First, Make Something Small That Works

I keep thinking of this quote:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over with a working simple system. 

John Gall, The Systems Bible

My startup needs to pivot because our product doesn’t work. We tried many things and worked hard for two years, but nothing we did resulted in good enough traction among users. I know there are many things we did wrong. And I will be happy to talk about all my failures another time. But there’s one thing that’s on my mind each day. We didn’t start with something small that worked.

I have often compared product development with building cities. Every city that works was once a town that worked. Every town that worked was once a village that worked. And every village that worked was once just a handful of houses that worked. Sure, you can try to design and build a city from scratch, but you will find it very difficult to get people to like it. With products, it’s the same.

Perhaps the biggest mistake that we made is that we didn’t grow something that worked. At first, we made something small that didn’t work. Then we added things, hoping that the slightly bigger product would start to work. And when that didn’t happen, we added even more stuff to try and make things work. This went on and on for two years. Now, we have something big that doesn’t work.

The only way to get out of this mess is to start from scratch, with something small that works.

Fortunately, not everything is lost. In fact, I did find something small that works! Ironically, I only discovered this little thing because of our two years of struggle. I found a success thanks to all our earlier failures. This immediately brings to mind another famous quote that I often refer to:

The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.

Linus Pauling

I thank everyone for their contributions. They helped me to find a good idea, finally. I now have one house that works. From here, it’s a matter of growing it, step-by-step, into a village, then into a town, and then a city. I finally have a real chance of making something large that works.

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