Your first priority: finding product-market fit

In any startup, finding the best product-market fit comes from getting feedback from customers. It is the most important thing you can do at the nascent stage of any business. Modern software tools make it possible to get your ideas in front of users on day one – that wasn’t always the case.

Over 20 years of finding product-market fit

I had my first job in software in 1998. Things were pretty different then. Our first server lived under my desk. When we raised a seed round, I flew to Herndon, Virginia to build out our data center myself. I flew in a plane with a suitcase full of disk drives. That was how you got software onto the internet in 1998.

Today, you’re lucky enough to be building a business in the age of AWS, Heroku, and serverless — which means you have an advantage that I didn’t have in 1998. In fact, these options didn’t exist for 99.99% of business history.

Modern cloud deployment platforms give you the ability to get your ideas in the hands of users faster than ever before. With tools like this, you can focus entirely on building your product as users are interacting with it, so you can learn from those users as quickly as possible.

With this in mind, there are a few outmoded startup practices I want to caution you against.

Fear is not a helpful startup tool: don’t develop in stealth mode

Stealth mode is the period in which startups build their product in secret, and won’t talk about it or show it to anyone for fear someone else will steal their idea.

Before I explain why this is a bad idea, let me first say that the fear around which stealth mode is constructed is generally unfounded. People are not sitting around just waiting for a great idea they can steal and then build. If someone had the time and the energy to steal your idea, they probably already have their own idea and they’re working on that.

But more importantly, for anything you’re currently working on, there are at least three other teams somewhere, right now, also working on that idea.

Speedy development = quicker discovery of product-market fit

The best thing you can do isn’t to work on it in secret, but to build it, and get it in front of customers as fast as possible. The notion that keeping it a secret will extend the time you have to build it is false — you’re merely increasing the chance someone will beat you to market.

Don’t build in secret; build in public. Don’t take your time making it perfect; build something imperfect and get feedback on it as quickly as possible.

What’s the opposite of stealth mode? Landing pages. Landing pages are the first, smallest test of a viable concept. I can put up 5 business ideas before breakfast and see which one pulls the most interest by lunch. I didn’t waste any time and I got valuable signals about my market. I spent an hour and wrote no lines of code, and it’s already a better idea than stealth mode.

Finding product-market fit is the only thing that matters for early startups. Building your product in secret is not finding product-market fit. If you’re hiding something, you’re not learning from it.

Business plan considerations

Before you say “Rob Zuber told me not to have a plan,” I think it’s great and important to have a plan — just be able to articulate the plan in a single sentence. Don’t plan further ahead than you have to, which means: plan your next step, build it, and get feedback. Then amend the plan. Repeat.

The absence of that large scale, upfront, 3-ring-binder type planning is often interpreted as a lack of a plan. But really it means that I’m planning to be in an optimal position to seize an opportunity and as I do the work, I will evolve the plan along the way.

Being wrong is actually a key startup tool (not kidding)

The real reason not to write a business plan is that no matter how smart your business plan is, you’re wrong. You’re wrong about something in your business. Think back to those three other teams building your same idea. They’re wrong too. But none of you understand what you’re wrong about yet. Your only strategy at this point is to be wrong as fast as humanly possible (ideally faster than those other teams) so that you can find out what right is and start building the right thing.

Your only strategy is to be wrong as fast as humanly possible so that you can find out what right is and start building the right thing.

This probably won’t surprise you, but this advice isn’t only for early-stage startups. At every stage, keep up this cycle of building, executing, and getting feedback. It’s only in this feedback cycle that you’ll learn where you’re wrong and start to get more right.

Learn more on finding product-market fit

Put down your business plan. Find the simplest possible approximation of your idea that will give you any kind of signal. Build that in an afternoon and then go give it to someone and see if they care. Do whatever it takes to find that out — it shouldn’t take 18 months and a 90-page document.

Looking to gain more insight on finding the best product-market fit for your startup (and my 14 rules of technical leadership)? Download my latest ebook, Choosing a Tech Stack You Won’t regret: A Guide To Technical Leadership in Fast-Growing Startups.