“A founder develops a breakthrough idea and starts a company to build it. The product succeeds, and the company grows. Then … employees start complaining that the CEO is paying too much attention to what the employees can do better without her and not enough attention to the rest of the company.”
Soon words like scale descend and, with every good intention in the world, the founder transforms themselves from a passionate and “product-oriented CEO” into a “crappy, general-purpose CEO.”
The result? The product bloats, manufacturing expands, innovation dries up, and before you know it: “Looks like we need a new CEO.” To help you avoid that fate, here are six of the most common mistakes founders make scaling products … and how to avoid them.
1. Not sticking to the customer’s ‘job’
“When customers become aware of a job that they need to get done in their lives,” write Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor in The Innovator’s Solution, “they look around for a product or service that they can ‘hire’ to get the job done. This is now how customers experience life.”
Since its inception, Christensen and Raynor’s job-to-be-done model has fundamentally reshaped how companies create products. Unfortunately, staying focused on your customer’s job is often the first thing to go as a product scales.
Ironically, customers themselves can be part of the problem. “We have lots of feature requests coming in from customers all the time,” Kenny Rueter, co-founder of Kajabi, explained to me.
His solution? “We read every single one of them,” says Rueter, “but what we try to do is determine the desired outcome the customer is really after.” Staying focused on how to take your customers to their desired state as quickly and painlessly as possible is key to sustaining an innovative product, rather than one that dilutes itself by trying to do it all.
2. Not scaling in stages
What’s true of a customer’s job is equally true of building products themselves. The phrase “overnight success” sounds idyllic, but it’s far from accurate. Crossing the divide from “we make one thing well” to “we make everything” has shipwrecked countless founders.
Instead, establish your base product and core manufacturing skill set. Then, expand production only as proprietary demands require.
Entrepreneur in residence at Harvard, Michael Skok, put it like this: “Your product or service may be quite valuable to customers, but one thing you can’t often provide from the get-go is a true end-to-end solution. If you sell a piece of software, for example, it’s unlikely you can also offer the hardware, implementation, and services as well. You’re just not big enough yet to do it all.”
Remember, not being “big enough” is fine. Patience and steady expansion are far more valuable than overextending your resources.
3. Not following the data
At the opposite extreme of following every customer requests stands failing to listen. Especially to the data. Caught up in their original vision, founders often trot out Henry Ford’s famous adage: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
After all, the dogged pursuit of an original vision is often what makes successful founders in the first place. The same, however, isn’t true of CEOs.
Not understanding user data and the lead indicators of your industry can spell disaster. What products or services do well in the economy’s current climate? At what maturity level is your market? What are your acquisition and retention numbers telling you? These are all vital questions.
Success in any venture hinges on paying attention to your customer’s shifting trends and your market’s competitive landscape. Being acutely aware of these changes and remaining flexible allows founders to scale with confidence.
4. Not making the product effortless
Most products — especially innovative products — develop more rapidly than customer adoption. What makes for disruption in a startup product can quickly outpace a user’s skill and requirements when it comes time to sustain.
Most scaling companies tend to load up their products not only with more and more features but more and more power. The truth is: all that advancement counts for nothing if the products aren’t effortless.
As Tom More, founder and CEO at video creation app Promo by Slidely, told me, “If I had to pick one common sentiment that I think we should steer clear from, it’s aiming for ‘comprehensive’ and ‘powerful’ products, as opposed to products that are just fast and simple to use.”
There’s a sort of arms race mentality in scaling where leaders think they need to roll out additional options and functionalities to compete. However, once a product crosses the good-enough threshold — i.e., it helps customer’s complete their job — the primary goal should be to enable them to do their jobs more efficiently.
5. Not guiding employee evangelism
Mistakes in product marketing abound. But perhaps the most damaging comes from mismanaging a company’s most sacred resource: their employees. The problem isn’t so much social media stupidity, but rather failing to guide and equip employees as brand evangelists.
“Founders often fall into the trap of thinking that simply getting employees to share content will make sure they’re engaged with the company,” says Roope Heinilä, Co-Founder and CEO of employee advocacy platform Smarp. “One founder even asked if his company could have their employees connect their social profiles to Smarp for auto-posting of company content. I told them that by doing so, not only would they be alienating their own team but also degrading the company image.”
Instead of focusing on external sharing, it’s better to invest in knowledge sharing between employees, leadership, and product development. This increases employees’ sense of involvement and helps them become expert advocates.
6. Not encouraging failure
Encouraging failure can sound like a strange approach to scaling. After all, isn’t failure the very thing you’re trying to avoid? Yes … and no. The critical ingredients of launching a successful product — feedback and iteration — are equally necessary during and after growth.
When scaling, perfectionism is death. In fact, product missteps aren’t just inevitable, they’re essential. It’s a fine line and walking it comes from an unlikely source. “Early on,” wrote Pixar CEO Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc., “all of our movies suck. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so — to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
As a leader, the important thing isn’t to prevent errors, but to embrace and learn from them. This goes for all the mistakes mentioned above.
In the words of another Pixar innovator, director Andrew Stanton: “My strategy has always been: be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that.”
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