@andrewchen

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Do hardcore Microsofties suck at startups?

<puts on flamesuit>

Living a mere 10 minutes from Redmond, WA, I’ve come to know lots of random Microsoft people over the years. Lots of my friends from college went there. My ex-girlfriend is there. In fact, in the last month, my sister Ada graduated from UPenn and joined MSN Search. (Congratulations, I’m sorry)

One pattern that I’ve started to pick up over the years is hardcore Microsofties tend to train their brains in a way that makes them eventually unfit for startups. (But who cares, they never wanted to work for one anyway)

It all comes down to how their business is organized, and the audiences their products target. I love it when Microsofties use the word "platform." That’s how they think of everything. Windows is a platform. Office is a platform. MSN is a platform. But think about what that implies – a platform doesn’t solve any problems for anyone. You need stuff that works with the platform to do anything productive. But it compells you to make things broad and generic, while requiring you to develop a huge ecosystem of vendors and partners to execute.

While this works when you have a monopoly, it certainly doesn’t work when you are a puny startup (even one with venture capital). No matter how much money you spend, it’s impossible for everyone to suddenly jump onto your ecosystem. Instead, it makes far more sense to go the opposite direction – specific instead of generic, and problem-solving instead of platform-building.

That also applies to your audience. Obviously, if you target a huge, nebulous audience, you are going to get in trouble (unless you can bundle your app into, say, Windows). It’s very very hard to find a killer-app for anything but a focused audience. So study that group, solve their problem very well, and build out from there.

So if you are just creating a new startup, and your smart ex-Microsoftie says any of the following, you are suffering Platformitis:

"We should build a big suite of all of this stuff!"
"Let’s be the portal of X!"
"If we code X (some cool thing) and launch an API…"
"Let’s expand into these 5 verticals!"
"We should build a platform for X"

If they say that, you are in a lot of trouble.

Instead, embrace your constraints as part of a startup. Pick one target audience. Find out what they are really passionate about. Pick one thing. Build it really fast, and see if they are as excited as you are. Rinse and repeat, until you have a great user experience. And once you are a bigger, uglier, slower company, and have couple successful business lines, then by all means diversify. You might even want to build a portal, or a suite, or a platform.

But when you start out, and you’re in the beginning stages of your startup, focus is everything. "Crossing the Chasm" is really about the same thing, in a specific B2B context. So be a man, make your decision already :)

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