Building and shipping a Minimum Viable Product is critical when thinking about going to market with your product or service. Spending time with Sam Parks, who has done this multiple times and created and sold a company in the AI space is the topic of our Fractional Focus engineer today. We invite founders and teams looking for their next AI/ML software engineer to meet Sam who has a unique approach to transforming complex, deeply technical ideas into successful products. His philosophy of "plan slowly, build quickly, rebuild quicker" has led to the launch of numerous impactful products.
This journey with Sam provides a deep dive into the nuances of MVP development and offers a wealth of knowledge for those aspiring to excel in the startup ecosystem.
Fractional Focus with Sam Parks
What is your specialty and how did you gain mastery over it?
My specialty is translating profound, deeply-technical, seemingly complicated ideas into successful products using rapid prototyping first principles and a "plan slowly, build quickly, rebuild quicker" mentality. I think most successful CTOs may launch 4 to 6 products from "napkin sketch to scale" in their lifetime. I've launched 10 products in the last 3 years alone, which has allowed me to refine an understanding of what it means to launch a successful product. This knowledge carries over into product refinement, feature release planning, resource management, team building, and engineering management as well. If you can build and launch a deeply technical, highly-regulated, expensive, dangerous product successfully, you can launch anything.
What was the most successful thing you built or have worked on?
Depends on how you define success! I founded, built, and sold a bootstrapped political fundraising platform in less than a year, but it employed no full time employees! I also founded and built an AI-powered energy management company that has raised tens of millions in VC capital that's still growing to this day, and it employs over 100! I think the greatest showcase of my multifaceted ability to build hard things was as CTO at an FDA-regulated medical device company. I learned an entirely new domain, rebuilt their product from the ground up, redesigned their brand, business plan, and go-to-market strategy— all while navigating the FDA. I had to understand and work with people— executives, the board, investors. I had to grow a team, evaluate an existing underperforming product with an existing 5 years of prior development lifetime, and use all of that information to carefully and quickly navigate a complete overhaul. Now, that company is launching globally with some of the largest medical device companies and humanitarian organizations in the world, with a scalable, expandable, profitable product.
What was a mistake you have made along the way?
The first company I founded, way back in my early 20s, spent over 2 years building its first product before it launched and waited too long to pivot— the exact opposite of what every successful product launch has looked like for me since. Over the course of those two years, I gained valuable insight into all the most difficult aspects of running the hardest type of company you can run— a capital-intense, high-volume-hardware, enterprise B2B, SaaS company in an industry dominated by established competitors. I learned how to pivot, how to manage morale, how to communicate effectively and transparently to my team, how to build quickly, learn quickly, and work with investors through the highs and lows. Frankly, most of the skills I learned from the early days of that company came from experiencing what not to do, but those lessons stick with you, and the things that work in those seasons of difficulty stand out even more profoundly among the things that don't work. After those early seasons of learning, a few pivots, and a successful raise or two of a handful of tens of millions, that company turned out to be wildly successful and is still growing to this day.
What tactical advice do you have for someone in your field?
Use this process for launching MVPs, features, or anything "new".
- Determine exactly ONE thing you want your product/feature to be absolutely best at. Only one. But against any competitor, it would unanimously win. This requires research, conversations, tests, surveys, etc. Do what it takes to find the one perfect thing with as few resources as possible.
- Determine exactly what your product/feature has to do in order to accomplish that one thing. Translate those requirements into a high-fidelity design. High quality design and planning in this step makes step 3 a snap. If there's a step to take your time on, it's this one. From here on out, it's pants on fire speed only.
- Build it quickly. There should be no "figuring out what to build" in this step. Forget about scalable servers, whether to use PostgreSQL or MySQL, AWS or GCP, etc. You're likely going to have to rebuild your MVP anyway, and even if you don't, "scaling" in any modern cloud hosting platform takes 2 clicks and a few extra dollars per month. That gives you the time you need to build something scalable. "Build it to scale with clean code the first time" is misguided and pedantic. [If you actually have the kind of demand that requires you to scale unexpectedly, you likely have a wildly successful product. Congrats! Hire someone to build the scalable version while you support the current MVP customers]. Build it using the skills and knowledge your team already knows well. Speed is the name of the game; however, do not compromise user experience! The goal of step 1 and 2 is to reduce the MVP down to such a simple execution that you can quickly build a product that's best at what it does without annoying bugs for users. It's not best at what it does if your users are frustrated. There's a massive difference between "my users get exactly what they want from my product, but it's missing features they want" and "my users get what they want from my product, but they're very frustrated because of bugs".
- Most guides on this topic will end with "Repeat!". I disagree. So many things can happen after launch. Sometimes the product is a total flop— maybe that means you repeat this process— or maybe it means you need to reconsider whether that product is viable to begin with. Pivot! Maybe it's a huge success— now you need to figure out how to scale it, which is a totally different step-by-step guide. Or maybe you're somewhere in between, in which case neither repeating this guide or trying to scale is going to help. Find an expert advisor to help guide!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to build out a team, product, or service?
For the founders and executives, avoid this pitfall…
I've worked with, in some capacity, probably over 50 founders/engineers/executives building products. If there's one thing that indicated to me with the greatest accuracy whether they would be successful, it was their ability or inability to prioritize their tasks. Not their intelligence, work ethic, skills, unicorn idea, or their product-market fit. If they were bad at determining the most valuable way to spend their time, they were not ultimately successful. It is absolutely critical that you become a master of understanding how to prioritize your time and focus. I can confidently say that every single company I've come across with leadership that had poor time management and prioritization skills, failed. Revenue is all that matters. Is your time being spent on things that will DIRECTLY lead to more/faster revenue? If the answer is no, you should delegate that task away.
Tactical Takeaways from Sam’s Insights
Focus on a Singular Feature: Identify and perfect one key feature that sets your product apart from competitors.
- In-Depth Planning and High-Fidelity Design: Invest time in thorough planning and design to ensure clarity and focus during the development phase.
- Rapid Development and Flexibility: Build quickly using familiar tools and techniques, prioritizing speed without compromising user experience.
- Launch and Evaluate: Launch your product and assess its performance, being ready to adapt based on user feedback and market response.
- Expertise in Prioritization: Master the art of prioritizing tasks that directly contribute to revenue and business growth.
- Adaptability and Learning from Mistakes: Embrace the lessons learned from failures and pivots to refine and improve future endeavors.
Sam Parks' narrative is a rich tapestry of innovation, resilience, and strategic insight. His experiences, from founding and selling a political fundraising platform to navigating the complexities of an FDA-regulated medical device company, demonstrate the multifaceted nature of tech entrepreneurship. For startups and tech leaders seeking to forge a path in the competitive world of app and software development, Sam's story and insights offer a practical guide. In partnership with Go Fractional, Sam Parks exemplifies the blend of technical acumen and creative thinking needed to succeed in today's digital landscape. If you're aspiring to turn a concept into a marketable product or seeking to refine your startup's technology strategy, consider the wisdom and experience Sam brings to the table.
Are you ready to transform your startup vision into reality? Connect with Sam Parks through Go Fractional for expert guidance in building and launching your MVP. He can take a product from zero to one, rebuild an existing codebase, or launch a new feature with ease. Whether you're starting from scratch, overhauling an existing product, or looking to introduce a groundbreaking feature, our team is equipped to elevate your project. Start your journey with a fractional CTO or engineer who can bring your technological aspirations to fruition.
Reach out to us at Go Fractional to book an introduction with Sam.