A little free product development advice

As a former Google product manager and current entrepreneur, people often email me to ask for advice in a number of areas. One of the recurring variants is a request that goes something like this:

I have an idea for a site or service. It’s going to be bigger than the disco ball! I don’t really know how this technology stuff works but maybe I could tell you my idea?” What comes next is usually a variation of “…and then you could help me build it, sell it, promote it, show me how it’s done or something else?

Still other email are from small start-up founders who want to know what the secret trick is to building a great product or to take a look at their new creations.

First of all, it’s flattering that people like the products I’ve helped build enough to seek me out. As a busy CEO of a venture-backed start-up I unfortunately don’t always have a lot of spare time to dig in and help out, so here are a few of my fundamental thoughts on entrepreneurship, building products and how I can help.

I’m not a technical person

Surprise, neither am I. In fact, I’ve never taken a single Computer Science or Business Administration class. I received a BA in Fine Arts from a small liberal arts college. I thought I was going to go on to Cal Arts to study animation and work for Disney or Pixar, but the web came along and my plans changed. To this day, I’m at my best when I am behind the drivers seat in Photoshop or Illustrator sketching out new product ideas or at the whiteboard designing rough sketches of future web applications. As long as you can communicate with technical people, you’ll be in fine shape.

Execution is underrated

I have a belief that ideas come down to execution. Great ideas are a dime a dozen but in the end the one’s that emerge successful are the one’s that have persevered and made something special.

The same idea in the hands of different people have many different outcomes. For example: for every Google there are 50 search companies that ended disastrously. Google executed well and refined and refined a core idea that wasn’t necessarily unique. Some ideas when executed well take off and others fail to capture the imagination.

If you think it’s interesting, make a demo

If someone came to me and said, “Here’s my great idea, but I want to
be paid for it if it’s good.” I would probably shoo them away –
implement your idea, even as a simple demo you have 10x more
likelihood of being taken seriously. Venture capital or even angel money is rarely given to people who don’t have a working demo. Product managers and engineers at top software companies usually need a demo to continue development and receive support from their superiors. If you can’t code, make friends.

Version: Perfect

No one ships something perfect right out the gate. If you are doing it right, there is a good chance you will throw away most of the code every 6 – 18 months. Hell, sometimes you’ll throw away the first product. Premature optimization is usually the main stumbling block of any small team. Go fast and learn from mistakes.

The competition

Aim high. Don’t think of your competition as the other guys in a garage, aim at someone who doesn’t know you are coming and potentially someone who wouldn’t see it coming until it’s too late. Don’t worry about the other guys doing similar things unless they are doing 100% the same thing. Have a long term vision and imagine what wild success would look like if your service or product takes off.

You are what you read

If you aren’t already reading Paul Graham or Joel on Software then I highly recommend subscribing. Paul works with many start-ups and Joel is an old hand at software development. You are not creating a product in a vacuum, many other people have been down this path, learn from the masters of the craft. Half (or more) of my pearls of wisdom here are borrowed, stolen or filtered from what I’ve read somewhere else. Entrepreneurship-by-osmosis has served me well. If you are looking for more folks to read, my Founders list from Google Reader has some eclectic folks who might get you motivated. Get reading!

Good to great

If you are a good engineer but think you need to acquire product management or business skills for your new idea to succeed, I might offer a few suggestions. I think you probably have a better chance of becoming great at something you already do than adequate at something you don’t currently do. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a familiarity with many different aspects of building products, but experience has taught me that going from good to great is more rewarding.


Keep your idea a secret if you want, but most good ideas usually have my friends and family members scratching their heads about why I would want to build such a thing in the first place. Your idea will take far more than a slip of the tongue to kill it than someone overhearing it. Be careful of overly valuing secrecy.

How can I help

I probably can’t help you if you send over an email that says “Do you want to hear my idea?” I don’t have a single friend who doesn’t love to hear a good idea. Will I keep your idea a secret? Sure, but as I’ve said before the idea isn’t necessarily the interesting part, it’s what you do with it. If I haven’t dissuaded you, my email address is jason at shellen.com.

All this free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it, but it’s served me well over the past few years and might help you too. It’s grounded in observations,  my own successes, spectacular failures, and even things I’m still learning on a daily basis. Now go make something great (that real people want to use too)!