Creating an account is one thing that every SaaS product has in common. Signing up is almost the definition of a "solved problem," most authentication frameworks come with a signup page out of the box. All a developer has to do is put a logo, add some CSS, and marvel at the beautiful way that new users can start using the application. So why did it take me 7 days to build one for our product? How could that even be appropriate for the technology leader of a startup?
In the heady early days of as startup "Move fast and break things" and "Do things that don't scale" are two of the most popular mantras. These quotes from Mark Zuckerberg and Paul Graham, respectively, are popular because they are right. Before product market fit or 10 unassociated customers, the team has to do as little possible to get as much learning as possible about the relationship between the product and the market place. Otherwise the team risks missing the mark and wasting scarce resources. This is so critical that there's a book, in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, that's launched it's own community.
When doing a word association game, this is what most people think of when it comes to "early startup." This association will only be strengthened by HBO's popular TV ShowSilicon Valley, which over the first three seasons depicts a team struggling to find product market fit. This is the mindset and modus operandi that has dominated my career. Most of my startup jobs have been a lot like the fictional Pied Piper, where there was a very solid core of something that just needed to be packaged up to fit with a market. It was one innovation after the next. The faster we moved, the more likely we were to succeed.
The faster we moved, the more likely we were to succeed.
However, that's just the first stage, which is often followed by the post-product market fit but pre-scale stage. This is the stage that nobody really talks about because it's not exciting. Customer and employee rolls are growing, just not at the eye-popping levels of one's peers. But still, there's enough momentum that breaking things will have a real negative impact. Couple that with the accumulation of engineering and business processes, "getting stuff done" suddenly starts taking longer.
Back to the signup form. The reality is that we already had a signup form, but it was inside a gated area only accessible to us with two years of accumulated business processes that had to occur both before and after someone filled out that form. A person getting access to our system was a customer. Sales worked hard to get that person to the door and they need to be rewarded. Customer success needs to know that this person is at the door so that they can ensure our new customer has a great experience. All this work is required because this is what it takes to have a successful outcome.
The Signup Form is not a form, but a gateway to a productized business process.
We can't throw all that away when we make it so that anyone on the internet can sign up for our product. Which means the Signup Form is not a form, but a gateway to a productized business process. What used to be a few lines of Ruby boilerplate and a coat of paint is now a cross-functional and cross-team project riddled with Salesforce API calls. This is also the moment when, sitting in conference room looking at literally everybody in the company, that you realize that you have created a committee and you are no longer a "StartUp" startup.
What defines this stage is that the company has all the problems of a more successful enterprise with all the constraints of a garage startup. Product complexity increases. There are established processes. Inertia starts getting in the way getting things done, but the bank account is not flush. The company is not yet in the position to hire its way to scale.
Many startups find themselves here, but it's not as common to talk about it. Founders are too often trying to keep their heads above water while juggling a half-dozen jobs. If they catch a free hour, there is not a lot of desire to raise one's hand to call attention to the fact that they are building something they have avoided through most of their careers.
Founders are too often trying to keep their heads above water while juggling a half-dozen jobs.
This is, like most things one avoids confronting, a mistake. This is the first time I've been in this stage and I've been taken aback by how tension filled it is. Back when product was just me, we would push a few feature every week. Major changes would take three weeks, tops. Now it seems like every enhancement is a minimum of a week. Looking at the result, you often find yourself wondering what took so long. Looking at what was done it's crystal clear. Any meaningful change will be comprehensive and touch a lot of the product. Sure it looks simple, but it took a lot of work to make it that way. Plus blog posts, product emails, and knowledge base articles have to be written, which is another new reality when not every customer follows you on Snapchat.
Every business function is dealing with a variation of this theme. Going across the chasm means shifting from customers that will find a way to pay you to customers with procurement teams and in-house counsel. More customers means more customer issues. Having reached into one market segment means finding ways to reach a broader audience. It all becomes more complicated and every job function becomes harder at the same time the amount to do increases. At the end of an exhausting day you don't look back and see a mountain of accomplishment, but rather a field littered with dropped balls.
At the end of an exhausting day you don't look back and see a mountain of accomplishment, but rather a field littered with dropped balls.
The silver lining to all this negativity is that all of these are attributes are for a company positioned for success and sustainability. Of course the early days are hunky-dory, there's nobody to care if it doesn't work. At initial signs of growth, it's easy to collect VP's like Pokémon to isolate oneself from the struggles of building a company. It's hard to focus on the top priorities while willfully ignoring everything that's important but closer to the bottom of the list. All the while keeping the customers happy.
This is the stage where the transformation of startup to business happens. Navigating these waters is not a guarantor of success, but prerequisite. The great companies that have stuck around for a while have gone through this. How they did it too often gets lost in aphorisms of "killing it" and boasts of sky-high valuations.