How To Kill Your Business By Making It Complex

Background

A couple of years ago at Webnet IT, I noticed an opportunity in the Tokyo IT support market. The global downturn had sealed up headcount at most companies, so very few companies were hiring. The result was plenty of highly qualified, experienced IT professionals looking for jobs, and we were getting far more job applications than normal. At the time, unfortunately, we were fully staffed, and couldn’t offer these applicants jobs.

At the same time as these candidates were applying for IT support roles, I noticed some other requests coming into the Webnet IT sales mailbox.

  • “My son poured some coffee on the keyboard…”
  • “My internet hasn’t been working for 2 weeks…”
  • “My HD crashed, and the maker can’t help me recover the data….”

We’ve had a steady stream of home IT support requests of these since starting Webnet IT, but we’d never actively gone after this market. Our process is to reply to these people and apologise that we do not currently provide home support IT services, and occasionally provided some free advice or direction.

However after several months of steady applications and home support requests, I finally realised what may already be clear to anyone reading this blog post:

Lots of highly capable IT people who are looking for a job, AND lots of people in Tokyo who need help with IT.

It hit me like a very slow lightening bolt. Brilliant! Let’s put these two groups together.

Product Design

Immediately my brain went into overdrive designing a website to facillitate this tech/customer interaction. After 15 minutes of thinking, and drawing flowcharts on my notepad, I could see all the moving pieces fitting together so clearly in my mind’s eye:

  • We’d have a leaderboard of techs, displaying customer satisfaction ratings, generating healthy competition
  • When there was an available job, the system would email all of the techs who had marked themselves as available. The first tech to respond would be assigned the job
  • We’d use the PayPal API to both add credit to an account, and to also send over services and equipment invoices to customers through the system
  • We’d use the timesheets the techs create to do their payroll
  • etc, etc, etc.

Driven by frenetic product creation excitement, the list went on and on. I was so excited to build an automated system that ran with the grace and efficiency of a well-oiled german car engine, that I promptly forgot everything I had learned about software and product design over the last 8 years.

I teamed up with a very talented programmer, we structured a fee arrangement, and we began work.

Fatal Error

Bullets! My only weakness.

– Officer Palumbo

is a quote from that timeless classic, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004).

This quote can be aptly applied to software.

Complexity! My only weakness.

– Me, after realising far too late the monster I was in the process of creating.

The Cure

Simplicity.

Glibness aside, if I’d sat down and really thought honestly about the absolute minimum system required to facilitate this kind of transaction, we could have had an MVP up and running in 1-2 months, and gotten the first customers on the basic system within 2-3 months.

I had waiting customers, and I had immediately available techs ready to do fulfillment.

But instead, I’d mired myself in testing, QA, bugs, unexpected problems, and complexity, all in service of chasing the dragon of perfect automated system design and harmony.

Cut Losses

Shortly after this, I began working on MakeLeaps, a small business invoicing platform, with Paul Oswald, and I retired Webnet IT Home Support to focus on our startup.

However, if I was pouring my life savings into development, or if my job depended on successfully executing a software project, I wouldn’t have had such an easy escape.

The morals of the story:

  • Define the Grand Vision. Then throw it out.
  • Define the simplest “productised” derivation of the Grand Vision that generates value.
  • Create the minimum system required to deliver this value. Ruthlessly cut and cull any non-essential features.
  • Once you’ve got a working system, and people using it, continue iterating towards the Grand Vision.

Jay Winder

Jay Winder is the Australian Co-Founder of MakeLeaps. Jason came to Japan in 2001 to study martial arts, set up his first business called Webnet IT in 2003, and set up MakeLeaps in 2010 with the vision of unlocking the potential of freelancers and businesses in Japan with clean and powerful software. If you like, follow me on Twitter.

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