For startups, effectiveness > efficiency

Chris Dixon makes an important point about not over-engineering your product in the early days:

Many products can be built much more quickly and cheaply by settling for good technology plus a bunch of hacks – human editing, partnerships, using 3rd party software – versus creating a perfect technology from scratch.

To this day, most of the work at MailFinch is still manual. Someone has to make sure a document gets printed, folded and stuffed into a printed & stamped envelope before handing it off to USPS. It’s not the sexiest solution, but consider the alternative: super-expensive but fully automated printing gear that costs more than most houses in the DC Metro area.

Not cool.

It turns out, I’m not the only one that did it this way. SpareFoot had no automation at the beginning either (viaJason Cohen):

Instead SpareFoot decided to automate nothing. When a potential buyer made a search, they grabbed their email or phone number and said “Thanks, we’re going to find you a great deal by Thursday.” Then they banged the phone all day, calling up regional storage facilities. Their pitch was awesome: “I’ve got a lead for you; his name is John Doe and he’s looking for a 10×20 with air conditioning. If your rate is competitive, we can do the deal today. By the way, if you want us to send leads like this to you all the time, it’s $20/mo to list with us.”

A startup’s first priority is to find a workable business model. After all, you can’t optimize for a problem that you don’t have. Focus on building something people want. Once you start to see some traction, start to figure out how to extract some cash from them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work – revenue solves everything when you’re an early stage startup.