Why did this topic come up?
Regardless of whether you find yourself immersed in a startup environment or pursuing your own product ideas, it's all too common to lose sight of the very essence that sparked your journey. The fog of uncertainty descends upon us, clouding our vision and causing us to deviate from the path we initially set out on. This fog breeds fuzzy thinking, leading to a series of ill-fated decisions that stray further away from our original purpose. As myself and James are building our own app, Convey, we recently found ourselves caught in this disorienting haze.
It starts off so clear
Like many product ideas, our journey with Convey began as a way to scratch our own itch. My co-founder James was creating a text-based course, and as he searched for the right tool to make it, he found that existing course builders felt overly complex. They had numerous features that didn't feel relevant and got in the way of simply writing, editing and publishing a course fast. They were either too focused on video, or too focused on community, or even more simply, didn't look good enough to share.
As James couldn't find what he wanted, he put his design and development skills to work and built out a web site that contained the course content himself. This received positive feedback from his cohort group, even to where others were asking what tool he used. There was enough positive signals there that this could be a product.
James has always liked writing so what if we built a product that was focused mostly on text, looked great, had a decent editor and was easy to publish and get online to share? What if it felt just like writing a blog post? Thus, Convey was born. The itch felt like it was going to be scratched!
It felt like a simple enough product idea so we started to build. We took cues from newsletter products like Substack, Medium and Ghost to make an editor that was nice to write in and was near-instant to publish and update. It felt important that the headspace felt similar.
Then the fog comes in
As time went on, we started to second guess our original thinking and wondered about the value of what we were building. We began expanding the scope and were starting to build things that had no relevance to the core idea. We explored if it could be a tool for creating guides. We explored if it could be a tool for interactive checklists and other resources. We even explored it being a link-in-bio tool for creators. One week it was a tool for marketing teams and the next week it was a tool for freelance writers. This caused a fog of confusion to descend upon us. Instead of sticking to a clear vision of our destination, like we had before, we started second-guessing our decisions and adding elements that weren't part of the initial MVP.
As this fog grew denser, our once-clear destination faded away. We became increasingly disoriented and lost all sense of the project's direction. Ultimately, this led us further from what we initially intended to achieve. We didn't even know which way was north anymore.
As confusion set in, we had endless discussions without progressing. We would talk for hours, come up with a new idea, spend a week building it and then rip it out because it made no sense. Our uncertainty was almost certainly powered by self-doubt. We were professional designers and we were letting a fear of failure kick in. We were starting to bank on this being the Next Big Thing and were losing sight of why we were building it in the first place. We were lost. The fog had descended upon us, but how do we get it to lift?
We had to speak to potential customers.
So we stopped in our tracks, took a deep breath, and before building anything else we knew we had to speak with potential customers. Conversations would be the only way to clear the fog and put us back on track.
Our self-doubt and fear of failing had led us to rely too heavily on our two-person echo chamber. Assuming that just our knowledge and opinions were enough, perhaps even arrogantly. We were avoiding communicating with potential users because we felt we knew best. And that only hindered our progress further.
It is all well and good for James to want to scratch his itch, but to turn this into a viable business, its important to understand the potential market, who you can serve, the problems they're having and how a solution would help. Reaching out to people, having conversations and listening to their problems are the only way to keep the fog at bay.
We knew we were passionate about the core idea of creating a course creation product that was orientated around text and felt similar in headspace to writing newsletters. We already knew that James felt strongly enough to build out something in the first place. We already had early positive signals and we certainly felt passionate enough about investing time and money into this area. We set out on our journey in the right direction, but we had lost sight of all of this along the way. Those attributes alone were not enough to carry us through. It was only with speaking with potential customers, and doing that continued research, that we could reinforce our vision, sharpen up our core feature set, and tell us exactly what was most important to build and what we could throw away.
It's not quite cleared for us yet, but the fog is now starting to lift.
How to apply this in your work
In the journey of building our app, Convey, we experienced firsthand us losing sight of our purpose and succumbing to the fog of uncertainty. However, amidst the challenges and missteps, we discovered a crucial lesson that can benefit anyone building products: the power of early customer conversations. Regardless of whether you're solving your own problem or "scratching your own itch", having meaningful conversations with potential customers from the outset is paramount. Validating ideas through these conversations serves as a compass, guiding you towards a greater chance of success while avoiding unnecessary time wasting.
What do you think?
I'm curious if you had experiences with the fog descending and how you managed to clear it. Please add your comments to this article or reach out to me over on Twitter. If you have liked what you read, please consider subscribing for more content. And keep your eyes peeled for more news on our app, Convey!