There’s no silver bullet to creating a culture of constant learning. It’s a constant nudging to help people see and appreciate the value of learning.
Early Lessons from a Young Startup: Marble
Building a new product comes with all sorts of rollercoasters, but it’s the vision that our product will improve people’s lives that keeps us moving forward.
My career began at a startup named Bizible (later acquired into Adobe), while my co-founder came from the Facebook Messenger team. Both products were built up enough that we spent most of our time on performance optimization and improving processes. Working in such an environment led us to have preconceived notions about which priorities to focus on when building a product. Here are some early lessons we had to face when building our startup, Marble.
Premature optimization is the “root of all evil”
Good engineering practices matter, but we learned to ask ourselves the question, “How much should quality matter if you can’t live another year?” As early-stage startup founders, we had to think about problems against time horizons. Again, asking ourselves tough questions such as, “Will this problem matter in the time horizon we will last?”.
One of the earliest things we learned as CS students was that premature optimization is the root of all evil. Starting a startup, we realized that this statement was especially true. Moments like thinking of a solution to a problem that won’t happen, or making improvements to the UI when your customers don’t care, wastes valuable time. While there’s leeway to make mistakes, the harsh reality is we can only mess up so many times.
Internally, premature optimization might look like writing documentation as if other teams will read it. Sure it’ll be valuable in a year, but again, that time might be better spent to build a feature of importance or even helping an early client onboard to your product.
Customers define your growth pains
We quickly learned our growth pains from our client's experiences when launching an early product. It’s a two-sided coin because while customers rapidly identify specific issues with your product and provide painful feedback, many show that they’re willing to grow with you to find a solution. If people are ready to walk with you through the early stages of a product, it’s a good indication that others may be willing to join as well.
For example, we launched an MVP self-touring product for Marble to enable landlords to remotely show their vacant rentals to prospective tenants using a smart lock. We spent weeks perfecting the renter tour experience but found that the most significant issue was onboarding landlords to our smart lock technology. Setting up a Bluetooth smart lock can be confusing for landlords who might not be familiar with the technology. As a tech-savvy developer making a living building software, we failed to account for individuals less familiar with Bluetooth or locks. While it was easy enough to smooth over the few initial customers with lock setup issues, as demand grew for our product, so did the number of frustrated customers.
While the title of CTO varies by company, my core duties as a founder and CTO is to identify problems people have and build the best technology to solve them. My experiences thus far have taught me that building a product is all about bridging the gap between technology and users. The role requires constantly empathizing with users and their problems.
Over time, various people approached us to partner with, invest in, or buy our product. While these things feel exciting, they’re mostly vanity milestones and not what makes a successful product. Thankfully, we have a great set of advisors who helped us navigate the earlier conversations with investors and interested individuals. We learned that investors don’t make a good product, but a good product will bring in good investors.
For example, one person wanted to set up a collaboration between another partner he had in the rental business and us. It sounded like an interesting opportunity, but our advisors were quick to note that this opportunity sounded more like a transaction where we’ll end up working for someone else’s benefit. People will always try to sell you with their money by talking about their network and experience, but it’s wise to focus on your priorities through the flashy clutter.
Believe in your product
It might sound cheesy, but the first step in building a product that customers love is believing in your product. You’ll spend countless hours building an MVP just to have a frustrated customer rant about all their issues. The feedback might be demoralizing, but finding a product-market fit requires grit and belief to push forward and improve the product.
Building a new product comes with all sorts of rollercoasters, but it’s the vision that our product will improve people’s lives that keeps us moving forward. At Marble, we are driven by our mission to make renting as seamless as booking an Airbnb.