Be careful how many cans of worms you open at your startup

Modified on by Andrew Cohen

startup growth lessons: opening cans of worms

If you were a fly on the wall at Brainscape’s team meetings, you would commonly hear us questioning whether we really want to “open that can of worms” when considering a new proposal.

This is our way of saying that few business initiatives are ever as simple as they first seem.  We have learned that nearly every great idea comes attached with dozens of far-reaching implications that could easily devolve into several cumbersome weeks of debates and design meetings.

Startup Growth Lessons: Costs and Benefits

Such scope-creep can occur at both startups and large companies alike.  Considering that the scarcest resource at any company is management’s mental bandwidth, CEOs have to be extra careful about picking any battles that may cause them to lose focus on medium-term execution.  One of the most important management skills is to be able to quickly weigh the costs vs. benefits of (1) product-related cans of worms and (2) marketing-related cans of worms.

1. Product-Related Cans of Worms

A product-related can of worms is a proposed product feature that could potentially explode into several months’ worth of initially unforeseeable development and design burdens.  To avoid inadvertently opening any product-related can of worms, it is important to weigh both the immediate implications and the ongoing technical overhead that could be added by each project that you are considering.  Product decisions that are too heavily driven by business logic – without the input of engineers – can end up biting you in the arse later.

For example, one of the loudest requests from Brainscape’s users is for us to develop an Android app.  After all, launching a simple version of Brainscape on Android doesn’t sound like too massive of an undertaking.  Our small team of developers could probably develop a bare-bones version of Brainscape on Android in less than 2 months.  Why wouldn’t we make this seemingly small investment in doubling our potential mobile audience?

The answer is that the long-term financial and mental costs of maintaining an Android app are several magnitudes higher than the initial cost of developing it.  Once the Android app is launched, who will manage the user experience consistency between our iOS and Android apps as we continue to evolve our product’s design and functionality?  Who will be in charge of our search optimization on the Google Play store?  How will we keep our marketing materials up-to-date as the Android app evolves?  And who will make sure that every new version of our Android app works on all the dozens of different Android operating systems and screen resolutions?

You can see how quickly these distractions can add up.  While I’m sure Brainscape will eventually launch an Android app, a small team like ours should finish nailing our core competency before opening such large cans of worms.  This is why Brainscape has been able to develop such a successful app on the iOS App Store so far.  This is why Instagram did not launch on Android until 1 week before it sold to Facebook for $1 billion.

Startup CEOs should take note.  If you are ever considering developing a new feature for your product, you should be sure to forecast not just how much time it would take to develop, but also how much ongoing technical overhead that it would require to maintain.  Maybe you should put off that huge new feature set until you are doing an amazing job with your existing product and you have a few million more bucks in the bank.

[See also: Managing your technical overhead.]

2. Marketing-Related Cans of Worms

Similarly, your marketing team should be careful about opening cans of worms that will require excessive ongoing investments of time and resources.  This is particularly relevant for small teams who are considering launching a blog or social media presence.  The suggestion that “we should be more active on Twitter” may sound like a no-brainer, but once you’ve tweeted consistently for a few weeks, you’ll need to produce a regular series of meaningful tweets to maintain the cadence.  Otherwise, an abrupt slowdown in tweet timestamps signals to the world that the company itself is slowing down.

Make sure you have time to continually work on social media before you open that can of worms.

At Brainscape, it took over two years for our blog and social media presence to begin paying off, and we might not have launched these efforts so early had we fully considered the amount of resources required to really do it right.  If you are an early-stage startup and are considering any new marketing or operations initiatives with long-term maintenance costs, be sure you weigh the benefits carefully against the implied ongoing responsibilities.  You might be better off spending that time talking to customers, running focus groups, or selling.

Bottom Line

Of course, there are still many cans of worms that are indeed worth opening because they will become core to your business.  And sometimes you don’t really know how much a particular initiative will benefit your business until you begin to open the can of worms in the first place.

Just remember to pick your battles before jumping into new projects.  If you can nip a dead-end conversation in the bud, then do it; and if an existing can of worms appears to be spiraling out of control, then don’t be afraid to fail fast and move on.  In the business world, victory comes to those who can focus.

[Want to see more articles like this one?  Follow me on Twitter @acohenNY.]

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .

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