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The 4 Key Qualities of Success for a Tech Startup

Written by
Phil Wakefield
Last updated
6th April 2021

Creating a successful tech product is not easy. Being innovative in the digital space is full of challenges and pitfalls. Technology is constantly changing and developing; customers desires and needs are elusive. What works for company A does not for company B.

Yet if we look at the key things that excellent products do, we see some common traits. If you can share these characteristics, you set yourself up to get that big investment, make a successful launch into the market and become the major player in your sector.

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Great companies do not simply want to make money or 'build an app'. They have a clear vision that gives them focus. I think this is often underestimated.

A strong vision provides a measure against which decisions can be made. It makes decisions straightforward and consistent. Nothing stalls progress faster than conflicting actions; it's demotivating and counterproductive. Quick, clear and consistent decisions allow for effective product development.

For your team, a clear vision gives direction, so they are all pulling together for the same purpose. Everyone knows the destination, so work together in collaboration. It provides motivation and focuses action. It is a cause that binds no matter your background, skill and experience.

To the outside world, your vision lets your investors and customers know what you stand for and have something they can buy into. Your vision is something they can identify with and can get behind. It sets you apart from your competitors and feeds your identity.

A vision can come in many forms, but my favoured format is nice and straightforward:

Apple set out its vision in this format two years before they released the iPhone.

This vision is uniquely Apple, it was purposeful, and they delivered what they set out to. I love how it gives clarity of purpose, making it easy for them to understand what success looked like while also providing a personality that customers can align to.

Can you state your vision as clearly?

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Who are your users really?

Digital products exist to provide a service to people. They make us more productive, happier, entertained and connected. Technology is in the service of people, not the other way round.

To create technical solutions that serve us, we need to know what our customers and our users really need. Products are often born from our own frustrations as customers or the belief that we can provide a better service than the current offerings. Sometimes we know our customers really well. You have coffee, work in their office, go to the pub. Sometimes, 'everyone is a customer', and you know your friends and family want it (hint: 'everyone' is never your customer)

That is not good enough! You need to know more. A deeper understanding is an absolute must; the better you know your customers, the better their engagement. Or to put it another way, what happens if your competitor knows your customers better?

"86% of customers would pay more for a better experience" (PWC - “Experience is everything”) - you better give them the best experience otherwise, they are taking their money elsewhere.

A deep level of understanding is not easy, but acting with purpose, it is very achievable. Observing users, systematically interviewing across your customer base and testing features directly with users are all ways you can build understanding. We seek opportunities to uncover things that do not come up in 'normal' conversation, going beyond the functional aspects and understanding them as people. What makes them tick. What are they trying to achieve using your product? Is there a social or emotional reason? What pains are they trying to solve, and what will they gain?

The benefits of developing this understanding generate new opportunities that you (or your competition) will not have spotted otherwise. You will have a greater focus on what is most important, and you will avoid exploring dead ends that sap your effort and energy.

Understanding your customers is like getting a map to building a brilliant product. The more detail you get, the better able you are to plan your path to success.

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Embrace Failure

Failure is not to be feared. We should seek failure because it gets us closer to success.

When we fail, we learn, and we can improve. When we fail, it is because we have tried something and found it lacking. If we do not open up our ideas and decisions to failure, we are burying our head in the sand, waiting until the inevitable happens.

Instead, we test early and often. Getting failure out of the way before we have committed effort, and it is easy to correct course.

Often we protect our ideas from failure. They are supported by research and theory but not held up to the real world to prove themselves. Inevitably these ideas burst into the world full of promise only to trip and fall immediately, all too late to do anything about it.

One of our early-stage startup clients had a very clear concept. There was a known need (they were from the industry), and they were clear on the solution. The first thing we did with them was to subject this to the possibility of failure. We validated the strategy with real customers and gathered new insights. We found that although a need existed, it was not strong enough to support a business. If they had held lovingly onto their preconceived ideas, they would have sunk a large amount of money into a white elephant. Instead, we found evidence of a bigger and better opportunity—something that allows them to realise their vision but with a more robust strategy. It is to their immense credit that they have embraced this change wholeheartedly.

How could you embrace the opportunity for failure quickly? Have you stress-tested your concept? Have you gathered evidence that supports your plans? Have you tested the solution with people? Simple things like sketching prototypes can be invaluable learning opportunities that are really easy to try.

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It's never done.

You launched, customers are buying - but it's not over. The journey is only just beginning. Now that your product is out in the wild, things are going to change.

You are going to learn new things that you had never appreciated before. Customers will be giving you feedback (whether you ask or not!). You will see how your product is used in the real-word. What are you going to do with this new information? Ignoring it will mean you slip back, your customers will become ambivalent about your product, and your competitors will learn from you even if you do not.

So flip it, what if you keep acting on this new information? Customers love your reactiveness to their needs, and they become your promoters. Your competitors have nowhere to go because you are going to be plugging the gaps before they can. You have an advantage, and you are making use of it.

Have you heard of the $300 million tweak? This is what legendary user experience designer Jared M. Spool did for Amazon. Not content with things as they were, he worked with Amazon to keep improving customers' experience. He found an opportunity in the purchase process; a small amend to a button from 'Register' to 'Continue'. It completely changed the buying experience and increased Amazon's sales by 45%!

As we have all been learning recently, the world and our customers change. This is happening all the time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown this into sharp contrast. Those that stay still slip away slowly as everything around them moves on. Those that recognise that their customers have a constantly changing need and expectation can be proactive and remain relevant in the long term.

I think that's enough for the time being. There are all sorts I could add to this list, but there is only so long you want to read this! If I was, to sum up everything here, it is to be purposefully curious. If you are, you will create a long term engaging product. Investors will be drawn in by your focus and strength of your understanding, and your product will grow from strength to strength as word gets out that you are solving a real need.

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Phil Wakefield - Founder, Oxogen Phil founded the Digital Innovation Lab, Oxogen, with the aim of helping great early stage ideas become successful innovations that make a positive impact. Oxogen is home to mentors, strategists, designers and developers to help anyone with a great idea or interesting problem make their product and service a reality.

Phil has worked with FTSE100 companies, early stage start-ups, universities and public bodies; including Oxford University, The FA and Taylor Wimpey and many start-ups you haven’t heard of...yet!

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