Remember those old don't-do-drug ads? A shaky camera pans to a narc wearing a wrinkled button-down:
Egg is lifted:
"This is your brain"
Points to hot skillet:
"This is drugs"
Cracks egg into skillet. Egg starts frying:
"This is your brain on drugs"
Firstly, makes no sense seeing everyone loves fried eggs. Secondly, this is how my brain looked when trying to start a "bleeding edge" tech company.
2018. Winter. NYC.
Lying on the floor, looking like the beached whale I am, I stared at the ceiling. For months, we had been trying to start a food delivery business. Nothing bleeding-edge, just pain.
It was in that moment, with my shirt gathering fuzz from the un-vacuumed carpet below, that we changed everything. New market, new users, new product, new tech. We just wanted to do something new—something no one else was doing.
As designers and engineers, we knew of a rather niche problem: if your company has a design system, it's practically impossible to know the adoption rate of those components in your product. Huzzah! we thought. We should build a tool that tells you the adoption rate of every component in your design system—across your product. Chefs kiss.
Now, no worries if you don't know what this means. For the sake of the article, this was "bleeding-edge tech," and this simple fact got us psyched. We would be the first, the trailblazers. We felt like how I imagine all the kids who grow up watching "Baby Einstein" feel—pompous, cute, and little geniuses.
Little did I know, this mentality would fuck us...
Before continuing with my failures, a history lesson. After a quick Wikipedia search, the first time we see the term "bleeding edge technology" being used was during the early 80s—right when the drug-ad above aired (clearly some weird shit happening then). Bleeding edge was an iteration on the classic "cutting-edge" or "leading-edge" phrases—altered to show an even higher level of risk for both the company and the customer.
So how did this mentality fuck us? Well, I've come up with a rather clever framework I'm calling:
This loop consists of three parts:
Sales is hard and if you want to make it 10X harder, try selling something nobody knows anything about. Like literally nothing. When we started, prospects didn't know our name, the problem we were solving, our solution, how valuable it would be, what it should be priced at, and the list went on and on. And here's the kicker, because they knew nothing, they didn't trust us. We weren't proven and thus we were a huge risk to adopt.
With this bleeding edge product in hand, we were banging our heads against the wall, trying to sell to early users who'd be willing to try something incredibly new and incredibly risky. Not fun. Very difficult.
The brutal sales cycles then bled into our product. After a few months, we had convinced a handful of companies to test our tech. The day would arrive and we'd finally onboard them. But guess what, they had no idea how to use our tool or integrate it within their workflow. And to be honest, nor did we. Adoption was bleak and feedback was dry—silence in startups is not golden.
What I realized is when you're the first, there is very little to look at for inspiration, ideas, or as a benchmark. It's up to you as the trailblazer to build the path and hope it will lead somewhere. This is something I think many of wish we could do—but I think very few can.
I think the worst stage is the mental-game. When you're trying to drag your zombie-death startup from the crypts of hell and into the light, there are so many things to stress about. Your messaging, positioning, pricing, product, customers, sales, employees—literally everything. But when you're building something truly new, there is an additional poisonous leach that creeps into your brain and plants its ugly seed: doubt.
Bleeding edge tech means you'll constantly be doubting whether what you've created will ever be something or not—there is no market data to tell you otherwise. You don't know if customers are already using a solution like yours. You don't know if anyone is willing to pay for your offering. You don't know how big the market is or will ever become. You don't know anything.
This was the hardest thing for me to deal with personally. The daily doubt. Constantly wondering if we needed to just tweak a few of the 4 P's or much worse—that this wasn't a real problem needed to be solved.
"The Bloody Edged Circle of Death" continued its cycle until one day, we decided no more. We didn't have the conviction in ourselves and the product to keep pushing through the long sales cycles, silence from inactive users, and the crippling doubt. We were done bleeding out from bleeding edge tech.
Since then, I've been thinking a lot about why we were so keen on building tech no one had ever seen before. When I started to look for answers, I noticed something peculiar. All of the "hottest" tech companies: Airtable, Notion, Slack, Zoom—none of them are "bleeding edge" per se. Sure, they have incrementally innovated on existing products in existing categories—but they're not doing anything truly new.
They identified problems with the status quo, in massive markets, with huge amounts of users and money. They then developed a better product by improving the UX, performance, and adding new features. Don't get me wrong, this is an insanely difficult feat to ever pull off. Yet, before I gave this any thought, I assumed they were successful because they were doing something new—because they were bleeding edge.
So why was I fed this lie and believed it to be true?
I think the answer is pretty simple—marketing and ego. If you're a founder, you want your company to be seen as revolutionary. Even if your startup just slapped lipstick on a pig, you want the world to believe you invented a super hot and sexy pig, one that sprouts wings and poops pearls.
And same thing goes for VCs. Investors want to be seen as picking the best and brightest—finding the diamonds in the rough. Their aim is to say: "I backed a ground breaking technology that changed the world," and not: "I invested in 10 slightly-better-than-Google-Docs competitors." No one on Twitter is getting jacked on that.
If you're anything like me, you've been reading, listening, and following the big players in Silicon-Valley for years. We've been told a narrative that sounds great and inspires, but it's not based in facts. Bleeding edge is a myth that fucks up your chances of success.
Since this realization, we've purposefully taken our company in a different direction. A new strategy, one where we purposefully have entered an existing market—a market where we have expertise. Yes, there is competition, but we've been using these tools for years, we know the problems they have, and we want to make something better—both for our team and customers.
Although this path doesn't have the same sparkle as a bleeding-edge tech company might, I can sleep easier knowing we have a higher chance of getting somewhere with it. I can finally focus on the problems every startup deals with without that doubt—that nose-crinkling, water-trash stench of doubt.
There is a market. There are users who pay. There is value to what we're doing. Now it's just up to us to make our product, positioning, and team the best it can be.