Code.Coffee.Cows: Prototype Mindset

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It’s Tuesday, which means another installment of my Code.Coffee.Cows column. And the first one of the new year to boot! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s holiday. Holidays and entrepreneurship don’t mix very well, as I’ve discovered. Somehow it’s harder to enjoy vacation when you know it’s simply sucking money out of your (perhaps meager) bank account. But it’s important to get away, to spend time with family and friends. Get a new perspective on things.

Today I’m going to talk about getting into the prototype mindset. I have been building a Minimum Viable Product for a new venture over the past couple of months, and I have learned to think very differently than I have in the past when working on product development. Reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries (see our review on NBS here) has been very helpful in maintaining that specific focus.

Here are three takeaways I’ve learned as I’ve embarked on this venture.

1. Figure Out Your Secret Sauce

This is the hardest part of the exercise, so I’ll start with it. When beginning development on a new product, you need to know what your secret sauce is. In other words, what is it that makes your product compelling and unique above all others in a similar market? You may know the answer right off the bat, but as development begins you quickly realize that it’s difficult to “get to” the secret sauce because so much underlying code, design, or business infrastructure needs to be in place before you can even enable that functionality.

So the key is really this: how much secret sauce can you get up and running while building the least amount of “boilerplate” infrastructure?

Which brings me to point two.

2. If You Can Develop It Tomorrow Instead of Today, Procrastinate.

I know this may sound silly, but in some cases, laziness is a virtue. As is choosing your battles carefully. Now I’m a perfectionist, as I suspect many of you are, and I can’t stand building stuff that seems lousy and half-baked. But when you’re in the prototype mindset, the goal isn’t to do everything perfectly but to do only one thing perfectly (your secret sauce). So you must keep asking yourself if what you’re about to work on really needs to be done now or if it can wait.

For instance, the software product I’m working on currently already has an admin interface, a public front-end, editor controls, database access, etc. — yet it has no user database. No login. No security. If this were made available to the world today, anyone could edit anyone else’s data. Crazy, right?

I would never have developed in this strange manner in the past — after all, every online app needs user logins and security! — but I’m learning to get into the prototype mindset. Being able to register or log in isn’t this app’s secret sauce. Every app does it. Therefore, it is not important to build until it’s absolutely necessary to support other critical functionality. Remember the goal: getting the product to WOW demo-stage as quickly as possible, ignoring everything else.

Which brings me to point three and the final point:

3. Use Your Own Product as Quickly as Possible

Perhaps not every product will fit into this category, but many will. Figure out how you can test your product in real-world usage scenarios yourself. I don’t mean testing your product as you develop it to make sure it functions — that’s a given. What I mean is make sure you eat your own proverbial dogfood.

  • If it’s writing software, write a book.
  • If it’s photo editing software, publish your photography.
  • If it’s a hardware gizmo that tracks weight, go on an exercise regimen.
  • If it’s a revolutionary new laundry service, chuck your washer and dryer out the window and hand over your clothes.

When you’re forced to start using your own product all the time in the real world for the purpose it serves, you begin to get a feel for what needs to be improved, what needs to be changed, what seems to be superfluous. Don’t rely on customers to give you this feedback, although that is very important. Don’t rely on usability testing, although that too is is very important. Rely on learning from eating your own dogfood. Trust me, that may sound obvious but how many times have you tried using a product that was a piece of crap and wondered, did the folks who built this actually try using it before selling it to me?!?!

Bonus Point: Don’t Stop Working On It

OK, I lied. I have one more point, and this is for you bootstrappers out there like me. Keep working on your product. Don’t give up. Even if your week has been crazy and your day job is intense and you feel like you have no time to plug away at your dream, do it anyway. Do it for ten minutes. Do it when you wake up. Do it before you go to sleep. Do it for five minutes and then an hour later do it for another five minutes. It’s a myth that you can only work on it if you have hours and hours of free time. You don’t have free time. You have to make time, find time, borrow time — steal time if you have too.

Just. Do. It. 

Jared White is Editor-in-Chief of North Bay Startup. He has worked in the field of technology journalism for over 15 years and headed up several online blogs and media properties before founding NBS. He is also the owner and Creative Director at Siteshine, a digital media agency located in Santa Rosa, CA. You can reach him on Twitter @jaredcwhite.

Photo Credit: Simon Aughton

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