I ran my startup, Homeroom, right after I dropped out of college roughly two years ago due to an adverse college experience. I wanted to create a more engaging experience for the students. I chatted with a couple of friends and a handful of professors to see what their challenges were. The problem was becoming apparent — student engagement and retention.
I thought that the best way to do this be to create a discussion platform for students to engage in classrooms.
*Spends 4 months building the product*
During my first pilot, I solicited feedback, and it seemed like they were looking for something more than just a "discussion" platform. How could I enable them to do that? Oh, I can add a Slack-like functionality where students could send messages to each other. BRILLIANT!
*Spends 1 month building this*
“WTF? Okay, maybe what they need is a real-time feedback loop between students and professors. That should lead to more people engaging on the platform."
*Spends 1 weeks building this*
Hmm, maybe I need the professors to enforce this and sell this to colleges, so what will generate value to professors? Oh, what about a Google Analytics but for professors about their students.
While there is clearly good intention behind this anecdote (how can I create more value for the users), the approach I had taken was premature for the following reasons:
What began as a discussion platform, turned into a platform that allowed users to:
Looking back, the one blunder that halted me was increasing surface area every 1-2 months, which led to the platform with 6 or 7 features that were “nice-to-haves.” It was ominous because, at one point, I couldn’t clearly describe what Homeroom was in an elevator pitch to investors or professors. The product had too much surface area with no clear focus — is it a social media for classrooms or a learning platform or a feedback platform or a communications platform or an analytics platform?
I didn’t have the one solid foundation that I was building the house on top of — I was making a bunch of houses on the weaker foundation, which inevitably led to the collapse.
Building on a core foundation — the premise or hypothesis of your product — is essential because it gives shape to what you’re building. It gives you a range of focus on to discreetly validate whether your hypothesis work or not. This is the notion of starting small.
The prime example of this is Google. When Google launched back in 1998, it was a search engine. 22 years later, Google Search is still the most popular Google product. Larry and Sergei were both hyper-focused to design the most effective, intelligent, and performant search engine which blew other search engines by the water (Google owns 70% of the Search Engine market).
Once Google had incredible traction (foundation) for its core product, it began to build on top of it by adding a suite of features like Gmail, Maps, Chrome, etc. First, expand vertically, then horizontally. Since Day 1, Google provided a 10x search engine for the users and not 100x value for them 5 years later.
Webflow is another example of the building on a firmer foundation & delivering 10x value since Day 1. Webflow’s value prop is the interface that enables creators to design and publish websites with no-code. You can see it from their playground here (http://playground.webflow.com/) from 2012 — the core product hasn’t changed. They hypothesized the need for a tool that democratized building for the web, got product-market fit, and once they were in the right place, they executed on their long-term vision.
In contrast, when I was building Homeroom, v1 was simply Phase 1 to a 10-phase vision, and the ideal version of Homeroom was ~3-4 years out. That would've required the product usage, collecting data points, PMF, revenue, etc. That's the opposite of what successful companies have done, which is to deliver a 10x product today to users. Webflow’s and Google’s product at the core is still the same today despite being in a further stage.
This is not to say don’t have a long-term vision — it’s a reminder to not get too swept away in the value provided to users in the future, aka focus on what will deliver value to the user today. This is one thing that I would change. For Homeroom, if it had been a communication platform for students & professions that integrated with other LMS like Canvas, perhaps the value delivered could be apparent during the pilots.
If I had built a 10x product that did that well, chances are colleges would’ve wanted to leverage this tool to do college-wide communication with students through this platform. For example, a communication channel between department heads <> professors, professors <> students, school <> students — fundamentally a communication tool for the entire college.
At the core, Homeroom still would’ve been a communication tool, which in and of itself, would’ve given me the focus I needed instead of increasing the surface area.
Optimize for product-market fit — optimize for delivering a product that 10x value for your users, today and in doing that, ensure that v1, at the core, addresses the WHY of your existence. This may sound obvious, but I wish someone had just told my naive self two years ago. Focus on building a product that will deliver 10x value to your users today than a product that will provide 100x value to your users in 3-5 years.
It is vital to be ahead of the herd and strategize how your product fits in the future, but that is wishful thinking if the product fails to deliver value to users today.