Are you okay? The founder was reacting to my painful facial expression. The pain I felt wasn’t physical, but it was real, nonetheless. The unpleasant sensation stemmed from a proclamation the founder had just made. One I have heard too many times before.
We are going to build a one-stop-shop platform! the founder had stated seconds earlier.
Right then, I knew I had a long and difficult conversation in front of me.
I began (again): Look. Many startups founders get the idea of building the one-stop-shop. The logic is obvious. Each individual element to a platform has value. If the platform has a lot of elements, it has a lot of value. And if the platform has ALL elements possible, then it has the most value. Thus, it will be superior to competing products.
The founder nodded.
Unfortunately, the logic is wrong, I said. The founder looked a bit confused.
I continued: Imagine we do a startup. We decide to build an online room planner for private homes. Millions of people need to design their home when moving or renovating, and we know the pain from having moved our self.
We launch, create some buzz, and a few hundred people start using it. However, the number of users is less than we have hoped for. And after a while, we realize that the hockey stick isn’t happening.
The scenario was exactly what the founder was currently experiencing. So, she was very attentive.
What do we do? I asked rhetorically.
Well, maybe there aren’t enough people who need a room planner for private homes, we might conclude. But if we add an office layout, then office managers could use it too. It is easy to add office furniture to the inventory library, so we do it.
What we hoped for happens. Offices are being designed on the platform. But it is still not a hockey stick. At the same time, we learn about multiple competitors that offer office planning. What to do? I asked again, rhetorically.
Well, we just learned that when we added the office elements, we broadened the scope of our product. This meant more people could use it. So, we decide to add more elements.
Factory planning! We add factory layouts and create 3D models of conveyor belts and machines. Now we have the only platform where users can plan homes, offices, and factories. We have no competition.
Still, the hockey stick eludes us. Worse still, we see a reduction in the number of private homes being planned. Maybe because we haven’t fixed all the bugs before we started focusing on the factory elements. Anyway, we have found a way to grow and escape competition, we think.
Next, we enable planning for yachts. Then restaurants. Then concert halls. With each element, we broaden the relevance of the product to even more people. Or so our logic goes.
Finally, we have built the ultimate room planner. The only place you can design any space regardless of function or size. We are the “standard”. The go-to-place. The one-stop-shop. Nobody else offers anything as complete as our software. And then God abandons us.
The founder looked a little confused. Maybe it was because I brought God into the picture. So, I elaborated:
What we would learn is what eBay learned when they added video conferencing (Skype) to its auction site. Or Burbn founders learned before they simplified their app and renamed it Instagram. Or Endomondo experienced when they added e-commerce and social networking to their running app. And these companies are among the surviving examples. The failed projects that have learned the same lesson are endless.
I looked directly at the founder and said: We would learn that the impressive breadth of use cases our software handles is utterly worthless to our customers. I continued:
The thing is that additional elements only provides value to the user if they are integral to the same problem. As an example, it’s valuable if a webshop also offers payment and delivery. The problem the user is trying to solve is to obtain a specific item. If users had to go to a third-party payment solution to transfer money. And to go to another service to arrange delivery, the friction would be unbearably high.
The question is: how integral must problems be to add value to the same platform? Well, more integral than you think, I said.
Take the running app Endomondo, I continued. Endomondo enables runners to track their runs. But runners also need running apparel. So, would Endomondo be a better product to runners if it also featured a shop with running apparel? I asked. The founder looked unsure. So, I continued: It turns out not. Endomono tried that, and it wasn’t a success. Why. Because tracking your run and buying apparel are very different problems. And no runners have these problems at the same time.
Our imagined room planner startup would suffer the same lesson. Nobody needs to design a home, an office and a factory at the same time. The section that supports office planning is worthless when you want to plan your bedroom. In fact, it’s confusing and adds clutter. The idea of the one-stop-shop is false.
Now, it was the founder who felt pain. And then came the inevitable question. But what about Amazon? The founder asked. I had expected it and said: Amazon is a perfect example. Amazon sold only books for a long time. In fact, they decisively refrained from selling anything else before they had nailed the book problem. Amazon did not become successful because they sold everything. They became successful, exactly because they did not sell everything. Later, they added another element one by one. And so, should you, I said.
The founder was quiet, but slowly her painful facial expression lifted. Then she said: I guess Uber did the same thing. They started out offering expensive limousines, and not until later added cheap taxis and food delivery. Because….well none needs the same thing at the time. She let it sink in.
Then I could see her facial expression change into a very familiar one. Determination. Thank you, she said. I know what I must do. She got up and left. I looked out the window and thought about how often I have had this conversation. And then, I started writing this blog post.