Breaking down the Startup Un-Convention

Posted by Kyri Sarantakos

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March 11, 2013

Kyri heads to Philadelphia to share his thoughts on "How to Write the Perfect Product Spec" with Wharton Business School's Startup Un-Convention attendees.


A couple of weekends ago, I headed down to Wharton Business School to attend their Startup Un-Convention.  A former colleague of mine, Ware Skyes, CEO of NoWait, invited me to run a workshop with him called, “How to Write the Perfect Product Spec,” which made me smile. Over the years, I’ve seen many product specifications, none of them perfect, and the idea that on day zero you would know exactly what you want on day 100, 200, and 365 is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed. However, I wanted to participate regardless, if only to drive that point home.

A big theme of the conference was managing business and technology interaction, a timely topic considering the number of young entrepreneurs I see just looking for people to execute their winning idea. In a keynote from Steve Welch of Dreamit Ventures, he cautioned about becoming too enamored with ideas, “The best idea ever at Dreamit Ventures never made it out into the market.” He observed that teams that executed well together had the most success at Dreamit, whereas the idea is secondary to the team that is executing it.

He is right, and young entrepreneurs should be focusing on finding good partners in technology, sales, as well as in marketing. I like to say, “Five dollars and an idea will get you a cup of Starbucks coffee.” The idea will absolutely change and evolve from when you get that first funding to when you have something customers will love and pay for. The team you pick will thrive with that change or they will not, and a good team that executes together is critical in all companies, especially in early-stage startups.

In 2003 at TheLadders, our big idea was a newsletter of hand-picked jobs sent weekly to sales professionals. In the 10 years since, our idea has changed countless ways; some things we’ve tried worked, while some have not. Our founder Marc Cenedella still sends his weekly newsletter, the largest and longest-running newsletters of its type in the world, but it’s just one part of a much larger and growing business. We have more ideas than time, and how we execute on them has proven to be the most important thing we do.

Therefore, we told the workshop of Wharton MBA candidates that we were not going to show them how to write a perfect product spec; that is an impossible and futile task. In fact, it is not the primary job of the entrepreneur to provide solutions, but rather to identify a need in the market:  “Potential User X has this pain; let us try to address it.”

The problems faced by young MBA founders are amplified when they have no experience in the technological and/or UX domains of the solution space. Not fully understanding a platform’s affordances and capabilities will, at worst, lead to a subpar product and, at best, a long slog of trial and error. Too often, money runs out before anything is launched.

What’s a fresh MBA graduate with a great idea to do? First, he or she should invest in finding great partners who can bring missing functional expertise to the table and then put those partners to work.

We offered the conference attendees a tool to use with their partners, a way to include them in devising solutions. Captain Picard says it best:

The entrepreneur sets the course and the team, as a whole, figures out how best to execute.

One technique to solve this is to start projects by including the whole team in devising solutions via a UX Design Studio. At TheLadders, we start all of our bigger two- to 10-week initiatives with this process. All functional groups are represented, including the CEO, marketing, product, development, and support.

Going back to the Startup Unconference, we spent the majority of the workshop running the MBA candidates through a mini, hands-on design studio. Using a little-known problem statement/scenario from NoWait, they did quick five-minute iterations of solo design and team review. The exercise gave them a process they could immediately take back to their projects, a basis for including their entire team in the problem-solving process.

UX Design Studios will not solve all problems of business and technology/product relations, but it’s a good start and relatively easy for small teams to try.

For more information about design studios and how to run them in detail, please see the following articles from Will Evans, who brought the practice to TheLadders:


Kyri Sarantakos is the Vice President of Engineering for TheLadders, where is responsible for leading the engineering and technology teams, overseeing software development, mobile, database, business intelligence, systems engineering and corporate IT.  He joined the company in 2005. When he’s not playing around with iOS development, he can be found hacking all things radio-controlled. Follow Kyri and TheLadders Dev Team on Twitter at @KSarantakos and @TheLaddersDev.

Topics: TheLadders Dev