Early Stage Insider: Taking Advice…

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Starting up a new company can be daunting, and is tough to do alone.

As the euphoria around the initial ‘big idea’ starts to transition into a more sober assessment of what needs to be done to actually execute on it, you will probably start reaching out to key people in your network for validation and advice. This is a critical phase in launching a business, challenging you to fully think through the premise of your venture and the details of what you’ll need to do to make it happen. If not approached with the right mindset, a lot of the value you’re looking to get from it will be lost.

Probably the single most important thing you can do when approaching this step is to avoid selection bias when seeking advice – picking the people that you think are most likely to say good things about what you are doing. You want to talk to people that will give you honest, constructive advice. This isn’t about getting told how great your idea is -even if it is. It’s about understanding where your weaknesses are, and what you can do to address them. Maybe the team you’re putting together isn’t right. Maybe some of your assumptions about market size are off. Maybe the technology you’re using isn’t ideal. Whatever it is, talking to people that can identify these things right up front is critical.

The closer you can get to doing the right things in the right order, the sooner you’ll be able to get your first minimally viable product into the market. The longer it takes to find the gaps in your planning, the harder it will be to deal with the issues that arise. Boosting your chances of success is more important than boosting your ego, so talk to the people that can really make a difference.

Now assuming that you are talking with the right circle of people, the next thing to remember is how to listen to what they are saying critically. Understand what biases they have (everyone has them), and factor that in. Try to validate any important points they make with other people you talk to, and don’t be afraid to get back to them later with follow-up questions if something doesn’t make sense or isn’t clear. Remember that things are constantly changing, and the approaches that worked great for them may not work as well for you. Of course, you should always respect the time and effort they are putting in to help you and truly consider their advice. But when it comes time to set your course, you should still be willing to go your own path if you think that’s the better choice.

The goal of seeking advice at this point isn’t to put together a plan based on pieces and parts of what everyone has told you. It’s to put together the best version of your plan that you can – a plan challenged, iterated, and refined by this process. Don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings if you decide to forgo the advice they offered. If you’ve been talking with the right folks, that won’t matter to them – they’ve been where you are and will understand.

In the end, success will be a combination of a great idea, great timing, excellent execution, and – of course – a little luck.

Do whatever it takes to maximize all of them.

If you have any experiences – good or bad – with taking business advice, please share them in the comments.

Some Thoughts On Launching A Startup…

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I have had the good fortune to work with some incredible folks over the past 25 years, and to have had the chance to develop products that I was (and still am) really passionate about. To share some of these experiences in the startup space, I have been working on a web video series looking at best practices and emerging trends in early stage company development. This is an incredibly dynamic area, and there should be no shortage of topics to cover.

While I won’t have the first video out until this summer, here are five brief observations on starting up a business that I would like to share now:

  1. Get Focused Quickly: It is very easy for great ideas to get totally lost in the process of translating them into actual products. The best way to minimize the risk of that happening is to clearly define the central value you want to deliver to your target audience as early in the design process as possible. Once your zero in on that, you can start to discard any product elements or features that do not directly enhance that central value.

    The goal at this early stage is to develop what is often referred to as a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) – the most basic, essential expression of your product that can be used by a potential client. This is fundamental to getting a rapid product iteration cycle started. The faster you can align your efforts with the needs of the market, the better your odds of success.

    A great example of this kind of focused minimalism in a product can be found in a recently released iOS-based Task Manager called CLEAR (iTunes link). You can get a quick look at it here:


    If this video doesn’t show up just refresh the page.

    It does one thing really well without a lot of bells and whistles – even ‘reasonable’ ones – getting in the way. There are definitely some take-aways from this.

  2. Build Something People Want: I’m sure everyone went ‘Well Duh! Of Course.’ when they read this, but it is amazing how many times this doesn’t actually happen.The fact that YOU would want to use your product and believe in it passionately doesn’t mean you can build a viable business around it. 

     
    Instinct and experience do play important roles in starting and running a business, but can only get you so far. They can sometimes blind you to new things going on or narrow your perspective of evolving markets. One way to guard against that is to be in a constant dialog with your key users to understand how they perceive your product and the benefits its delivers. If someone is willing to take a chance on using a product from a startup, they are definitely invested in what you are doing. 

    Listen to them. You don’t have to do everything they say, but you need to listen and understand what they are looking for.

    With that said, numbers also matter. You need to think seriously about collecting metrics – both to validate your instinct and feedback as well as to better allocate your time and resources. When you designed your product, it was done with certain assumptions about what was important and how it would be used. Based on that, you should to determine what metrics could be helpful in understanding how successful that design was – both positive and negative – and then find ways to measure them. Most importantly, you need to be able to assess the numbers you do get back without applying a confirmation bias to the way you look at them. Don’t let your ego stop you from making the corrections you need to make to get the product right. The faster you can get alignment with the market, the better your chances of being successful. (I think I said that already…)

  3. Measure Everything In Terms Of Time: A science fiction movie came out recently called “In Time.”

     

    The premise of the movie was that everyone had a built-in countdown timer that ticked off the minutes they had left in their lives. In this society, time was currency. When people worked, they were paid their salary in extra ‘time’ – longer to live. When they bought things they paid for it with the ‘time’ they had left to live. When they ran out of time, they died.

    And that is a pretty good summary of life in a startup.

    Everything you do costs time. Every feature you decide to add. Every client you work with. Every iteration and refinement cycle you go through. Whatever money you take in – either VC or self funded – simply buys you time to do what you need to do get the product ‘right’. And you should figure that you won’t it right get it right the first few times. The math is simple – the more complex you make something, the more time it will take to do, the more time it will take to iterate on it, and the more iterations you’ll need before you get it right.

    And time will always be in short supply, so think before you do, and then do what you do in the most efficient way you can think of.  It’s about learning enough quickly enough to live another day.

  4. Don’t Do It For The Money: If getting rich is your goal, you’d have better odds just working hard to move up the traditional corporate ladder. Start a company because you are passionate about creating something new and committed to making it real. The culture that develops at your company will be a manifestation of this motivation.

     
    If you don’t have a core belief in the importance what you are doing and the positive ways people will want to connect with it, neither will the team you assemble to build it. Without that, it will be hard to convince clients and investors to take a chance on working with you. It will be hard to keep everyone focused and committed during the tough patches that every startup eventually faces. And it will be hard to make the difficult decisions that will need to be made in the course of growing a company.

    You simply can’t fake passion and there is no substitute for having it. You need to start a business for the right reason – and getting rich isn’t it.

  5. Be Willing To Ignore Advice: When you start a company, you will get no shortage of advice. There are a lot of very smart, successful entrepreneurs that have done things in certain ways that have worked exceptionally well for them, and they will likely tell you about some specific things you really need be doing if you want to be successful.

    Welcome their advice, but don’t feel obliged to take it.

    What worked in the past won’t necessarily work moving forward. What applies to one industry might not be true of another. Processes and methods that help one company to thrive can stifle another. Approaches that work well in one business culture can fail miserably in a different one.

    Every startup is trying to develop something different, and will need to address their own unique set of challenges. When it comes to advice, its up to you to sift through it all to find the lessons that may have value for your business, and to discard everything else. Don’t worry about offending anyone. The people that will probably end up offering you the best advice will also be the ones that will understand why you might not end up taking it.

     

I’m sure there are a diverse range of opinions on some of the things I’ve written here – these are simply thoughts and extrapolations based on my own experiences and perspectives. I have been strongly influenced by lean methodologies and concepts like continuous delivery, so rapid learning based iteration is foundational to how I approach  this space.  I welcome any feedback or comments you may have, and look forward to exploring these things – and many more – in a lot more detail in the future.