How to Avoid the Curse of Vision Overload

My Chicago-based startup, The Point, helps people start campaigns for collective actions of all kinds, from organizing a poker game to boycotting a multinational corporation. We’ve been fortunate so far, enjoying steady growth, happy users, and money in the bank. (In February, we raised a $4.8 million round of venture funding from New Enterprise Associates). But hindsight is 20/20 and any entrepreneur, given the chance, would do some things differently.

In our case, we spent nine months developing extra features to accommodate our grand vision instead of focusing on what our users would really need. This cost us precious time, delaying our launch, originally planned for June 2007, to November of that year. Even after launch, the costs lingered — maintaining the extraneous features was a time-consuming distraction from improving the parts of The Point that people were actually using.

Thankfully, we caught on to what I call the curse of “vision overload” — when you put your vision ahead of your users — and quickly reversed course.

This month we’re delivering a major upgrade to The Point, our first release in months, and we’ve actually cut more features than we’ve added. While arguably less grand, it adheres to the critical success maxim of KISS, or “Keep it Simple, Stupid!” All founders face an inherent conflict between their most ambitious visions and the practicalities of execution. Below I explain how The Point addressed this uncomfortable compromise, and how you can learn to KISS, too.

Why didn’t we adhere to simplicity the first time around? We were certainly aware of the KISS principle — in fact, it was uttered frequently around our office — but we didn’t know how to measure simplicity. Obviously a site needs some core features, but where do you draw the line on value added? Our vision was to build a 21st century framework for collective action. This was novel, so how do you determine what is core vs. an enhancement?

The complexity occurred when we allowed vision to drive our feature set. Six months on, we’ve developed a few rules for determining what to leave in and what to leave out at launch.

1. If you don’t mention it in your 2-minute product demo, you don’t need it.

Whether demoing to colleagues or potential investors, we found ourselves glossing over certain features to keep from overwhelming our audience. In the end, the features we skipped over were the same features that went unused. If you can’t fit it into a presentation to a captive audience, then it’s almost guaranteed not to be a factor in the seven seconds the average web user takes to decide whether they’re interested in what you’re doing.

2. Don’t build a race car for foot runners.

Campaigns on The Point don’t go “live” until engagement reaches a critical mass (e.g. 100 participants), so everyone can be assured the campaign will have an impact. So to help organizers determine the tipping point for a boycott, we built a database of 150,000 companies that maps the financial vulnerabilities of boycott candidates like The Gap or Exxon Mobil. Users, however, were efficiently identifying potential targets through simple discussion forums. They didn’t need the fancy tools we had created.

3. Let users problem-solve with the basics first. Then offer the glitz.

We assumed that some campaign creators would want multiple administrators so they could share the responsibilities of management and promotion. Our vision for The Point included group governance, so we spent weeks building a system for proposing and voting on campaign developments. As soon as we launched, we realized that campaign creators managed this task just fine by sharing access to single accounts. The lesson? Sometimes it’s better to let users actually have a problem before you try and fix it; their solution is often simpler.

4. Proselytize your vision in your blog, not your product set.

There are better ways to promote your vision than etching it into your product with features that are unlikely to be used. Write about it on your blog! Speak with community groups on the purpose and potential of the site. Or make a video of yourself in the future talking about how your site changed the world.

Users care about whether you are meeting their needs, not your vision for the company. Save your vision for your investors. Had we focused on the factors that affect whether someone will become a user, we would have had a product out the door months earlier.

Andrew Mason is a blogger and founder of The Point. It is his first startup.