It’s OK to build things

So much of the writing for startup founders these days focuses on Customer Development / Lean Startup: prove your market before you spend a lot of energy building a product. I agree with those principles and even started a column in Visual Studio Magazine primarily to discuss them further. These are Good Things.

But if all you want do is build things – THAT’S FINE, TOO. Just be honest with yourself and recognize you are taking a different path. There are lots of great ways to build things that don’t involve Lean Startup:

  • Build something small – Actually, Lean Startup doesn’t say you can’t build anything – it just says you should build the minimal amount practical to learn something – to prove or disprove a hypothesis. If you have a business idea, and you can whip up a mobile app or basic website to implement it in a weekend, then go for it! If nobody else but you likes it, who cares? You only spent a weekend on it. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback, you can make changes and put it out there again next weekend. Being a good hacker is a great quality for any startup founder, especially if you’re willing to ship early and often.
  • Build something slowlyMichael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe, is a proud advocate of the classic idea to “scratch your own itch.” He did it with Nozbe, and it has worked out very well for him (I interviewed him here). Recognize, though, that this might take you longer than using Lean Startup, because you are making a lot of effort to satisfy yourself first. It took Michael 2 years before he was willing to show Nozbe to any potential customers. If you are super quality-obsessed, this might be a good approach for you … but you better be patient and have the ability to stay focused for a long time without promise of return.
  • Build something free – take Audacity for example. I spend a few hours every week using this fine tool. It’s free – I’ve used various paid tools, but I simply prefer this one (at least for podcasts – it’s crazy simple for voice editing). I don’t know what motivated its creators, but for whatever reason, they decided it was more important for them to build a great piece of software than to build a software company. That’s a perfectly reasonable choice, and the world is a better place for having Audacity in it. You could do something similar (BTW, I also use the donation-ware Levelator and the for-pay GoldWave in my podcast production activities. They all rock at what they do.)
  • Build something at work – you don’t have to create a startup to build your own software. That’s what work is for! Whether you work for a huge company or a startup that someone else created, you can be paid to build cool stuff without ever having to take financial risk yourself. If all you want to do is build cool stuff, then consider finding a job that will pay you to build cool stuff – there are plenty of them out there.
  • Build something for your community – if you don’t want – or are not quite ready – to build a startup but still want to create something brand new and leave your mark on the world, then consider finding a worthy project in your (geographic or thematic) community, and build something useful and cool for them. There are even organizations dedicated to connecting creative people like you with worthy causes – check out GiveCamp, for example.
  • Build something risky – yesterday, I mentioned that I have the deep-down feeling that I have great vision, “just like Steve Jobs.” I think most entrepreneurs feel that way. And if I have that kind of vision, surely I don’t need to do Lean Startup, right? Well … whether or not I have that kind of vision, I don’t have Steve Jobs’s guts, timing, or post-first-stint-at-Apple financial resources. Vision alone doesn’t ensure success, but it certainly helps. If you DO have the guts and financial resources and suspect you have the timing to succeed by doggedly pursuing your awesome vision until you realize it … then by all means, go for it. Just realize that for every Steve Jobs that succeeds, there must be thousands who fail (and it took Steve Jobs a few tries to work past some failures, too). In my opinion it is LIKELY you will fail if you try to copy the Steve Jobs approach to business.

I’ve got a list of more than twenty startup ideas – some of them completely suck, I’m sure, but there might be a couple of good ones in there. At the moment, I am favoring ideas that REQUIRE me to do Lean Startup/Customer Development, because I want the experience of doing that right now. I need the practice. But there might be a weekend pretty soon where I just want to code something, and then I might pause and work on a different idea that fits into one of the categories above.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Am I full of it?

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