Femgineer's Lean Product Development course and I was eager to put all of that into practice. So far, so good.

There were others doing similar things, but none that took quite the same angle or that were built for the same kind of people. So this was certainly innovation, but not "rocket science" innovation. Something that was new and fresh, but still manageable to execute. So far, so good.

I got in touch with a couple of people I had worked with in the past, and that I would gladly work with again. We had an excellent complimentary skill set. An accomplished engineer, a top-notch designer and UX guy, and someone with good product sense. I explained my idea and vision to them, and they were stoked and eager to work on it. So far, so good.

We set ourselves up, wrote a little plan about what we should start off with, and everyone got going. While the technical work got started on foundational stuff, I went off to do some more customer development interviews (I had already done some to validate the original idea) to guide the rest of the work. So far, so good.

After the first month, we were still nowhere near having an MVP. Everyone's just getting started and getting our schedules adjusted so this work can fit in, so that's probably alright. So far, so good.

After another couple of months with no MVP in sight, everyone agrees to a weekend marathon. We pull it off, and we're getting closer to an MVP. Yay! But there's still stuff left to do before we have something that's even slightly usable. Yellow light!

It turns out the product idea was just too large. Or at least, it was too large after factoring in the team members' availability to build it. We realized that it was large, and we tried to break it down into its smallest components to deliver the MVP as soon as humanly possible, but that still left too much to be done. If you're trying to build a product as a side-project, remember your availability will be limited. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Unless it's OK to not deliver anything for a long time, pick something small enough to fit into your and your team's availability.

Learning #1: if it takes you more than a few weeks to get to your first MVP, something's wrong.

As we were getting into building our MVP, a couple of products showed up with very similar value propositions to our own, that didn't exist when we were getting started. That's good, as it validates your original idea. Someone else, half around the globe, also looked at this same problem and thought a product similar to this would be a good way to solve it. The problem to us was not that other people were building similar stuff, but that they already had something out there while we were still struggling with the MVP.

A couple of months later, those same people got VC funding. Again, fantastic validation for your idea - someone is willing to put money into it. However, that also means the competing product now has a lot more money to speed up product development. And our MVP was still getting ready...

Learning #2: new players entering your market is validation, but it also means you have to move even faster.

Then, life happened. I switched jobs, and time that was already scarce became even scarcer. One of my partners got a book deal, and naturally had to deliver it. The other partner managed to make his dream come true and moved to Australia. Everyone was really busy with something that was not building our product. I suppose what that means is that building this product was not everyone's top priority from the beginning.

But the way that manifested itself was through diminishing communication. We talked less and less, and got to the point where it would take multiple attempts just to get the three of us in the same Hangout. Certainly not a sign of a healthy team.

Learning #3: lack of communication is the first sign that things are going wrong.

You can't say anyone is wrong for following their dreams and working to their priorities. There is no fault in doing that. The real trick is in knowing what those priorities are beforehand and in choosing the right things to work on that will fit into those priorities.

I don't know what that is for other people. For me, it means that I have a family to provide and to care for. That reduces the amount of risk I am willing to take, a fact that was made very clear to me during a conversation with a friend working full-time building his product. He told me he was getting close to running out of money, and if that happened his plan B was to sell his apartment and put that into his business. I could not do anything remotely similar to that, yet by this time, it seemed that getting our product out the door would require something like it.

I know quite a few entrepreneurs who overwork themselves so badly that they essentially have no life. I also know others that run successful businesses and lead happy, vibrant and active lives outside of their business. I know which side I want to be on.

That does not mean you cannot build your product. It just means you have to know yourself better and pick something that you can deliver. Choose a product that has a smaller scope. Maybe pick something you can do on your own so that you can work around your schedule. Create something that can work without requiring any huge leaps of faith. That self-knowledge is crucial, and it is the driving force behind some projects that I am getting started on now. I think by now I know myself well enough to start on something meaningful that I can deliver while not putting at risk the life that I cherish so much.

Learning #4: Know thyself. Not all products are right for you to build, find something that fits your goals and lifestyle.

I probably learned a lot more than this, but these are the things that are the most important and that can be more easily distilled in written format. Sure, there were "technical" things that I learned, but those are less important. Get the basics right, and the rest will follow. After having this extraordinary experience, I think I know myself better, I see what i want to do better, and I am ready to take another whack at building a product. And this time, it will be something better suited to my personality and my lifestyle.