Vision Is Critical But Avoid The “Field of Dreams”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy

The Field of Dreams model or “build it and they will come” is a variation on the mousetrap trap “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” What follows are a excerpts from pages 251-252 of the paperback novel  Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella that was the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams.” They neatly summarize many of the worst and most self-limiting beliefs that doom startups to an early dissolution.

“I’ve had a dream. I know how things are going to turn out.”

Any new venture has to start with a vision that energizes the founders. And if they knew how hard it would really be, how far they were from making things turn out to match their vision, perhaps no one would start a company. It’s not the action of a hard headed realist. While you need a shared vision and shared values to form and motivate your team it has to be  subject to ongoing verification and refinement based on the unfolding situation and what you learn about “the facts on the ground.”

“Listen! It will be like this…” […]

Where you can get into trouble is not wanting to explore not just the edges of your vision but the critical assumptions you made.

“It will be almost a fraternity, like one of those tiny, exclusive French restaurants that have no sign. You find it almost by instinct.”

If you conceive of your startup as so exclusive and of such high quality that no marketing of any kind will be required, just word of mouth, you ignore the need to boil your value proposition down to a simple message. There is clear value in having satisfied customers who evangelize your product or service but assuming you don’t need any marketing or messaging is a recipe for continued obscurity and oblivion.

“The people who come here will be drawn…” He stops, searching for words “Have you every been walking down the street and stopped in midstride and turned in at a bookstore or a gallery you never knew existed? People will decide to holiday in the Midwest for reasons that they can’t fathom or express”

If you cannot list the paths that prospects will take to find you and specific reasons why they will investigate time in exploring your offering then you are just fantasizing. Looking for generic “early adopters” or “firms that want to be innovative” is a sign that you have do not have a clear hypothesis for the specific value your solution will offer a prospective customer.

“They’ll turn off I-80 at the Iowa City exit, drive around the campus, get out and stroll across the lawns, look at the white columns of the Old Capital Building, have supper at one of those tidy little restaurants, then decide to drive east for a while on a secondary highway.

If the situations that you anticipate that your prospects will find themselves in are unrelated to a particular pain or need you can address then you have too large and unfocused a vision and too little real empathy for your prospects. Wanting to do a “Big Data” offering or to “attack the cleantech market” makes you fully buzzword compliant  with other startups but doesn’t really give you any assumptions that you can test or refine.

“They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it, and arrive at your door, innocent as children, longing for the gentility of the past, for home-canned preserves, ice cream made in a wooden freezer, gingham dresses, and black-and-silver stoves with high warming ovens and cast-iron reservoirs.
“‘Of course, we don’t mind if you look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only twenty dollars per person.’ And they’ll pass over the money without even looking at it–for it is money they have, and peace they lack.”

Four very dangerous assumptions

  1. Prospects are willing to explore your website for more than a minute even if they cannot see something that they can use.
  2. You can sell ads without investing the effort to characterize your visitors and determine who will pay you for their attention.
  3. Because your team finds your product concept compelling it must be the case that what you have is so intrinsically compelling that you don’t have to develop a real model for the value that you offer–and to set a price that reflects that value.
  4. People will pay you for an abstract or fuzzy set of benefits.

“They’ll watch the game, and it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals.”

There is a spiritual component to any task or business, but it’s there because you want to offer real value and have authentic relationships with your customers, suppliers, employees, and partners. Even if you are offering medical care or cleaning up the environment or preserving a neighborhood for the next generation you have to earn a profit if you want to continue. That means that customers will need to gain tangible value from your offering and pay you more than it costs to provide your product or service.

“You talk a good dream,” I say to Salinger.
“I dream of things that never were,” says Jerry.

There is always a place for vision and spiritual values in a business. Few if any firms can survive long without it. But profit that flows from providing something customers pay for is also necessary, as is the continual exploration of customer needs and the ongoing testing and refinement of all of your business model assumptions.

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Comments (4)

  • Steve


    I dream about a Big Data Natural Language Turing Machine / processor which among others should be able to dream like us and make mistakes like us or maybe write articles and code like us.

    The effort to implement the first prototype might be similar in size to the effort of building the first nuclear reactor. Also considering that the idea is based on a kind of chain reaction (like the threads of our dreams).

    What would you recommend to move such idea forward?
    If you are trying to bootstrap you need a business model and a value proposition: who is the customer, what problem will they pay you to solve?

    How/where should I look for a team of skilled dreamers?

    “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”
    T. E. Lawrence in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom

    How long do you think we’ll stay with the current computing architecture?
    It’s a constantly evolving target, the impact of GPU’s and solid state disks are already changing what’s possible. It very much depends upon the vertical or application as to what architectures are employed


  • Steve


    Thanks, Sean, for your quick reply. I guess I’m in an early research/theoretical/ideation stage (for a number of years already). I’ll consider exploring some first applications maybe in automating at least partially software development.

    I think I’ll need at a certain stage one or more SMEs on Lean Startup processes as at a high level the processor should automate this kind of processes. (In my vision something similar happens in our brain mainly subconsciously).

    What would you need to see from me in order to consider taking the role of such an SME with a meta Lean Startup vision?

    I have an Office Hours form you can use to request a no cost no obligation working session, see “Schedule Time To Walk Around Your MVP” There is also a list of Lean Startup Mentors on the Lean Startup Wiki


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