Issue No. 7

Less is more — How I overbuilt my first startup, failed, and the lessons I learned

This week I'm tackling a common pitfall for many startups (especially first-time founders). It's the problem overscoping, overbuilding, and setting a vision too big for v1.

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Less is more — How I overbuilt my first startup, failed, and the lessons I learned

Source: DALLE, told to extract key phrases from this newsletter, create a prompt and using the style illustrative, colorful, futuristic create an image.

Excuse me, but have you heard the one about a founder who overbuilt and then their startup failed?

This week I'm tackling a common pitfall for many startups (especially first-time founders).

Building too much

If you've ever:

  • Created something to find no one cares or shows up to try it
  • Made something that no one wants to use
  • Or felt like you've bit off more than you can chew

Then this issue is for you.

It's for every solopreneur, weekender warrior, indie hacker, everyone building in public … and even startups with lots of employees ... who need to think more iteratively and be free to launch something small and grow from there.

Let me tell you about my very first startup and why it failed

A tale in 3 parts.

The idea 💡

20+ years ago (wow, time flies), before World of Warcraft had even launched, I wanted to make a website (we didn't call them web apps yet) for gaming guilds.

The idea was simple enough. Gaming guilds were becoming hugely popular because of the many massive multiplier games coming on the scene.

Due to the complexity of the games and because people are … people, some structure was needed. For simple things like organizing raids, figuring out who was the "leader," or just fun stuff, like places to brag and chat outside the game.

Anyhow, I had a vision of what I wanted to build.

So I did what every indie hacker does. I bought a domain and started to build.

Scope creep 🤷🏻‍♂️

At the time, I knew of one competitor and a bunch of guilds subscribing to it. And this is where things started to go awry.

I already knew the huge things I wanted to build. But then I started thinking I also needed many of my competitor's features.

The first area I started building was the signup flow. And as I analyzed what my competitor was doing, I started adding more and more to it.

I kept going back and expanding my database schema.

I scrapped it several times to change how I was writing my code.

And as I kept expanding my vision, rewriting perfectly shippable code, and analyzing my competition, fear set in.

Failure 💥

I started worrying that they were so far ahead of me that no one would ever want my product.

How would I ever catch up?

Sadly I never did.

I never shipped that product. Not a single friend or prospective customer ever saw my prototypes.

I had failed.

But I (eventually) learned a ton from this experience.

Do you have more vision than you can handle?

First off, you're not alone. My story above clearly shows that I had too much vision and was distracted by my "competition" before I left the gate.

The thing about passion is that it only gets you so far; eventually, something will fail, and that passion might not be enough.

The goal for startup founders is to have more successes than failures, so they can build on that momentum and bring something to life.

Here are the common mind killers that cause people to build too big.

🔹The hidden problem with "I'm building the next Uber for X"

Or a more timely version, "I'm building the next ChatGPT for X."

There's nothing wrong with setting and selling a vision like this. It helps others see how far you want to go and what your potential is (or you think it is).

But many founders fall into a trap here.

They start a journey for a product vision that will take a team to build. From day one, they think they're building a multi-billion dollar company with all the same resources.

And often, they crash before they are ever out of the garage.

Their imagination of what they can build starts:

  • creating massive scope creep. "If I do this, then I can do this too!"
  • diverting their attention from other things that need to be started (like feedback systems)
  • and the vision becomes the product instead of the product being the product

The truth is that we often underestimate the amount of effort it will take to build something.

And by letting the vision distract you from where you're at today, you're compounding the problem.

🔹Starting too big diverts your attention from the other things that matter

Every startup begins with a balance in a metaphorical bank.

This balance represents your staying power or your financial runway. It represents how much effort you can put in before calling it quits. From day one, you're drawing that balance down.

So it should be no surprise that you want to maximize how you spend every cent.

When you over-focus on building something too big, you forget what else must be done.

Every startup needs to do a lot more than build a product; amongst many other things, startups need to:

  • Find an audience
  • Get a product feedback loop going
  • Figure out the beginnings of a marketing plan
  • Figure out initial positioning
  • And a dozen other tasks like setup Stripe

All of these take something to sell. If you spend all your time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, and money building and never get to these, then it likely doesn't matter what you build.

The truth is that very few products sell themselves.

Most need the first few items in that list to be iterated on before any traction begins.

Building too much before it ever gets out the door guarantees you'll make things people don't need or care about, let alone pay you for.

🔹Carrying about what your competitors are doing distracts you

The world is big. Just because I knew about this competitor didn't invalidate my vision. If anything, it proved there was a market.

But I let my fear of competing with them corrode my vision, stir doubt in me, bringing on massive feature creep.

The existence of competitors means there is a market. That's good.

The easiest way to overcome this fear is to take on an abundance mindset and ditch a scarcity mentality.

Remember, there are 8 billion people on earth. There is room for competition.

How to build fast, build small, and get better results

First, let me tell you about two people I've seen do it right.

Nathan Barry - ConvertKit

Nathan's story is the stuff of legend these days. And you probably know it well.

The key takeaway for this journey is how Nathan focused on a small niche instead of trying to take on the full scope of what MailChimp or other large email marketing platforms could do. He showed up consistently, and kept iterating.

Nathan Barry on consistency.

His first version focused on email marketing for bloggers. And it wasn't feature-rich. If you don't know the whole story, check out his blog, it's full of great advice.

Joe Clark - TweetHP

Joe is much earlier in his journey with TweetHP but is an excellent example.

TweetHP's first feature was a single graph. It was novel and helpful, letting users figure out what they needed to do more on Twitter to grow their audience.

Let me say that again.

His first version was a single graph. And truth be told, it was kinda ugly.

The first graph in TweetHP, kinda ugly, but super useful.

The first graph in TweetHP, kinda ugly, but super useful

But it helped set the vision of what he could do.

And importantly, he got it in front of people and started creating a feedback loop, gathering intel on who he should target as his first users.

That early intel helped him notice that the most active TweetHP users had small accounts. While he got a few large accounts to try things out, they engaged less.

He discovered his initial start-small niche with just a couple of graphs.

That's brilliant.

This was only a month or two ago. Since then, Joe has shipped a bunch of new features focused on helping smaller accounts become better at Twitter audience growth.

Today he's got over 500 free and five paid users, growing rapidly while building in public. And he's doing it all as a side project. 🤌

Starting small isn't saying no to your grand vision

It's saying yes to thinking smaller so that you can

  • build what people want,
  • without spending down your bank balance,
  • so you can launch to an already-established audience,
  • all the while creating an iterative muscle memory that will help you down the road.

So how do you break the bad habit of overthinking and overbuilding?

🔹Learn to say "No," "Not yet," and "We don't need it"

Most ideas can be paired back.

Let me restate that—this is super important.

There is almost ALWAYS a way to ship far less.

The goal is to ship soon and ship often. Look at your idea. How can you break it down into logical steps that can be shipped in small pieces?

Big ideas can almost always be broken down into small ones. You're not saying no forever. You're saying no for now.

Iteration is key.

You can iterate to your large vision. You can put out something small that will engage your target audience. Let them know where you're going through your landing page copy without building the entire thing.

You. Do. Not. Need. To. Ship. Your. Whole. Vision. On. Day. One.


🔹Build to engage with people

When you build small, you create an audience who cares about what you're doing and is constantly interested in what you just shipped.

When you build too big, people forget about you. They start wondering what you did ship last.

This can be especially dangerous for established products because net-dollar retention (NDR) means renewals. If a customer can't look in their review mirror and see the new value you recently shipped, you're putting renewals at risk.

🔹Build small and focus on what makes you unique

Convinced you need to build small but need help figuring out where to start?

Pick the thing that makes you unique.

This can be a feature or your product's positioning.

  • Joe picked a unique feature that set him apart
  • Nathan positioned himself as the email marketing solution for bloggers, a small and tightly focused niche

When you pick one area that sets you apart, you can ship faster and start testing the waters.

🔹Optimize for learning

In Eric Ries's seminal book, "The Lean Startup," he advocates for continuous innovation.

The only way to win is to learn faster than everyone else. — Eric Ries

When you build small, you're optimizing for learning. You're constantly learning what resonates with your audience, what engages them, and what they're willing to buy.

And if this is your first startup, this is so important.

You're not only building your first product, but you're building your first business. Optimizing for learning helps you take on small enough problems one at a time, so you don't get overwhelmed.

It's also a key concept for building calm companies.

(This is also true if you're exploring a new field you've not worked in before)

Convinced yet?

Hopefully, by now, you're sold on scaling back what you think a first version needs.

As I said, you can scale back every single startup idea dramatically to test the waters.*

  • Yes, rocket ships, car companies, and biotech firms are likely exceptions to this. But 99.99% of successful startups are not the next SpaceX.

And that's okay.

What next?

If you're wondering how you can build an audience to test with, you'll be interested in Issue 5, where I explain how I got 400 people to signup for an early beta.

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