To me, a business and a product are analogous. Whether you’re starting a company from the ground up or launching a new product within an existing company, these three things have become my standard expectation:
1. Strong passion to learn… everythingYou’ll need a humble mindset to get through this. Even if you think you’ve seen it all before, know every single answer and have become a total Jedi Master within your industry, you’ll need to resist the temptation and learn everything with a greenhorn (newbie) mentality in order to truly succeed.
Potential pitfall: You started a successful online commerce company 15 years ago and know all the steps necessary to start another one in 2016, right? Short answer: markets change, consumers change, technologies change and even the team you had 15 years ago has changed. Sure, there are similar core principles — but if you’re not willing to learn everything again, I’d think twice about starting up.
Intrepreneur contrarian: Okay, so I made that up. But it refers to the person who’s worked at your company for over 5 years and has a lot of great ideas about how to improve the company. Trouble is, this person sometimes starts debates with: “We tried that in 2010 and it didn’t work, so we shouldn’t waste our time.” While that appears to be sound reasoning at first glance, there is potential for missed opportunities due to misinterpretations of failures and a lack of understanding in dynamic market shifts. What didn’t work in 2010 could actually be gold in 2016.
Parting thoughts: To be great at starting up, you’ll need to add data analytics and actionable interpretations to your tool belt and learn to hunt down your own answers.
2. Your idea isn’t uniqueI actually learned this later than most, during fundraising pitches, probably the 20th pitch for a seed round actually. For every idea you come up with that’s totally unique and never been done before, there are four or five other teams focusing on solving the exact same problems right now. Brad Feld — managing director at the Colorado-based venture capital firm Foundry Group — claims this happens more often than not.
I didn’t believe this for another 3–4 months, until I actually found two other competitors doing EXACTLY the same thing. Not just a similar idea, but to the point that we felt any investor would think: “Oh, so you two are the same company, right?” Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel wrote a book about all this — and the fact that true innovation is slowing down as a result — but that’s another post altogether.
So why start something if there will be duplicates and copy cats? Short answer: because there’s almost always room for competition and execution is everything. I’m sure you’ve heard ‘execution is everything’ before, but I still haven’t found a better way to explain what that means succinctly. Here are three posts on what that actually means:
Parting thoughts: Focus on solving real problems every step of the way, obsess over every detail of your product, question every decision that was made without real data and search for truth by pulling and analyzing data every single day.
3. Customers above all elseWe are often tempted to make quick decisions that feel right (gut instinct) rather than going down the difficult path of truly listening to customers. Intercom posted an article that resonates with me around this topic. In fact, most of the articles they post resonate well with me because they are a customer-first company. Their entire product and business model is built around customers!
I can’t tell you how many meetings occur every day across many different companies in which key product decisions are made without ANY customer involvement. Let’s take a look at this online software example. Your customers complain that a major pain-point is their ability to take payments on their website. What is the first step you should take? Would it be to build a full payment solution and become a PCI-certified merchant services provider that can issue merchant account numbers? Heck, no. The right answer is you try to solve the problem with the simplest full solution and engage customers during each phase: prototyping, wire-framing, design, coding and, after it’s gone-to-market, figure out if the problem was addressed.
Parting thoughts: There are lots of tools out there to listen and understand your customers. Use them. But nothing beats direct customer outreach. Invite them to your office, invite them to coffee, conduct user focus groups, do blind product tests, and make sure to listen to all of that feedback. Make sure you interpret all of it honestly and openly, but also make sure it doesn’t dramatically shift your vision.
For some more background and early experiences with a startup, please check out my piece, What It Takes To Startup. The post you’ve just read is an evolution of the concepts discussed there, with a hope of providing more action items to help fellow entrepreneurs, particularly those on the fence about taking the leap.
Good luck to everyone who is going to start something soon, you are the courageous and fearless heroes of entrepreneurship that make the world better one step at a time.