Don’t Be a Parasite If You Want To Be A Disruptor

I spoke with an entrepreneur whose company is building a new, disruptive product for the education sector. One of the challenges he’s facing is that none of the company’s co-founders have worked in the education sector before. He wondered if he should hire someone with some relevant experience.

Another entrepreneur friend of mine is building a tool that is catered to the public sector. The company is struggling to scale as a business. The sales process is too slow. The product is becoming too specific for one sector.

In both cases when these entrepreneurs asked for my advice, I told them: Don’t be a parasite if you want to be a disruptor.

There are so many verticals out there that still have not been fully transformed by the Internet — education, public sector, book publishing, the list goes one. But it’s extremely hard to transform any industry if you have a lot of dependencies with the old systems. You can’t think out of the box. Your sales cycle is too long. And often you end up with a product or a service that is incremental at best rather than revolutionary.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a lot of people have built great businesses by providing incremental solutions like consulting services to the government. But, if you want to build something truly transformative and net-native, then you have to stay as far away from the traditional systems as possible and draw closer to your end users or customers.

If you want to create something truly game-changing and be a disruptor, you can’t begin the journey as a parasite.

Embrace tension to move even faster

As a startup scales, it’s natural for tension to creep up among different teams who are working on disparate objectives. Either of these conversations sound familiar?

Showing users more ads can help generate more revenue, but it could also hurt engagement. Do we optimize for revenue or engagement?

We have a limited budget. If we spend it on A, B, and C we won’t be able to pay for X, Y, Z. What should we choose?

The best way entrepreneurs can embrace and then ease tension among their teams is to establish a set of principles. Principles can help teams avoid indecision and move fast.

In the example above about serving ads at the expense of user engagement for instance, if the team has previously established that ad experiments can’t impact engagement by more than X%, it becomes easier for them to test different combinations of ads to drive the most revenue without negatively impacting engagement.

Establishing principles streamlines decision making, eliminates unnecessary meetings and propels the company forward. Everyone knows what to do and understands how much (or how little) leeway the team has.

Of course, there will be times when you may not have a principle to fall back on. That’s when the teams representing the conflicting priorities need to escalate the matter further and involve an arbitrator. Most times decisions are reversible and having an arbitrator can resolve issues quickly. In the world of startups, a quick decision always trumps a slow decision (or worse, no decision at all).  

Tension is natural and a sign your company is growing. But as your business grows and becomes more complex, decisions aren’t as straightforward as they used to. Creating a set of ground rules that inform your team’s priorities and outcomes can help avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict.

Out with the old (product features)

The new year means a fresh start. With that in mind, I urge product managers, designers, engineers and developers – anyone who helps develop a product, really – to think critically about the features they are designing. Have you thought about what features you’ll say goodbye to in January? Because killing features now means better business velocity for the rest of 2019.

As a product and its codebase grows, it is not uncommon to see an increase in technical debt. This debt may be because usage of a feature has scaled beyond its original design (you can’t expect a Toyota Corolla to reach 300 km/h no matter how many turbochargers you add) or because a feature, and subsequently it’s code, is used in more ways than originally intended (like a lawn mower turned into a snow blower – it works, but it shouldn’t). Often, technical debt accumulates because old or infrequently-used features aren’t retired.

There is a cost of removing these old features, of course, but removing features is significantly cheaper in the long-run than maintaining relic code. When you support outdated or unused features you’re also allowing security, performance and backwards compatibility issues to arise.

I remember reading an article about Evernote that claimed 90% of their features (and they have thousands of them) are used by less than 1% of their users. Eventually, the company’s velocity grounded to a halt because every simple feature update required numerous discussions across the company before the change could be implemented.

So make no mistake, it is desirable and even essential to purge old product features. Here’s how in three steps:  

  1. First identify a feature that you think should be retired. Then measure the usage of that feature. The data won’t lie. If usage is low, proceed to step two.
  2. The numbers may not tell you the whole story. Talk to some of the old-timers who have more context than you and understand why the feature existed in the first place. In many cases, you’ll be surprised by the reasons.
  3. Decide to purge, modernize or maintain the status quo. Make a decision and then execute your action plan.

Years ago, I was part of a team that dedicated six months to find bugs and purge unused features. On the surface, it seemed we were spending an inordinate amount of time and effort ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’ and not working on things that took the product forward. In reality though, those six months pushed the product much, much further ahead. By the end of it the product ran faster, the UI was cleaner because many unused features were gone, and annoying glitches were finally addressed. The app went from 1-star to 5-star in a few months without adding anything new.

It’s a good reminder: Less is more. Simple is good.

When tech giants move next door

A slew of international tech companies – Google, Uber, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon – have committed to or expressed interest in setting up shop in Toronto. If you’re a homegrown startup or scaleup you can’t help but think about the implications of having these giants in your backyard.

Companies often expand their footprint to lower costs, access specialized talent or for a host of other reasons. It’s not new. They aren’t the first international companies who want to set up shop in Toronto, and won’t be the last.

And why not? Toronto is a world-class city with some of the best universities in the world producing some of the finest technical and business talents. We’re home to an incredibly diverse community who have the perspective and understanding to solve global issues and build products and services that work for the world.  

Colleagues and friends have recently been asking me for my take on these moves. Are they helpful or harmful to the city and the local tech ecosystem?

In my opinion, we should welcome these moves – but be wary of them.

When a few foreign companies decide to move to a burgeoning city, they can help build a critical mass that directly supports homegrown companies by spurring interest in the region. They attract high caliber talent and then provide opportunities for these employees to hone their skills and learn new ones so they can further develop into well-rounded and in-demand workers.

But too many foreign companies in a single locale can make it seem like they’ve colonized the area, leaving little room for local businesses. It gets too difficult to compete, too expensive to stay in your backyard. Think about this: If data is the new oil, do you really want all the ‘oil companies’ to be foreign-owned?

So it’s not a choice of either-or. Having zero international companies who operate locally won’t stimulate the ecosystem. With too many foreign companies, locals lose the ability to control their our own destiny,  and eventually, ideas and innovation become stifled.

For now, I welcome these new companies into our backyard but make no mistake, it can never replace building our own homegrown giants. I’m certain that the incredible Toronto tech ecosystem will continue to make waves regardless of who moves next door.