There are broadly three categories of challenges a new product must address: it has to be feasible, it has to be desirable and it has to be profitable. Below is a simple checklist to help you evaluate product ideas.
It’s often hard to see your way forward. When there are many courses of action open to you whose possible outcomes are hard to predict you can remain paralyzed by analysis. I often find myself dithering past the point where picking any reasonable option and proceeding is far better than continuing to analyze my choices.
I frequently long for a clear eyed view of the way forward. Sometimes the path becomes clear when a situation echoes with prior experience or I see a pattern match to a prior success (or failure). Other times clarity flows from recognizing that there is only one option left: the “best bad plan.” The trick is to act immediately so as not to foreclose your only remaining potentially viable option.
In new situations, keep a journal of your experiences. This helps you organize your thoughts and remember observations clearly. When exploring, keep a log. This strategy is useful if you are starting a new job, a new project, forming a startup or launching a new product in an unfamiliar market.
When I first went to work for Monolithic Memories my boss, Ivan Pesic, told me, “It will be rough for the next two months and then it will get easier.” He was still telling the team that a year later when someone else offered that advice during a problem solving session and we all broke out laughing because we realized it was never going to get easier. We kept working on harder problems. Ivan went on to found Silvaco and despite a few legal setbacks built a company that has endured more than three decades.
Simon Sinek earned a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University; he attended City University in London with the intention of becoming a barrister, but left law school to go into advertising. He was interviewed in August of 2014 by John Wall on the RoninMarketeer site in connection with the launch of his second book “Leaders Eat Last.” Here are some excerpts that highlight his insights about why leaders and advertisers should put people first.
Four excerpts on how entrepreneurs exploit errors in conventional wisdom. The first two are from a Feb-8-2001 public forum that was part of BusinessWeek’s “Captains of Industry” series, where Oracle Corp. CEO Lawrence J. Ellison sat down with Editor-in-Chief Stephen B. Shepard. The last two are from Peter Thiel’s CS183 class lecture on secrets.
Patrick Brady writes at “Red Kite Prayer” on cycling and related topics. His blog took a very personal turn in February of 2013 with a post entitled “Any Normal Person.” In reading the series I was reminded of a remark Irwin Federman made to MMI employees when were using four day work weeks (actually five days work for four days pay): “We trust you to do the right thing. God has given you so much more responsibility as parents how can we not trust you.
David Cain wrote a thought provoking, practical, and inspiring blog post today on “67 short pieces of advice you didn’t ask for.” He acknowledges it’s a smorgasbord of unsolicited advice where you can take what you like and leave the rest for others:
“There’s no way for such an avalanche of unsolicited advice to come off as anything but preachy. But there’s also something appealing about the scattergun approach. Trying on a few dozen ideas in a few minutes will almost always leave you with something you can take to the bank, if you don’t get hung up on what doesn’t resonate. Here are sixty-seven short pieces of advice I either follow, or probably should. Take from it whatever rings true to you, and don’t take the whole thing too seriously. ”
David Cain’s intro to “67 short pieces of advice you didn’t ask for.“
Here are seven I took away, I have preserved his original numbering and added a few comments to particularize them for entrepreneurs:
Ask yourself this question, “What do employers owe the people they do not hire?” Brooke Allen’s answer from “How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire” offers three great suggestions for the startup hiring process.
The desire for economic freedom and autonomy drives many entrepreneurs. Bootstrappers would rather work for customers than investors, choosing the discipline of the competitive marketplace over the wisdom and caprice of the boardroom.
“Life is too short to work at a job you hate,
but everyone has to do something someone else is willing to pay them for.”
Q: I struggle with the value proposition for our product. Either I am too abstract “we offer a positive return on time invested” or too vague “help increase your ability to manage critical challenges.” Do you have any suggestions for how to frame or formulate a value proposition?
Here a few questions that a value proposition normally addresses
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.
This post is a retrospective look at my inaugural post in 2006 and lessons learned blogging 1400 posts over the 8 years since.
One of the hallmarks of the entrepreneurial journey is diving in over your head.
At some point you have to commit fully to a new venture and at a later point you realize that, despite all of your careful preparation, you are testing the depth of water with both feet–or perhaps even head first. This is what can keep many up at nights or otherwise make life miserable.
Q: I am starting an online community for technology entrepreneurs. Can you suggestion some guidelines I can use to help set newcomers expectations for what constitute valuable content and comments?
Here are some good guidelines and articles that I would start with, borrowing what makes sense and adapting it.
- Hacker News Guidelines would be a place where I would start. In particular: defining what is on and off topic, how to write titles, and guidelines for leaving comments. Your rules may be different, your focus certainly is, but it would be a place to start.
- The “Please Do” and “Please Don’t” lists on Reddit Reddiquette are definitely worth reviewing for things to include.
- For “ASK BN” See Stack overflow how to ask a question for some specific suggestions worth considering for those posts
Conor Neill has a great post up today on “a 9 Step Cheatsheet for Becoming a Public Speaking Expert” courtesy of the London Speakers Bureau. I am not usually a fan of infographics but this is is exceptionally well done. Expert public speaking requires deliberate practice the same as any other skill. Here are some key tips I took away for entrepreneurs from the list but the entire infographic is worth a look.
I signed up for a free trial of a lean project management tool (I have changed the name of the tool to <LeanTool>). A few days later I got the following nurturing E-Mail.
Subject: Are you afraid to manage your project in a lean way?
We’ve noticed that you haven’t been signing into <LeanTool> for a long time and this is a sign that you are not really committed to being lean. Remember that 96% of innovative projects fail, will your project be one of them? I hope not!
Remember that just having a gym membership is not going to help you get better, if you want to improve you have to do the work!
Log in to <LeanTool> today and start validating your project.
There are a x problems with this:
- it’s not nurturing.
- It assumes the tool is flawless and the problem is one of my motivation. In fact the tool does not work.
- I signed up for a free trial but none of the three primary dashboards in <LeanTool> for hypotheses, experiments, and results actually worked.
So I replied:
I went to add a hypothesis and it said that I need to pay.
I tried to add an experiment and it said I need to pay.
I tried to record a result and it said I need to pay.
Can you please explain your model for free evaluation?
It’s like someone showing you free samples in the supermarket and asking “Would you like to try it?” When you say “Yes” then you hear “that will be a $1″
You advertise a free trial but it seems like it is more like a free product tour, you cannot actually do anything.
Anyway, if what you are doing is working for you don’t stop but it seems weirdly antagonistic and dysfunctional
as an approach to letting me evaluate your software. Do you have any fully worked out examples I can review?
I got the following reply:
Hi Sean, thanks for writing!
We have reviewed the website and realized that there is a mistake: previously, we offered a free trial, and we haven’t updated the text in the startups page.
Sorry for the inconvenience. We really appreciate your feedback and we’d like to offer you a 14-day free trial with all functionality available and a 10% off in our pricing plans.
It seemed a little flaky so I waited a few days and checked their website, it still advertised a free trial.
“Get 1 canvas + 1 user totally FREE (No credit card is required.)”
A day later I got another copy of the original “nurturing” E-Mail.
- Sending the identical e-mail a week later is definitely not a good idea.
- Not fixing the website announcement of a free trial tells me that they are in free fall.
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.