Stop looking for unicorns

I hate the term “unicorn.” Seriously hate. And I’m not talking about mythical beasts leaping over rainbows. Everyone loves those. I’m talking about a much more dangerous and rare animal.

So many startups we talk to are looking to find that one person who will solve all of their problems. The one person who can strategize, design both the experience and the visual identity, code the whole damn thing, and have it all done before the investor meetings start next month. And since it’s one person, their budget won’t take a hit.

The whole idea of hiring a sole person to tackle all of these pieces of a product is not only misguided, it’s dangerous.

I once considered myself a unicorn (again, not the rainbow kind). Back in the dot-com 1.0 world. I thought I did it all: HTML, JavaScript, SQL, PHP, Photoshop and Visio. I attempted to chip in on every step of a project, and, even with Web technology being significantly more limited back then, there were always people better than me in all areas — details they knew, experience they had — because they focussed so intently on that area.

In the years since, as I’ve been fortunate to work on some incredible businesses. I’ve collaborated closely with amazing people on all sides of a project — experts in their fields that interject insights and experience to create products that launched better because of it.

At the same time, I’ve watched startup after startup fail because they find people who claim to do everything and do it faster and cheaper. In the end, failure became inevitable because the initial product ended up being merely passable, while the competition soared. Often these products run into two distinctly problematic factions:

  1. The slickly coded product that actually works, but falls short on a design that actually solves the original problem, or
  2. The beautifully designed product that would make a great wall hanging, but either lacks the functionality needed to solve the problem or is just plain buggy.

I’m sympathetic to the limited budgets that young startups face, and the need to make smart decisions as to how those precious dollars are spent. Allocating dollars is challenging, but thinking short and long-term is critical for founders. Building a product that is mediocre and must be rebuilt later always leads to wasted money in the long-run. It also often ends up spitting out flawed analytical data that is critical to evolving and improving your product.

Honed experience, on the other hand, almost always breeds a better product for launch and allows you to grow effectively.

That’s not to say startups should drop gobs of money on agencies; my company (Charming Robot) certainly speaks to a lot of startups looking to launch their initial product that we turn down — largely because they don’t need a team like us yet. While agencies like mine bring a lot of experience to the table, sometimes a lean team of 1. a product visionary /subject matter expert, 2. a smart UX / visual designer and 3. an experienced developer can get a first version out to the market faster, find traction, and then evolve the product with a more robust team externally or internally. But each launch teammate should bring veteran experience in their core expertise. That will allow for the best initial outcome.

A rabbit hole

The problem with unicorns is they don’t really exist — either kind — and hunting them down will inevitably result in wasted time, wasted money, and a rabbit hole of disappointment.

Great products come with collaboration, managed schedules, smart debates, and focussed features. If you hire a “unicorn” from day one, you’re most likely going to miss out on strategy conversations and instead will end up with a mediocre, feature-bloated product that launches late because it was mis-scoped, mismanaged and shoddily put together.

Technology changes so quickly these days, and how people use it evolves just as fast. Someone who is focussed on exposing themselves to everything won’t get the details right; they won’t have the ability to keep their finger to the pulse of what is actually happening. The UX will be unoriginal, the design will probably lack strategy, and the code will be inefficient.

Unicorns sound sexy, mystical, and perfect for any company looking to be lean, but they belong on t-shirts — not in your company.

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