Entering a crowded market as the little guy? Offer less and you might win.

Illustrated by Shimon Angel, animated by Ofer Winter

Entering a crowded marketplace can be a little daunting — okay, a lot daunting — if you’re smaller, way smaller than the dominant players.

I get emails from time to time, mostly around this question. When I started Mad Mimi (see TechCrunch), I raised $100k — that’s it — and disrupted both MailChimp and Constant Contact to gain both materially higher NPS, robust revenues and more importantly, considerable traction. But how? By offering less.

Q: Can I beat the competition by having better design, better UX?

A: Good design and UX is always a good thing but only effective when used to ice a cake — and not to apply lipstick to a pig. So, the answer is no. This is an incomplete competitive advantage.

Q: Can I beat the competition by offering more features?

A: Most dominant technologies are already mature, which can be defined by being feature-rich. A rich feature-set is best done over a long time if you’re scrappy or in a blitz if you’re rich. Rich features though are almost always better than being feature-rich. This lets you focus on the most important customer-problems without being distracted by a broad set of features. If you’re ever managed a broad feature-set, you already know how annoying it is. Answer: probably not.

Q: Can I beat the competition by offering less features?

A: Now you’re talking! By offering less features, you give yourself two things: 1. you opt-out of the one-upping cold-war (as described by Jason Fried in Getting Real) and 2. you force yourself to offer simplicity as a value. Simplicity is one thing your big bloated competitor may have trouble with because they’re so “mature”. Maturity inevitably brings complexity. Infancy is bliss in this regard. Answer: probably.

Q: So if I offer less, how can I convince others to consider my product?

A: Less isn’t less-is-less, it’s less-is-simpler-is-better-is-liberating. This is where your good design and UX comes in. Less, combined with simple combined with killer design is the secret weapon of the scrappy startup. But there’s a final detail that will make or break everything…

You need to make a human promise, and keep it. This is from a conversation I had with Seth Godin. Superb advice.

If you’re not actually solving a problem, if you’re not actually providing value, your design, your UX, your charm and marketing, may be lipstick.

Comments welcome! Favorite this article please.

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The essential idea-companion: How to Make a Task Model

Illustration by Gemma Correl

Ideas are easy.

Execution is tricky.

You’ll know a good idea when it feels simple to articulate.

You’ll know a less-good idea when it feels complicated to articulate.

Now, to build a system, you need fine builders.

It’s easier to recruit those fine builders with an achievable plan that makes their tasks clear. Think of this as a task model.

The task model

The diagram below shows three sets of “cards.” It’s an architecture template that you can do yourself at home using nothing more than some paper — or better, cards — and a pen or marker.


Activity

The activity.

The customer performs activities. The builder performs tasks. What do your customers need your help with? What are the problems you’re solving for them? These are activities.

Being frugal when deciding your initial customer-activities is the key to good execution. Narrowing your idea is an artform. It’s neither easy or simple, and requires a lot of letting go.

Task

The task.

An achievable task model depends on having a small number of activities. There are many tasks associated with a single activity, and the more tasks you include, the more clear the work-ahead becomes. Tasks inform the us of the size and complexity of the project.

Subtask or task details

The subtask and the details.

To properly estimate the scope, the cost and the timeline of your project, spending some quality time mapping out subtasks or details will serve you well. Subtasks and task details help avoid confusion, enable builders to make better granular decisions and better comprehend what’s required of them.

Don’t try to simplify your tasks. Throw in everything you think of in a stream-of-consciousness. Tasks are like cash — another dollar doesn’t hurt — so don’t be sparing, but do be sparing by the activities. Highly-constrained activities will result in manageable tasks. Unconstrained activities will result in unmanageable tasks.

A task model is the first step to making your any idea manifest. It’s a technique used by many of the smartest people in software and it’s drop-dead simple to do yourself.

Summary:

Customer’s problems are mapped to activities. The system’s responsibilities are mapped to tasks. Subtasks help those building the system have more clarity and make better decisions.

I’ll share more on story mapping and ultra-fun card mapping in my next article.

P.S.

Jeff Patton’s book User Story Mapping is indispensable if you’re serious about getting deeper into story mapping and task modeling.