Your (Startup) Baby is Ugly

As any new parent can tell you, their baby is the cutest thing they've ever seen. From the moment reality hits you and you realize that you are now responsible for the health and safety of another human being, it becomes nearly impossible to see anything other than an adorable little face staring back up at you. For friends and family, however, your baby looks just like every other newborn baby. Of course they won't tell you that, but it's true. Oh sure, grandma will tell you how beautiful her new granddaughter is, and your new baby may even have some cute little distinguishing features (like a head full of fuzzy brown hair), but face it: all newborns look nearly the same to those who aren't the parent. While mom may gaze into those little baby eyes with a love that never ends, your baby could actually be really ugly and awkward and you wouldn't even realize it. You're too much in awe and drunk on love to notice.

Your startup idea is no different.

That idea that you can't stop thinking about all day and night? The thing you can't wait to work on as soon as you get home from your day job? The idea that you are sure is going to be an instant hit as soon as you can finish and launch it? I'm sorry to have to say it, but your baby is ugly. You just can't see it because it's yours, and you love it, and you've dreamt about it for so long.

The Good News

Well, bad news for babies and good news for startup ideas. If your human baby is ugly, there's not a whole lot you can do for them besides love them unconditionally (as you should). For startup ideas though, there is a lot you can do to make your baby more attractive to people who... want to buy babies (?) This metaphor just got weird, but you get the idea.

Step 1: Acknowledge that your baby is ugly

"No plan survives first contact with the enemy". Your users are certainly not the enemy, but your marketing plan (if you have one) will not turn out the way you planned. It never does. If you built it they will will not come. Your "must have" features that you just can't launch without may not actually be necessary. What you think your users want is an educated guess, at best.

Even if you've had extensive conversations with your future users, you're not going to nail it from day one. Even if you've read The Mom Test and done everything you should to get real feedback, you're going to get some (perhaps many) things wrong. That's just how it goes. No matter how hard you try, your baby will be ugly... at first.

The first step toward turning your ugly startup baby into something that people might start to find useful, is to realize that no matter what you do, your first attempt is going to be rough. That is not to say that you shouldn't validate your idea, talk to customers, and figure out as much as you can ahead of time, but you do need to set your expecations correctly: your first release is going to be ugly, as it should be.

Launch it way before you're comfortable

We're talking about weeks, not months here. The only way to actually start making your startup baby look better is to launch it and get real, concrete feedback. Your initial users will be way more forgiving than you give them credit for, especially if you're building something they truly want.

As you build your product, you should be looking for what features you can cut to get your first release out faster, rather than what features you should add to make the experience smoother. The best way to do this is to timebox your first release (four weeks, for example), and then work backwards from that time. Cut scope mercilessly until you arrive at something you can get done in half the time you really want to. Why "half the time"? Because we all tend to be optimistic as entrepreneurs, and your 50% estimate will end up taking 100% of the time -- I guarantee it.

Minimal is my ugly baby. I built the initial version in three weeks, and there are a lot of things that still make me cringe 😬. But I launched, and by dogfooding it (using it myself), I'm already learning a ton. My first users will be able to tell me much more about what I lack than I could ever guess. I have a list of features I want to implement. Some are so exciting that they literally keep me awake at night because my stupid brain won't stop thinking about them. But I forced myself to build and launch my first version after only three weeks in order to learn.

Prior to Minimal, I was working on an invoicing app for freelancers. Because that is an established market with some solid competitors, I had a list of "must have, table stakes" features that I needed for my initial launch. The problem with that was it wasn't fun to work on when I still had to build out so many baseline features. It felt like a slog that would last for months. In hindsight, I should have cut scope back to about 2-3 weeks of work, and then launched whatever I had, no matter how ugly that baby was. My other option was to pause that work and build something that I could launch in 2-3 weeks, which is exactly what I did with another passion of mine (writing), by building Minimal.

Launch it now, because finding your first users is hard

I love the startup and the #buildinpublic community, because we all tend to be so supportive of each other. But don't confuse support for actual users. People want to be nice, and very few people will tell you that your idea is bad. Even if you have a list of "beta users" that say they're ready to check out your app, only a fraction of them will actually try it. And only a fraction of that fraction will pay for it. That's ok! If you have to give your product away for free at first to get people to try it, at least you'll be able to see whether they use it once and never come back, or actually use it over and over again.

Nothing motivates better than people actually using your product

If you feel like motivation comes in waves, you're not alone. Starting new projects is fun and exciting. Finishing them and launching is a slog. Speaking from experience, nothing will motivate you as much as actual feedback from real people using your product. Suddenly, that feature that you weren't sure about and were procrastinating (but that people are now asking for) becomes exciting to build! Even the haters become a source of motivation, because even though they might be jerks about something, they're often pointing out an area you can improve. Even (perhaps especially) negative feedback is a gift 🎁.

If you listen to your users and fight the temptation to take anything personally, your startup baby will grow into a startup toddler that looks and acts much different than you originally dreamt of, and that is totally ok (and normal). Your goal is to mold and shape your idea into something truly valuable, based on real world usage. That won't happen in a vaccuum (i.e. without actually launching something). If you find that you lack motivation, find a way to cut scope until you can launch within the next 2-3 weeks. If you launch and nobody uses it because it is so basic, at least you've launched! Now you have something you can iterate on in public.

It's never too late to cut scope

If you're six months into a project, and you've still got half-complete features dangling here and there, it's still not too late to cut scope and launch. Are you afraid nobody will use it because it still lacks too many "must have" features? Well, first I question whether they're really "must have" (was that one of your educated guesses that may be wrong?), but also, so what? If you launch and nobody uses it, at least it's out there gathering SEO juice (you do have a marketing strategy you can start on now, right?). Cut scope, get it out there, try to get people to use it. You may burn some bridges if it's really that bad at first, but if you can't figure out how to get additional beta users, how on earth will you be able to find real users when it's truly "ready"? Just get it out there.

Now, what will you change with this new perspective?

If you've read this article and it either resonates or strikes a nerve, good. Now what are you going to do about it? You can either continue what you've been doing or change your plans in order to actually get your baby out there and start learning. Either way, I would love to hear about it. Let me know on Twitter what resonated with you, what you disagree with, and what you plan to change. I look forward to it!

Written By
Bryan Hales

👋 Hi, I'm Bryan and the founder of Minimal. You might know me as @PocketBryan on Twitter.

In July 2021, I quit my dream job at Amazon to pursue my life-long goal of running my own successful software company. Minimal is what I am devoting my every-waking-moment to, so I hope you enjoy it and let me know what I can improve to make it better for you!