Here is the secret to success: have a great product. This is the only thing all great companies have in common.
If you do not build a product users love you will eventually fail. Yet founders always look for some other trick. Startups are the point in your life when tricks stop working.
A great product is the only way to grow long-term. Eventually your company will get so big that all growth hacks stop working and you have to grow by people wanting to use your product. This is the most important thing to understand about super-successful companies. There is no other way. Think about all of the really successful technology companies—they all do this.
You want to build a “product improvement engine” in your company. You should talk to your users and watch them use your product, figure out what parts are sub-par, and then make your product better. Then do it again. This cycle should be the number one focus of the company, and it should drive everything else. If you improve your product 5% every week, it will really compound.
The faster the repeat rate of this cycle, the better the company usually turns out. During YC, we tell founders they should be building product and talking to users, and not much else besides eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with their loved ones.
To do this cycle right, you have to get very close to your users. Literally watch them use your product. Sit in their office if you can. Value both what they tell you and what they actually do. You should not put anyone between the founders and the users for as long as possible—that means the founders need to do sales, customer support, etc.
Understand your users as well as you possibly can. Really figure out what they need, where to find them, and what makes them tick.
“Do things that don’t scale” has rightfully become a mantra for startups. You usually need to recruit initial users one at a time (Ben Silbermann used to approach strangers in coffee shops in Palo Alto and ask them to try Pinterest) and then build things they ask for. Many founders hate this part, and just want to announce their product in the press. But that almost never works. Recruit users manually, and make the product so good the users you recruit tell their friends.
You also need to break things into very small pieces, and iterate and adapt as you go. Don’t try to plan too far out, and definitely don’t batch everything into one big public release. You want to start with something very simple—as little surface area as possible—and launch it sooner than you’d think. In fact, simplicity is always good, and you should always keep your product and company as simple as possible.
Some common questions we ask startups having problems: Are users using your product more than once? Are your users fanatical about your product? Would your users be truly bummed if your company went away? Are your users recommending you to other people without you asking them to do it? If you’re a B2B company, do you have at least 10 paying customers?
If not, then that’s often the underlying problem, and we tell companies to make their product better. I am skeptical about most excuses for why a company isn’t growing—very often the real reason is that the product just isn’t good enough.
When startups aren’t sure what to do next with their product, or if their product isn’t good enough, we send them to go talk to their users. This doesn’t work in every case—it’s definitely true that people would have asked Ford for faster horses—but it works surprisingly often. In fact, more generally, when there’s a disagreement about anything in the company, talk to your users.
The best founders seem to care a little bit too much about product quality, even for seemingly unimportant details. But it seems to work. By the way, “product” includes all interactions a user has with the company. You need to offer great support, great sales interactions, etc.
Remember, if you haven’t made a great product, nothing else will save you.