Michael Fern, Edith Harbaugh, Steve Hogan, and Sean Murphy discuss the Innovator’s DNA experimenting skill.
Tristan Kromer joins Steve Hogan and Sean Murphy to discuss networking as a key skill to develop to foster innovation.
Jeff Allison, former VP of Engineering at Cisco Systems joins us to discuss observing.
Sarah Gray, Ethan Thorman, and Mark Cook join Steve Hogan and Sean Murphy to discuss lessons learned asking questions to foster innovation.
Panel sessions Feb 22, 2012 on Innovator’s DNA Skill #1 Associating. Terry Frazier of Cogovis, Steve Hogan of Tech-Rx, and Sean Murphy of SKMurphy.
Steve Hogan and Sean Murphy walk through a five part webinar series on “The Innovator’s DNA” by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen,and Clayton Christensen. Sean thinks it’s the best book on innovation and entrepreneurship for 2011 and useful for any team that is trying to innovate. Each webinar will be in a roundtable format and include first time entrepreneurs and experienced innovators discussing lessons learned applying the five key discovery skills described in the book.
I caught Interstellar over the weekend and was mesmerized for the entire three hour runtime. Coop the astronaut/farmer falls goes exploring and falls down a series of rabbit holes that take him far from home. It’s a movie that celebrates exploration and continually triggered my sense of wonder if only because none of the protagonists are fearless action heroes but all too human in their desires to return home safely and be re-united with families and loved ones. I don’t want to say too much about the plot not because of all of the twists and turns but I think the movie is best appreciated by not knowing how it’s going to turn out.
Q: Should I ask prospects if they would use my product? How do I interpret “yes”, “no”, and “maybe.”
Entrepreneurial passion has to be based on a desire to create value, to be of service to a set of target customers. There may be many things you are interested in learning and room enough in your life for several hobbies, but pursuing a passion without regard to your ability to provide value in a way that is competitively differentiated is to pursue a hobby.
A documentary on entrepreneurship as a calling that I found very compelling was “The Call of the Entrepreneur” produced by the Acton Institute. It addresses both practical and spiritual aspects of entrepreneurship from the point of view of three very different entrepreneurs:
- Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer in Evart, Michigan who transforms a failing farm into a successful dairy and compost company.
- Frank Hanna, a merchant banker in New York City who explains how entrepreneurship transforms the economy into a positive sum game.
- Jimmy Lai who grew up in Communist China and then Hong Kong, emigrating to New York to found retail and media companies.
Q: What are logos good for?
An image is processed by a different part of the brain than a word or phrase, making it both memorable and evocative in ways that are distinct from the name of your company. Having a logo for your company or product makes it more memorable and allows you to suggest connotations that can be put into words.
I have put together a table of a couple of icons or logos that we used and the word or phrase that the replaced. The first version of the SKMurphy logo was just a text treatment as was the first version of the Bootstrapper Breakfast. You can judge for yourself if adding some simple artwork changed your opinion of what each represents.
These are excerpts from Episode 9 of Outlier on Air: Tristan Kromer, A Lean Approach to Business. They are in the same sequence the took place in the interview but a number of stories and asides have been omitted to focus on what I felt were some extremely valuable insights from Tristan Kromer on clarifying and testing customer and value hypotheses.
Successful entrepreneurs are fueled by a passion to change the world tempered by prudent risk taking. Many risks have to be managed on an ongoing basis cannot be eliminated once and for by careful planning or the achievement of a particular milestone:
- managing cash flow and the risk of a downturn,
- meeting your obligations to your family as well as your business,
- continually developing new skills and connections to cope with evolving customer needs and new competitive threats.
Noam Wasserman had an article yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on “How an Entrepreneur’s Passion Can Destroy a Startup” that focused on entrepreneurial passion and prudent risk taking. He has some excellent advice with regards to a shared risk analysis with your spouse (and a plan how to decided when to quit before you are in the middle of the roller coaster ride) and identifying potential risks and problems with you plan (what Gary Klein has called a “pre-mortem” in other contexts is incredibly useful for a startup team to do periodically, not as a way of hanging crepe but of anticipating and preventing or mitigating foreseeable problems).
Here is a list of risks he identified
Wasserman Tests: Excess Entrepreneurial Passion
|Wasserman Test: Do You …||SKMurphy Commentary|
|Feel like you are on mission to change the world?||This is a good thing.
I think this is probably a good thing. Doesn’t mean you should prepare to run your business. But if align your business with a higher purpose I think you are more likely to persevere.
|Get insulted when someone points out legitimate flaws in your idea or product?||This is a red flag, but it may be as much about personal maturity as anything else.|
|Find it hard to come up with pitfalls you might face or to detail a worst case scenario for your venture?||This is a red flag, but it may be less about passion and more a lack of knowledge about business or your industry. You need to do premortem’s periodically to prepare for problems and mitigate those you can.|
|Raise money from professional investors when your #1 goal is to “work for myself” or “to control my own destiny”?||I think this is a low probability situation.
This can happen but normally entrepreneurs motivated by a desire for autonomy don’t seek professional investment and those that do are typically screened out as part of due diligence.
|Hire friends and family whom you may not be able to fire if they underperform or circumstances change, because you are confident you won’t face those issues?||I think this is a low probability situation.
If the business is not doing well typically friends and family want out, if it’s doing well you can often find people role that fits their talents if they worked with you in the beginning.
|Neglect to run careful tests to assess consumer demand?||This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Large business fail at new product launches quite frequently as well, I think this is less a passion problem and more something that is very hard to do.
|Assume you won’t need a financial cushion in case the venture takes longer than anticipated to generate income?||This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Sometimes it’s the fact that a team is almost broke that forces them to make the necessary changes to succeed.
|Resist talking honestly with your significant other about the money and the time you expect to commit to your venture, and about the potential pitfalls you face?||This is a real risk. This is a hard conversation but one that has to happen frequently. You have to treat you spouse or significant other as a member of the board of directors. I don’t think this is a passion problem per se, but failure to make a joint decision and keep them informed is a real risk.|
|Figure you don’t need to address the holes in your skills or networks in advance of founding?||This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
There are always holes in your skills, consumer demand changes require new skills, competitors attack you in unanticipated ways that require new expertise, your network is never broad enough. I don’t think you are ever prepared enough and you have to be learning and connecting on an ongoing basis
I was struck by one paragraph:
For instance, almost 800 founders took a predictive test that evaluated their startup ideas, and then received recommendations about the next steps they ought to take. Thomas Astebro and his colleagues found that a sizable percentage of founders who received a recommendation to halt progress on their startups because the idea wasn’t commercially viable kept going anyway—29% of this group kept spending money, and 51% kept spending time, developing their idea. On average, they doubled their losses before giving up on pursuing their idea.
It Does Not Help To Tell An Entrepreneur Their Idea is Not Viable
It’s not helpful to tell entrepreneurs that their idea is not commercially viable. All new ideas are not commercially viable when judged by “conventional wisdom” until conventional wisdom changes. Entrepreneurs are probably even less inclined to take advice from college professors who have never started a company. If you could reliably predict the economic viability of new idea you would not be selling analytics you would be making investments. Here is Thomas Asterbo’s bio from Genesis Analytics
Tom Astebro is currently Associate Professor in Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. He has seven years of experience in scorecard development. Tom developed the Genesis algorithms and technology as part of research at the University of Waterloo that was sponsored by CIBC and Nortel and earned the distinction as the creator of one of the three “Most Promising Technologies” in a recent Canadian competition.
Tom has published 29 articles, made 49 presentations at conferences, obtained research funding from NSERC, SSHRC, MMO, Carnegie Mellon, Telia, Volvo, Handelsbanken, and the Sweden-America Foundation and won ten international/national research awards. His research has been mentioned in Business Week, the Financial Post, the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen. He has worked as a management consultant for banks, insurance and manufacturing companies in Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands and has taught at Universities in Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Australia. Tom holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.B.A and a M.Sc. from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.
Encourage Prudent Risk Taking But Don’t Try To Blunt Passion
What is very helpful is to get entrepreneurs to test their key assumptions–“what else would have to be true for your business to work”–and get them to start testing critical aspects of a plan. When a peer entrepreneur is working on a idea that you don’t think is viable, it doesn’t help to tell them “I don’t think it will work” or even “Here is why I don’t think it would work.”
Instead, think about framing it as
- What risks are you worried about?
- Here are three challenges I think you business has to overcome to be viable. Do you have evidence or results that indicate that this won’t be a problem?
- What could you do to test or explore how to work around these problems before investing time and money in other activities that don’t attack the riskiest areas first.”
What Would Have To Be True For For Startup to Thrive?
This approach to helping an entrepreneur think through their risks and challenges is something we try and do at a Bootstrapper Breakfast when someone says what they are working on and another attendees says something like “that’s a crappy idea or that will never work.”
We try and get them to think through “what would have to be true for it to work? What are the key challenges they have to manage to make it work?” Because entrepreneurs can always tell their friends with “real jobs” about what they are working on and either be told, “that’s not viable” or “that’s great” (meaning please stop talking about this) and not get useful feedback or critique.
Related Blog Posts
- Entrepreneurial Motivation
Tim O’Reilly offers three guidelines on how to work on stuff that matters: work on something that matters to you more than money, create more value than you capture, and take the long view.
- Ben Kaufman on “What Raising Money Means”
- David Foster Wallace: The Only Choice We Get is What to Worship
- Drucker on Profit and Business Purpose
A selection of quotes from Chapter 6 “What is a Business” in “Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices” by Peter Drucker.
- The Startup Mythology of Silicon Valley
“We are experiencing a generation of entrepreneurs who prioritize the phenomenon of entrepreneurship over its justification; we ought to be concerning ourselves as a community with teaching folks not only how to get into the entrepreneurship game but how to find their purpose as well.” Matt Hendrickson
- Build on Your Passion With a Basic Model and Numbers
- Ben Yoskovitz: Start With a Passion For Solving a Problem
- What’s Your Passion?
- Entrepreneurial Passion and the Science of Startups
For customer interviews we have a rule of thumb that if an hour or research saves a minute early in the conversation it’s a good investment. When you look at the list of questions you have prepared to learn about the prospect’s business and their needs, it’s easy to say to yourself, “I am really busy I can just ask these at the start to ‘set the table.'” But there are significant risks with this approach.
Preparations Cuts Risk Of Customer Interviews Ending Prematurely
While the interview may be nominally scheduled for 15 minutes or a half-hour and may run an hour if it goes well the first six minute or so are critical to communicating that you have done your homework on their situation and their needs. If you start to ask questions that are already published on-line you can appear lazy or unprepared. If you can do research on a prospect in advance, it’s worth spending an hour to save a minute in the conversation. You can even start the conversation by saying “when I prepared for this conversation here is what I learned about your firm” and give a brief summary of what you know about their situation.
It’s OK to say “I see on your website that you have hired four people in the last three months, how has that impacted …” or “I read a profile of your firm in the San Jose Business Journal Book of Lists, have you grown beyond the 12 people listed in February?” This shows that you have done your homework and don’t want to waste their time but need to confirm some of the key facts that may bear on their needs.
Information Sources To Consult Prior To Customer Interviews
- Do a thorough review of the prospect’s website.
- Search for any articles in the last two years at least to see what kind of press coverage they have received.
- Review the Linkedin profiles for the firm, the person you are talking to, and anyone with similar titles or in the same department.
- Review on-line postings in relevant forums for the industry.
- See if they have a blog, a twitter account, a YouTube account, and similar social media sits that are often used for business purposes.
Six Questions That You Normally Have to Ask In The Conversation
- Prospect’s description of the problem in their own words. This is rarely more than a sentence or two and capturing the essence in their own words is key.
- High level description of current work process or work flow in their own words. This forms the basis for any delta comparison or differentiation of your solution.
- Any constraints they mention: if you hear the same ones multiple times you will more than likely have to satisfy them.
- How they will tell that a new solution will leave them better off: this is different from asking them to specify the solution, it’s asking for “future state” or the end result they would like to achieve.
- What else they have tried to do to solve the problem: probe for why they were not satisfactory.
- Key metrics or figures of merit they would use to evaluate a new outcome.
“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.”
F. H. Westheimer
Entrepreneurs seem to divide into two camps:
- those who want to have a conversation immediately, and
- those who are quite content to research for months as long as they don’t have to talk to strangers.
Striking a balance is the key to maximizing your learning from a customer interview. Effective research prior to the customer interview allows you to
- Ask better questions
- Provide evidence of your commitment to developing a mutually satisfactory business relationship
- Detect when your prospect is leaving something out or perhaps coloring the situation too much. You are not a stenographer there to capture whatever they say without reflection, but if your only source of information is what they tell you then you risk “garbage in, garbage out” in your product plans and MVP.
In a candid discussion about the challenges of managing your own expectations for a minimum viable product (MVP), Tristan Kromer observed, “It’s psychologically hard to enthusiastically proceed with skepticism.” And that is the challenge, we have to be enthusiastic about our product ideas to persevere to complete them and tell others about them, but we have to be skeptical enough to accept criticism and open to prospect perspectives on needs and constraints on solutions.
Strong Opinions Weakly Held
Bob Sutton blogged about this in 2006 as “Strong Opinions Weakly Held” as one of the differentiators between smart people and wise people. Both have strong opinions, but the wise can more easily allow revisions to theirs:
Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at the Institute for the Future. A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”
Early Adopters For Your MVP Are Often Very Normal
I think too many entrepreneurs conflate “early adopter” with “technically sophisticated’ or ‘geek hipster.’ Normal people are early adopters when they have a strong need for your product. The first two people to tell me about E-Bay, and who were genuinely excited about it, were two mothers who didn’t know each other but were collectors of different specialty handicraft items (teddy bears and glass angels) and they were shopping regularly there because they were not available in stores.
They were early adopters. I ignored their advice, of course, when I should have realized that neither used a computer for any other purpose than visiting E-Bay. They were early adopters. I should have realized that if E-Bay could create markets for these highly specialized products they could create and serve a lot of niche/specialty markets in a way that was winner take all.
Another example: I think Pinterest looks a lot like the way that someone who creates scrapbooks or manages a physical bulletin board would want to author a website.
Q: How can I go about calculating Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), and other business model parameters for a technology that I will use to attack an entirely new market with no historical data?
While there may be “new markets with no historical data” there are no new markets that cannot be benchmarked against existing markets by asking these two questions:
- What do people stop paying for to pay for you offering?
- What do people stop spending time on to spend time on your offering?
What do the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) look like for these substitutes?
Elicit Symptoms From Prospects
Alternatively what symptoms will prospects admit to having? They won’t read articles or click on adwords or watch videos about problems that they don’t know they have or believe they may be affected by. An effective approach in the early market is to interview prospects to find unmet needs, persistent problems, and goals at risk.
We Measure the New By the Familiar
The reason why light bulbs were measured in candlepower and steam engines (and later internal combustion engines and then electric motors) were expressed as horsepower. Henry Ford observed in “My Life and Work“ that, “A horseless carriage was a common idea…ever since the steam engine was invented…” We call a horseless carriage a car.
Things that are genuinely new are mysteries and don’t become news until they can be expressed as part of a familiar context or by analogy to a familiar example. Alan Kay gave a great talk on this last point that was recently highlighted by Jim McGee, “Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation.”
What Job Will Your Prospect Hire Your Product For?
- Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
- Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
- The teaching of elocution.
- Reproduction of music.
- The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
- Music-boxes and toys.
- Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
- The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
- Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
- Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.
Related Blog Posts
I like this 2009 video by Grasshopper “Entrepreneurs Can Change The World” that portrays the entrepreneur as a change agent and celebrates the freedom and economic opportunities that America has traditionally offered immigrants.
Here is the transcript from the Grasshopper site with some observations interspersed
Do you remember when you were a kid and you thought you could do anything? You still can. Because a lot of what we consider impossible is easy to overcome. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we live in a place where one individual can make a difference.
Want proof? Just look at the people who built our country: our parents, grandparents, our aunts, uncles. They were immigrants, newcomers ready to make their mark. Maybe they came with very little, or perhaps they didn’t own anything except for a single brilliant idea.
These people were thinkers, doers, innovators until they came up with the name entrepreneurs. They change the way we think about what is possible. They have a clear vision of how life can be better for all of us, even when times are tough.
The ability to look at a situation with “newcomer’s eyes” is a key element to unlocking creativity. So is time pressure and limited resources.
Right now, it’s hard to see when our view is cluttered with obstacles, but turbulence creates opportunities for success, achievement and pushes us to discover new ways of doing things.
So what opportunities will you go after and why?
If you’re an entrepreneur, you know that risk isn’t the reward. No. The rewards are driving innovation, changing people’s lives, creating jobs, fueling growth, and making a better world.
Entrepreneurs are everywhere. They run small businesses that support our economy, design tools to help you stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues around the world, and they’re finding new ways of helping to solve society’s oldest problems.
Successful innovation results when entrepreneurs manage their own shortcomings, find a problem they care about, and approach it from different angles with small safe-to-fail experiments.
Do you know an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs can be anyone, even you. So seize the opportunity to create the job you always wanted. Help heal the economy. Make a difference. Take your business to new heights.
But most importantly, remember when you were a kid, when everything was within your reach, and then say to yourself quietly, but with determination: It still is.
I have come to the conclusion that most entrepreneurial careers are involuntary, undertaken by “mavericks, iconoclasts, dropouts, and misfits” to quote Sramana Mitra. The trick is to minimize the amount of wasted effort by doing less with less in a way that builds on existing relationships, knowledge, and successes.
- Innovation Needs Starvation, Pressure, and a New Perspective
- “Highlighting Matt Maroon’s Why Not To Do A Startup“
- “We Don’t Encourage Individuals to Form a Startup“
- “Overnight Success“
- “Entrepreneurs Need Gumption to Succeed“
- “Saras Sarasvathy’s Effectual Reasoning Model for Expert Entrepreneurs“
- “Paul Graham’s Six Principles for Making New Things“
The soundtrack to the video is “Chain Reaction” by Carly Comando; she also composed “Everyday” for Noah Kalina’s “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years.“
We Happy Few
A college kid in a dorm room starts assembling and selling person computers.. Two college dropouts–or recent graduates–start building hardware in a garage. A woman starts a software consulting business in her second bedroom, then creates a software product. Four men in a pie shop sketch a design for a personal computer. All startups by definition start small and attract founders who welcome the independence. Perhaps they have failed in a larger firm or they have become disillusioned working in one, perhaps they have never worked a large company and have no idea what’s really involved.
These startups often face competition from established incumbents who have more people, better financial resources, and relationships with customers. Their success in a niche can attract the attention of larger players either intentionally through their messaging or when prospects they have approached turn to existing vendors to provide similar functionality.
Marathon Not a Sprint
First time entrepreneurs often romanticize the speed and power of working in a small team, but experienced entrepreneurs understand that established firms often fight back very effectively: no market of with any value is uncontested and it’s going to be a marathon not a sprint.
“History seems to indicate that breakthroughs are usually the result of a small group of capable people fending off a larger group of equally capable people with a stake in the status quo.”
George Heilmeier in “A Moveable Feast” [PDF] 2005 Kyoto Prize Lecture
The team has to set a sustainable pace from the beginning. This often means not only work/life balance–keeping all of the critical commitments you have made to friends and family in addition to your co-founders–but work/work balance: finding a way to generate revenue, to bootstrap, while you are exploring the market and building the first and sometimes subsequent version of your product. Not every new product is an immediate success.
Startups are incredibly hard work. They require that you maintain good relationships with your family and friends and continue to participate in the communities you are a member of so that you can get support and useful perspective when you need it. Very few real products are built in a (long) weekend or a week or even a month or two. Plan for at least nine to 18 months of hard work where there are a number of “sprints” that are a few days to a week of concentrated work. But the team has to be able to sustain creative problem solving for a period of probably two years before it’s clear you have traction, at which point the game gets much harder as your competitors start to go to school on your success.
Cameron Moll explores the challenges of a team of two or three competing with a team of twenty in “Things Take Time”
The team of twenty has quantity on its side — more hands and specialists to execute the work. With that, of course, comes all the red tape, political baggage, and countless meetings that accompany such teams and the organizations that employ them. Quantity suffers at the hand of seemingly endless structure.
The team of two or three has independence on its side — they call the shots, whenever and however they choose. With that, of course, comes all the requisite components for supporting and maintaining the thing they’re creating. Customer support, billing, advertising, blogging, tweeting, client and customer acquisition, and the like. Time suffers at the hand of a seemingly endless to-do list.
The independent team soon realizes that speed isn’t a luxury; its currency is late nights and long weekends. For those who prefer to keep a semi-regular schedule and who have other things to care for outside of work, we eventually learn to accept that things just take longer than we hope they’d take. Problem solving takes time. Details take time. […]
I’m learning, rather forcibly I suppose, to be okay with things taking time. I’m also learning that often you end up with a better product when you take your time to get all the big and small details just right. It’s time well-spent.
It’s OK to take this time if you are in direct communication with customers who are willing to pay for the product. It’s a mistake to spend all of your time in the workshop if you have not had a number of conversations with prospects and closed some opportunities.
Avoid The Strong Points Of Established Firms
A larger company can work a startup into the ground unless you are careful in your choice of product and niche market: a frontal assault is typically beaten back. Startups have to choose how they will compete very carefully. In the “Bootstraper Manifesto” Seth Godin lists five key leverage points that many established companies enjoy: distribution, access to capital, brand equity, customer relationships, and great employees. Here is a brief explanation of each and some approaches that a startup can use to counter these advantages.
- Distribution: they are able to get the product in front of the customer.
Counter: Sell directly, or find partners unwilling to work with larger firms
- Access to Capital: they can borrow a lot of money.
Counter: Frugality, be smart about which problems you tackle, leverage existing team expertise.
- Brand Equity: if the prospect already knows about the company and the product it substantially reduces their perception of risk in making a purchase.
Counter: go to firms who are unattractive to larger firms or not well served by them.
- Customer Relationships: especially in B2B with approved vendor lists and existing contracts.
Counter: chase smaller deals, chase deals where you bring enough advantage someone will fight to put you on the list.
- Great Employees: talented people with low tolerance for risk are delighted to work in established firms. Entrepreneurs greatly overestimate most people’s appetite for risk, especially as passengers in their race car.
Counter: provide opportunities for folks with appropriate experience who may be less desirable to larger firms. Examples of this might be older engineers, women who want to work part time because they have small children, people with less experience but more enthusiasm for learning.
More generally you need to configure your business model so that you are either pursuing opportunities that are less attractive to larger firms or your product violates one or more key requirements for their business. This may mean:
- Chasing smaller deals to get traction and establish your brand.
- Not implementing some functionality that your competitors have that your prospect don’t find valuable, enabling you to get to market faster and at a lower price.
- Providing additional services that a larger firm either doe not have the expertise for.
- Providing additional services that won’t necessarily work at scale but allows you to further differentiate your offering for your target nice.
- Configuring or customizing a version of your product more rapidly or more completely than your competition.
Focus and Perseverance Means Saying No
Fast Company called work/life balance “bunk” a decade ago because “hungry” labor was going to work us into the ground. If you are able to substitute working smarter or working more intimately with customers for working more cheaply you can likely avoid this fate. Successful bootstrappers remain open to possibilities–especially the possibility that they are mistaken in one or more of their business hypotheses–but maintain focus: they explore many options but say yes to only a few.
One of the reasons I am excited about Discovery Kanban as a model for not only larger firms but startups is that entrepreneurs, especially bootstrapping entrepreneurs, have to husband their resources but find a way to explore the market. This means being explicit about the amount of effort that will be invested in developing and exploring options, and being very crisp on commitments. Discovery Kanban offers a framework for managing risks, options, probes, and committed projects from a consistent perspective: we can only focus on a few things at a time, what are they?
- Getting the Band Together to Overthrow the Current Order I see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as the story of a small multi-disciplinary team (“The Fellowship”) coming together to challenge and ultimately change the status quo. A status quo supported by a much larger and more powerful set of armies and magic.
- Seth Godin’s Bootstrapper Manifesto
- Ten Mistakes Early Stage Bootstrappers Often Make
- Discovery Kanban Allows You To Balance Delivery and Discovery
- Discovery Kanban Helps You Manage Risks and Options In Your Product Roadmap
It’s not a mistake to accept venture capital if your business merits and requires it for growth. Don’t get distracted seeking it until then.
“The seductive narrative of Silicon Valley stars a genius-hero who goes on a journey, overcomes myriad obstacles, has a flash of insight and is rewarded by wise and benevolent investors with Series A funding. This narrative is bullshit, but it’s everywhere.
Venture capital is not a rags to riches story. It’s the inspiring tale of redeploying resources from a lower- to a higher-performing asset class. There’s nothing wrong with that – I find it kind of magical – but let’s not pretend we’re doing something else. In particular, let’s not pretend that this is an engine for social justice. You need a separate corporate philanthropy branch for that.”
Rachel Chalmers “Five Reasons Not To Raise Venture Capital”
Here are her five reasons
- You probably won’t get a fair hearing.
- Raising venture capital doesn’t make you a good person.
- Most companies won’t ever generate venture outcomes.
- When you raise venture, you narrow your options.
- Venture math is a harsh mistress.
I think she misses the real top five:
- It’s not saying no to a real term sheet that is a mistake, it’s wasting time seeking investment instead of learning about the market.
- Writing a business plan or business model canvas is not nearly as useful as writing your customer interview questions or a one page sales pitch. Getting feedback on either from customers will tell you more than feedback from a VC on a business plan.
- Asking prospect for money for an MVP tells you much much more about the market than any feedback from a VC.
- What can sound like advice on direction from a VC is actually a no. For example: “this is interesting but we think addressing problem X or Market Y is more promising, think about it and come back and talk to us again.”)
- If you think money will solve your problems, you don’t have a good handle on your problems.
Affluenza victims, regardless of their socioeconomic level, falsely believe that money can solve all their problems.
- Startups Should Focus on Impact and Innovation Before Growth
- “Now What? Your Post Launch Growth Plan” Podcast and Transcript
- Matt Wensing On Making the Transition to Growth
“Start building network, blog, educating 1 year before you make the leap.
The first sales will always be to friends. Make those friends.”
Conor Neill in “Entrepreneur: Start a year before you Start“
I think Conor Neill offers this is a great framing for the need to identify the things about your plan that are not likely to change–a problem area, a category of customer–and join communities that are already focused on these. Build on experience and relationships.
He advises “build community” and not “build new community” and I agree, I would build new only where you cannot find existing communities. If it’s a real customer category or a real problem there is almost always one or more communities formed that are addressing it at least partially. There may be several each using different terminology and focused on a different aspect of the same set of problems, but this is a search you can start well advance in crafting a product.
I don’t know if your first sales come from “friends” but certainly from people that trust you, if you can start the trust building process in advance of the sales process by becoming a member in good standing of communities they are already a member of or by writing or speaking about topics that they are interested in, then you effectively start in advance of the direct sales process.
Build on Experience
Another way to look at this is to “always start in phase two of a five phase plan.” Look into your past experiences and projects for examples of problems solved and relationships that you can build on as you start your new venture. If you are going in to a new area and cannot identify aspects of prior experience or expertise that will have an impact then be careful: you may be attracted to the new new thing without a way to differentiate your offering.
It’s OK to start over from scratch but if you are effectively setting fire to ten or twenty years of experience you may want to look instead at problems and fields that are adjacent or can take advantage of your experience in preference to one where you don’t bring relevant experience. Green fields are seductive because you know the problems of the areas you are more familiar with and can fall victim to the “grass is greener” when speculating about how easy a new field may be.