NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, UK — By their very nature, startups are new. Be it a product, a service, a business model, something about a startup has to be different or it will almost certainly fail. But even when a startup does bring out something different, eventually the shine will wear off.
At that point devils will climb on to the founders' shoulders and tempt them to keep updating the products and services to recapture that "latest thing" status. Most of the time those founders should resist.
The press coverage may dry up. Any consideration and leeway you used to get from suppliers and customers goes away quickly. It may even be you who misses the heady days when every decision about the company was key and exciting. But the sad news is that eventually it becomes time for hard work without as much positive feedback. How long the shine takes to tarnish depends on which sector the company operates in and how much funding it has to spend, but it will happen sometime between six months and a few years -- and that's OK.
In the technology-based business world it could be that the shine will wear off when the business is no longer the flavor of the month. It can be tempting at this point to try to keep up with all the newer kids on the block and start adding features to look cutting-edge. Founders are prone to tempting thoughts like: "If only our product connected to the Internet, used Bluetooth 4.0, or had a customizable 3D printer add-on pack, we could keep crushing it!"
Just because your product is no longer right at the bleeding edge of the fashionista tech scene does not mean it will flop. This is the time to focus on your core offering and well-considered and researched add-on features to be released over a number of years. In the startup phase it is all too easy to start bouncing around from shiny new thing to shiny new thing.
Often, as my own firm did, you will meet potential advisors or investors who are convinced you should add feature X or novelty Y to your product. And it would be tempting to let them "make a difference" by adopting their ideas. However, while they may have their hands on the money, they are not necessarily world-renowned experts in your field. More likely they have been reading Tech Crunch, Business Week, or EE Times and decided that if your product can't check itself into the Internet of Things and display video clips via the nearest Google Glass headset then it's dead on arrival.
It's easy for an inexperienced founder to bounce between ideas, or be bounced into adopting bad ones. The guiding light is to have some kind of strategy and stick to it. Much of that strategy will be decided based on gut instinct and a bit of market research, so it's important to be a bit stubborn and say no to a lot of other avenues. This means occasionally standing up to crusty old business consultants -- but hey, we wouldn't be entrepreneurs if we liked traditional hierarchies!
I'm not suggesting that you turn down good ideas, good opportunities, or flog a dead business model for the sake of it. But until you have proved whether or not your product has a market, it is best to stick to the plan and be OK with not being quite so shiny and new.
In the software world they talk about finding the product-market fit, often with the emphasis being on modifying the product until it fits the chosen market. In hardware the opposite should be true. You need to give your product, which can't be easily changed or updated, time to find its market. You may have thought your market was high-income households, but after a lackluster nine months of sales it might be easier to find an alternative market rather than change your design, supply chain, logistics, patents, etc. It's much easier to change your marketing message than to keep up with the Joneses in a market that doesn't want you.
Of course, the real trick is knowing how long to give it -- three months, six months, two years? You need to give the market enough time to decide if it wants you, but you don't want to throw good money after bad.
Having said so much about having a startup strategy and sticking to it, one must also remember that things could change when your product or service hits the market, or as Field Marshall Helmut von Moltke once said, presumably in German: "No battle plan survives significant contact with the enemy."
— Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.