Credit: Credit: Courtesy of David Cohn (above) co-founder and chief strategy officer of Subtext

Many companies are embracing 'startup thinking' to launch their own products and a growing number of journalists are going solo. Here are the top lessons I have learned during my career in research and development - usually referred to as R&D - where most of the innovation happens around new products and services. Startups especially must create and sustain this culture of experimentation.

For the last six years, I have been a senior director of the Alpha Group, an internal incubator at Advance Publications with the aim to build startups in tech and media. Adding this to my years in startups and I have got 20 years of experimenting at the particularly rough intersection of technology and media.

"Ideas are cheap, execution is everything"

You do not need exact coordinates when you start to chase down an idea.

It is great to have a general sense of important trends and tech. But in the end, lots of people can come up with the same conclusions. What matters are the details both from a product perspective but also an operational one. What you need need to figure out is how to get somewhere specific and meaningful.

I have seen startups blow up because the founders could not sit in the same room, or the product did not have any user input, or the business just did not add up. These were all "good" startup ideas. Their markets have since been validated. It was the execution that was off. 

The only major upside of going through bad execution is that you build a "spidey-sense" to recognise it earlier next time. The startup space has a history of "fake it till you make it". Perhaps those days are coming to an end with the trial of Theranos, the blood-testing technology company which lied about its finger-prick tech and military use.

The bottom line is: trust your gut feeling when it tells you when your execution is lacking and rationalise from it. It is easy to ignore but invaluable to pay attention to. After all, ideas are cheap but the execution is everything.

Network effects are real

The value of a service increases as more people use it. We call this phenomenon 'network effects'. And it is very real.

The Instagram account Friday Beers got a rough start using a product the Alpha Group built that let content creators produce easy video memes. Years (and 1.4M followers) later when we created Subtext, which lets content creators text directly with their audience, it made sense for us to reach back out to Friday Beers. That product makes a lot more sense for them, and now they use Subtext to text out sports betting advice.

Network effects exist at multiple levels. In the startup arena, social media sites are the first thing people think of when you say "network effects," perhaps citing Metcalfe's law. But network effects are real in business relationships, hiring, building trust, and more.

The point of all of this is that the process is cyclical. If you help your clients to grow, their expanding user base will also mean there will be more opportunities for you. And as more people hear about and use your product, the more it will develop over time. The more positive business relationships you build with coworkers will lead to better working relationships with more people down the road.

"Keep your head down"

I learned this one early. My first startup "Spot.Us" was a crowdfunding site for journalists. At the time, crowdfunding was still a new concept. My claim to fame was that Spot.Us launched before Kickstarter, which popularised the concept of crowdfunding. But here is the lesson: "don't get distracted by your competitors".

As technology overturns every sector, the odds that you are the first or only disruptor is slim-to-none. But just because there is somebody else in your niche does not mean you cannot both be successful. And even if you truly believe it is a winner-take-all game, focusing on what your competitor is doing will not improve your product, networks, execution or ideas.

Yes, it is a good idea to keep tabs on competitors. You can even be inspired by them. Just avoid turning it into a dog fight unless you need to. Nine times out of ten, you can avoid going toe-to-toe and let the best product/experience win. Even better, it can be a rising tide that lifts all boats. There will be competition. There will be projects that graze, overlap, or downright sit right on top of your project. The challenge is to choose your battles.

Lead from the back

Leaders often think they have to risk literal life-and-limb (via no sleep, friends or love) to prove they are worthy of a leadership role. This is a recipe for burnout and it will not actually rally the troops. You have to be at 100 per cent every day.

If you go 120 per cent and burn out this inevitably means you will be at 80 per cent for a week while you recover. You are not Superman. It is okay to find a sustainable 100 per cent.

More to the point, you should express this to your team(s). "Don't be a hero" is what I tell people. Be your best, but do not be a hero. We need you for the next fight and the one after that too. Most importantly, everyone wants to find a way to lead. The best part about working on a startup is the opportunity to grow. Do no take that opportunity away from other people because you felt the need to climb every mountain. Are there times to do a war-cry and charge? Sure. But as with most of my lessons, moderation is a virtue. 

Stop debating, start testing

We have all heard of going for the "MVP" - the minimum viable product - where a new product or website is developed with enough features to work for early adopters. Feedback from this initial group is used to design a final product. But why? The reason for this is because a rule of the internet is that it is ultimately cheaper and easier to try something than it is to debate about whether or not to try something.

I learned this early on in my consulting days when there would be meetings with the entire editorial staff to debate whether or not a news organisation should start a Twitter account. Today that is a silly question but we spent a lot of cycles and meetings to schedule meetings to have the real meeting to talk about starting said account. A free account nonetheless.

When we launched Subtext our first MVP was actually just a burner phone. We got Joe Eskenazi, a reporter who still texts about San Francisco politics today, and we invited him into our slack. Every morning he would slack me what to text out and I would send it out. The burner phone could only send 10 texts at a time, so in batches of 10 I texted over 400 subscribers. If they responded, I would send it to Joe and he would slack me back what to reply with. It is an MVP we are particularly proud of because the cost was minimal and the user experience was still very solid. 

Final thoughts

There is no substitute for first-hand experience. No amount of Gary Vee YouTube videos can give you the intuition about execution. No Substack essay can give you the peace of mind to keep your head down. Like most life lessons, these have to be experienced, absorbed, and re-articulated. Prepare now, because lessons are coming your way.

David Cohn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Subtext, and senior director of Advance Digital, where he leads the 'Alpha Group,' an internal research and development team. He spent seven years as a freelance journalist, writing for titles including Wired, The New York Times, Seed Magazine, Quartz and Columbia Journalism Review.

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