I’ve been working with many startups over 5 years, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing many of them fail.

The biggest mistake most early stage startups do is implementing user profile pictures.

Profile pictures happen in ineffective culture

The problem is not literally the profile pictures themselves, but what leads a startup to implement profile pictures in the first place.

It’s a feature that actually needs a lot of approval — the designer, the CTO, product lead, front end, back end, devops. If none of these people speak up, it’s a symptom that your culture isn’t thinking about what they do.

First off, they are expensive. You need to allocate a file server, especially if you’re like a job site or Q&A site which doesn’t need to host a lot of photos otherwise. You need to implement user uploads. This means changes from the front end to the API to the database and storage or file server. They drastically add bandwidth use, especially if you are a community site. They increase loading times. They take many man-hours to implement.

More importantly, they add almost nothing of value. A profile picture takes a lot of space. They will pull attention from other things on the screen. A forum or chat with profile pictures will pull attention from what is said and focus more on the person who says it.

The only purpose of a profile pic is quite literally to pull attention from other things; that is, if you’re Facebook or Twitter and want people to focus on who said what. If you’re Reddit, you want to focus more on the content, rather than the person saying it.

It’s usually not something that determines whether people adopt the product. Nobody ever thinks, “Hey, I can’t upload my profile pic to Quora so I just won’t sign up.”

But is one feature so bad? Why would it kill startups?

Startups that do this also tend to adopt other poorly thought through features. Notifications, tagging, messaging, user profiles, Facebook logins. There is a time and place for these features, but it’s probably not at the beginning. If you’re adding something as trivial as a profile picture to your product early on, you probably have months dedicated to developing other trivial features as well.

It’s not just technical features, but very often marketing. Marketing is usually straightforward — every $1 you spend marketing should earn you back at least $3. If you spend $3 on marketing and get $1 on sales, you should be very worried.

How does anyone not realize their marketing is ineffective?

Social media marketing is usually a major culprit. You spend $3,000 on marketing, you get 5,000 shares and 30,000 likes. It’s tempting to think that these are all assets that will convert to money.

Events are another culprit. Spend $9,000 on a weekend event, get back $10,000. $1,000 profit in a weekend and some awareness, that’s a win right? If you’re a startup with 3 people, that’s great. But with a medium sized company, this might not even cover your salaries or your opportunity costs.

What many startups don’t realize is that customers may not necessarily care about brand either. They would download your app if they can get a little discount here and there. And then they delete it.

Imitation is procrastination

Finding out the right thing to do is hard work. You have to sit there, think, go over each thing. Thought and design is rarely a waste of time — you might spend half an hour thinking of whether to implement a feature, but you save yourself half a week by not implementing an unnecessary feature. That’s net gain.

And very often, the features you need to implement are difficult. If you are a Q&A site, you want users to find more relevant Q&A. You need to improve search algorithms, or improve how users stumble across a question they could answer.

This is difficult work, and it’s not clear when it is good enough. It’s easy to tell if someone has implemented Facebook login but you will never have a good enough content discovery algorithm.

The easy, lazy approach is to just do something else that someone has done. This is easy to justify to everyone else — Quora has profile pictures, Stack Overflow has profile pictures, so our Q&A site needs to add that.

This is why people tell startups to focus on week on week growth. What will give you the most next week? Will going to that weekend event earn you a big contract? Will 50,000 likes attract people who will buy your stuff next week? With week on week growth, you force yourself to think in smaller scope, but also take actions that matter.

The right thing to do is often difficult. It’s the things that take a month to build. It’s the marketing content that takes a week to come up with, and not shallow content you post 3 times a day. Real marketing requires a lot of understanding of the product’s selling point. They require a lot of listening, less talking.

The real cost to these shallow actions is not that they take up time or that you’re paying for them.

The true cost is that the time and focus you spend on these things is time you don’t spend doing the really important, really difficult things. Treat shallow actions as a form of procrastination.


About the Author

This article was written by Syed Muzani.