Imagine this conversation happening some time in the early 2000s.
“Hey Steve, what if we took one of those flip phones you see everywhere these days, fashioned it into a brick, and treated it like a little tiny computer?”
I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly how the iPhone was born, but I believe in my heart that the spirit of the invention behind it went something like that. In my version, the person speaking to Steve may have been his own internal monologue, but it also might have been Woz.
4 Reasons Why Startups Should Break Stuff
- To make a better product
- To use existing platforms to create something different
- To reinvent process
- To buck tradition
My point is, some of the best and most successful startups began by breaking something and reconfiguring it for another purpose. In other words, they used a thing for something other than for what it was intended.
When we hear “go fast and break things,” we think of Zuckerberg, and we think of Facebook, and we think of a social “hellscape” selling rage as a product to advertisers. That’s a bad rap on the quote. I love the concept of breaking stuff because to me it’s about repurposing product, reinventing process and bucking tradition.
In that sense, there’s never been a better time to build a successful startup out of broken stuff.
Can We Create 13 Million Web Pages in Three Hours?
Sometimes, the thing being broken may not even be the thing that becomes the actual product. We’re in a golden age of technical tools and platforms that allow even those with a modicum of technical experience to build their own products on world-class infrastructures.
Take, for example, one of my previous startups, Automated Insights, which used algorithms and tech to automate the creation of narratives from raw data. We had a nice little innovative product that cranked out hundreds, sometimes thousands of automated sports recaps and other related articles for almost every professional and collegiate sports team, based on nothing more than a data stream.
When we landed a deal with Yahoo Fantasy Football to provide fantasy matchup recaps for their platform, I diligently carved out the algorithms while my counterpart, the CEO, worked with AWS to spin up enough processing power to create 13 million web pages in the wee hours between the final Monday Night Football game and the East Coast waking up on Tuesday morning.
While that kind of spin-up was something AWS was built to do, it wasn’t quite intended for that much power that fast and for such a short period of time. We basically had to break a lot of tech to get it to work the way we wanted, economically. To be honest, the folks at AWS were as excited about it as we were. It took our startup to a completely different level and we were acquired a few years later.
What if I Replace Writers With Entrepreneurs?
Sometimes, you can break your own product to make a better product. Whether the initial offering was a success or a failure, reinventing a working product into a new solution allows you to focus more on building the business than building the tech, which offers a much better return on the investment of that time.
My first self-founded, self-funded startup was Intrepid Media, a web-based product that helped writers become better writers, in terms of both what they wrote and how it hit their audience. While Intrepid was profitable and successful, including producing a number of New York Times bestselling authors, it never escaped gravity, so to speak. After a pretty decent peak, it lost ground in the mid-2000s to the quickly growing social networking platforms.
After 12 years running, maybe three years after the peak, I decided to shut it down. On the way to iceboxing the product, I got the idea of repurposing the code into a product that helped entrepreneurs become better entrepreneurs, in terms of both what they were building and how it hit their market.
I broke the Intrepid platform down, tweaked the code and rebuilt it with that new intent. I sold the company, now called ExitEvent, three years later.
Can I Automate Startup Advising?
Today, you can break enough third-party products into enough pieces to cobble together your own MVP, and keep that strategy going to build your own product on someone else’s platform. This is where tech is really democratizing the startup universe.
My current side project, Teaching Startup, is an extension of my mission to help entrepreneurs become better entrepreneurs. It’s based on an idea I got from ExitEvent, although it uses none of the same tech or even the same methods.
One of ExitEvent’s marketing channels was a traveling, entrepreneurs-only meetup. One of the things I learned running this meetup was that entrepreneurs found a ton of value in asking other entrepreneurs questions and getting experienced answers. Not only that, entrepreneurs also found value in just listening to one entrepreneur answer another entrepreneur’s question.
I also do a lot of my own formal advising for startups and larger companies alike. It’s super expensive for them and, to be honest, kind of a pain for me. For every hour I spend with someone I’m advising, about 10 to 15 minutes of great value comes out of me digging into my past or present to answer one of their questions.
What if I didn’t have to spend that other 45 minutes to get to the valuable 15?
I decided to tackle that hypothesis with email, specifically with MailChimp. But soon, because I needed more than just email, I repurposed MailChimp into my CRM, my marketing software and even, in some ways, into my user interface. Then I brought on Zapier to automate, then Slack and even Google Sheets to open up collaboration. Soon I had this Frankenstein product using a bunch of disparate pieces doing things they weren’t intended to do. But I was building it all into something that did exactly what I needed it to do.
Once I proved my hypothesis, I began slowly rebuilding the product using the no-code platform Bubble. This was partly to show what can be done by repurposing, or breaking, other platforms in the name of innovation.
Or at least I hope it’s innovation. I’ve got people who are much smarter than me telling me I’m on the right track. They’re telling me I’m building something great, and while that’s flattering, my response is that I’m really just duct-taping a bunch of great things together.
To me, that’s what going fast and breaking stuff is really about.