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Ravi Lingineni

Published Jul 18, 2021

You can't build startups like products

Most frameworks don't account for distribution

Product frameworks don’t account for distribution.

As ex-software developers and product managers (especially at larger companies), we often assume that our product skills will translate over to the startup world. However cutomer acquistion is something that’s easy to overlook in our skillset.

As a product-focused engineer and ex-product manager, I fell into this trap.

Discovery is not Distribution

I have two stories to share. While I was still a product manager at Microsoft, I helped a group of guys in Korea find their product-solution fit. See Ryeboard

Number two, I left my job, to build a startup - which as customers describe it, is “super useful” and “very promising”.

We did all the exercises. The questions. The surveys. The interviews. The analysis.

But no amount of product work is enough to create the silicon valley startup you hope. Neither John nor I are owners of Silicon Valley Unicorns.

It’s not that we didn’t pick up the right problems, or build the right solution, it’s that we didn’t know how to grow our product and take it to many people.

That’s a marketing problem, not engineering.

Two variables in a startup

If you want to run a startup, you need to figure out two variables first

  • Acquisition: how are we going to get new customers?
  • Retention: are your new customers staying?

I would say that anything you build in your product is primarily geared towards retention. Features attract customers, but they don’t attract customers by themselves.

I might be a second-time founder now, so I think more keenly about the latter.

Overcoming Distribution

I don’t have a great answer to overcome the distribution problem. Hence, I’m not a mega-millionaire startup founder.

The key is you want people to tumble into your product with the lowest effort possible. You might hear this as customer acquisition cost. And the more of it you do organically, the better.

What about ads?

So, if I were to do this again, here are a few things I’d look at differently:

  1. Live in a store. Think App Store, plugins store, extensions. I found selling Figmage to be way easier than Amna because stores have entire channels built around them.

  2. I don’t believe that I can build an X for Y industry (not anymore). You can throw tech, solve a real problem, yet only a few early-adopters will try it. Then it stops. That is the chasm.

People trust people

  1. Build network effects from day 1. If people are going to really enjoy something in your product, think about how they can tell more people about it without ever leaving the experience.

Parting Lesson

I hope you think about the second variable harder than I did initially. Because it’s where you might get stuck. It doesn’t mean a market doesn’t exist, or people won’t use it, it just means that you don’t know how to reach it. You can’t just be a good product builder.