I am blessed in that I get a lot of entrepreneurs reaching out to me for advice on their startup; namely, to sound board the efficacy of their idea, a key strategic decision that they are facing, or a milestone that they are trying to work towards.
Having been around the block a few times, I put together this primer of nine key lessons learned from doing eight startups (four as co-founder, four liquidity events - exits to IBM, Apple, Wind River, Zoom):
1. It's About Who, Then What: We love to fall in love with great ideas, but you know what, the most basic truth is that the key strategic decisions are usually less about the industry, the products, the pricing, the message, the sales channel or even the technology, and MOSTLY about the people. It's the proverbial 'Who, Then What' dynamic at play. As such, it is never too early to define your ideals, establish your culture, and commit to actually living it. This will lead you to hire builders who think like owners, who operate with strong values that are aligned with your own, who are long-term thinkers, data-driven, and who want to build stuff that matters (not just make money).
2. Say Goodbye to the Tyranny of the 'All or None': Details matter, but often the bigger challenge is reconciling all of the paradoxes and tradeoffs that come with starting and growing a business. Human nature is to attempt to reduce these paradoxes down to either/or, black and white decisions. My experience, however, is that success is a by-product of reconciling the nuance, and embracing the 'AND.' As such, always be asking yourself, "How might I approach the solution differently it I were embracing paradoxes, as opposed to avoiding them?"
3. Be Use-Case Driven: It amazes how many solutions are built with a completely generic sense of the user, the use-case and the workflow required to satisfy their needs. It's okay to be wrong, but it's not okay to be confused, so make sure that your product planning process is defined in a way that codifies specific use cases supported by clear workflows (in terms of click steps), backed by wireframes that express same. This is the ultimate 'rubber meets the road' moment when you realize that you are either talking the same language with your constituency of co-workers, customers, partners and investors, or not.
4. Spell out the Jobs, Outcomes and Constraints That Your Product or Service Addresses: When thinking about specific use cases and user workflows, I subscribe to the jobs, outcomes and constraints "outcome-driven" innovation model. It assumes that your target user "hires" your product or service to enable them to achieve a specific set of outcome goals, relative to the constraints that they face (e.g., budgetary, ease-of-use, integration, etc.). Hence, in thinking about your product or service, always know what jobs you are focusing on, how they enable the outcome you are pledging to deliver and how they stick within the constraints your customer faces. This drives a level of specificity that enables crisp decisions of what the product is and isn't, and equally important, enables you to test that value proposition with customers and partners.
5. Know What has to go Right for You to Succeed: Too often, a plan fails to address binary assumptions, like required adoption by a "king maker," such as a standards body or a major enterprise; the essentialness of a major distribution deal; changes in consumer behavior; or the competition opting not to pursue certain markets. Not only is it integral to know what has to go right for you to succeed, but at the moment you identify the greatest risks to being successful, those risks should be front-loaded into the market research phase of your efforts. Front-loading risk assessment will save you from finding yourself heavily invested in a given path, only to discover (too late) that it's a dead-end road.
6. Sanity Check the 1.0/3.0 Paradox: The 1.0/3.0 Paradox spotlights the indelible truths that must be navigated to achieve an initial beachhead in the market. Specifically, most startups are born of a 3.0 sense of what the company's business will look like will be when the product or service is mature; a time when they have achieved market penetration; and thus, can set the terms with customers and partners, so to speak. The paradox is that at the 1.0 stage of business life, you can only deliver 1.0 functionality, and consumers buy based upon their "selfish" 1.0 needs. Moreover, history suggests that 1.0 is usually "good enough" to get to 2.0, and by 2.0, you are legacy, which is hard to dislodge. Hence, the wedge into new markets comes from solving a compelling 1.0 problem.
7. Always Have an Official Plan of Record: This one seems obvious, but entrepreneurs can so fall in love with the big picture that they avoid sweating the details on things like audience size, metrics of success, major milestones, market segmentation, and go-to-market thinking. Bottom line: you need a model of the moving parts in the business, and the inputs and outputs generated by same to know if you are on the right path. In the early stage of a business, the model doesn't have to be super specific; it just needs to be intellectually honest and supported by a clear narrative.
8. Is Your Solution a Vitamin, Aspirin or Penicillin?: A Vitamin Solution is one where the target customer knows they SHOULD use it, like vitamins, but it's not like they are going to get sick or die tomorrow if they don't. An Aspirin Solution addresses a major, major headache for the target user. They may not die if they don't embrace a solution like yours, but the pain and suffering will be ever-present until they do 'something' about the headache. The target customer NEEDS this type of solution very SOON, if not NOW. A Penicillin Solution literally keeps you from an untimely demise. When you need penicillin, you NEED it TODAY. Stating the obvious, it's better to be a Penicillin or Aspirin Solution than a Vitamin one, at least on the scale of essential-ness.
9. Be a Detective, an Anthropologist, Sociologist and Psychologist: My favorite quote here is from technology pioneer, Carver Mead, who once implored would-be innovators to "Listen to what the technology is telling you." Thus, it helps to have scenarios that drive the way you think about enabling technologies, new products and emerging markets; it's critical to understand that it is as lethal to be too early as it is to be wrong; and as a friend of mine puts it, sometimes the big idea is looking at a solution which today is applicable to only a small fringe (10%) of the market (e.g., blogging) but with some re-thinking and/or re-factoring, could capture much closer to 100% of the addressable audience (e.g., Twitter).
If you are an entrepreneur looking for some pro bono guidance relative to your venture, reach out to me at LinkedIn by clicking HERE.
My only request is that I need to really understand the specifics of what you are trying to do and what type of assistance you are hoping for to give you actionable feedback.