Sketching The Likeness Of An Imaginary Business

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Books, skmurphy

Startups originate in the mind of an entrepreneur, often as the result of observing something that seems odd, or is the result of juxtaposing two or three seeming unrelated or even incongruous ideas. The first challenge the entrepreneur faces turn his insight into something others can critique and improve upon: to show them sketches of the imaginary business and ask for feedback.

Sketching The Likeness Of An Imaginary Business

“…visual thinking is a mandatory literacy for innovation leaders of the future.”
Lisa Solomon (@lisakaysolomon) in “The Visual Thinking Revolution is Here

I have never considered myself an artist or visual thinker because I am not able to sketch a likeness of a person or draw a landscape. I managed engineers and drafters who had to produce mechanical and dimensioned drawings when I was at Cisco and 3Com, but I never had an affinity for the three dimensional visualization skills that they had.

I enjoyed reading “Back of the Napkin” by Dan Roam and covered it in our very first Book Club for Business Impact webinar last May. I found “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon Mackenzie as very useful both for his visual metaphors and his advice for corporate change agents; I read it in 1999 after I had returned to Cisco for a second tour of duty and took away a number of insights.  I also found  “The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding the Dragon” Mark Bryan, Julia Cameron, and Catherine Allen very helpful, in particular the morning pages model (see “Maintaining Perspective on the Entrepreneurial Roller Coaster“).

I associate art with an effort to represent physical reality or inspire an emotional reaction to reality. It’s odd how you can put things in buckets and ignore them, I had discounted the “design thinking” model because art seemed to me to be less about business and more about self-discovery.  And yet I have worked on teams designing very complex systems, the silicon cathedrals of the late 20th century, for the better part of two decades.

I am not sure why I experienced the dichotomy between system design and user experience design, although one presentation that helped me to crystallize my discomfort was Giff Constable’s “The Missing Agile Principle.” Reading it  I realized that I was focused more on prospect/customer value and than  the creative expression of an idea. Obviously you need both.

But I had an epiphany reading through the curriculum for the Design Strategy MBA offered by the California College of the Arts that I am actually a visual thinker:  I can sketch a likeness of a business concept or draw a business process and do so all of the time. And where cycle time, people time, investment dollars, or data are the units of measure I find it easy to dimension my drawings.

I think we need better processes (and perhaps a better visual language) for sketching hypothetical business models. I think that useful likenesses can be found in Dan Roam’s techniques and perhaps some of the directed graph models that Brant Cooper sketches in “The CustDev Whiteboard.

Watching electrical engineers develop new circuit designs I would see them sketch  a number of different but equally useful diagrams that represented different aspects of a hypothetical design’s behavior or structure: circuit diagrams, waveforms, state machine diagrams, logic schematics, block diagrams, etc..  The “Innovator’s DNA” stresses the value of sketching timelines, workflows, and input/output diagrams to better understand the current situation and how it came to be. I think  we can learn a lot from other fields for how to sketch the likeness of our hypothetical businesses and emerging markets.

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