Sometimes we chase ideas thinking that we are solving problems. That’s not what building startups is really about. A startup idea is one that has a product and not a market. It’s when ideas precede problems and those are usually bound to fail. Building a startup is about following one rule: if you’re going to go through the hell of building one, you might as well build a solution that makes a difference in the world of those who need it the most. Building big businesses is about solving big problems and this can certainly not happen if venture initiation is mainly motivated by the glamorous startup founder connotation. This post is a reminder that life is too short for anyone to waste precious time away from those we love to build solutions that don’t even have a potential to make a marginal impact in the world. I’ve experienced it myself and seen it in many talented entrepreneurs. Many of us are building meaningless ventures.
I consider the most dangerous part of startup development is when entrepreneurs are deeply and truly invested in an idea that sounds revolutionary to them when all it does is waste some of people’s time to learn about something they don’t need. Many entrepreneurs who have experienced the following process will relate and those who haven’t, here is a quick snapshot of your first and maybe second startup idea execution phases.
1- You hear and read success stories that make your jaw drop. You start envisioning yourself as being in one of those magazine, panels, conferences, cover pages, etc. You think about the money, what you can do with it, how you will become others’ idol, etc. You sleep less, think more, a lot more. This is the first chapter of your sitcom.
Lessons learned: go on. We all deserve to dream. Dreaming is free so you might as well dream big. My dreams got bigger over time, that is, I focused on smaller problems at the beginning. Had I dreamed bigger, I could have saved myself a couple of years solving problems that don’t matter as much.
2- You’re impatient. You just want to start that million, hundred million or billion dollar company you’ve already built in your mind. So you go overboard asking the what if questions. What if there is an Uber for X? What if there is a Zillow for Y? What if there is an Airbnb for Z? etc.
Lessons learned: Repurposing existing models to new markets can be viable. In fact, not just repurposing but also replication and upgrading can be successful startup development strategies. The proof is there. Many startups have built useful solutions by following or enhancing existing ones. The big drawback is that most likely, this strategy is not solving a difficult problem. And if it’s not, then it’s not making a big impact in the world and therefore, you are less likely to build a big company. Big problems require innovative and creative solutions. Such solutions certainly come from knowledge and familiarity about existing models but are built as a result of a deep understanding of the root causes of the problems which, only potential users can tell about. Big problems such as clean water access, poverty, diseases, education and clean energy are a concern of big markets and thus require more resources especially time. Impatience, chasing money and influence are detrimental. To weather the storms that are sure to come, it is imperative that your business vision is aligned with your personal life goals.
3- You don’t sleep much. You changed ideas many times until you experience that aha moment OR put an end to the ideation phase by selecting the best one from the list. You then realize that you need X and Y which you don’t have. You think about different ways of getting X and Y but still no way out. You get upset so you either 1) quit, 2) solve an even smaller problem that doesn’t require X and Y, 3) go back to the list of ideas, or 4) make the decision of acquiring X and Y through debt, by quitting your job, selling properties, giving away too much equity too soon, etc.
Lessons learned: ideas are not for picking or selection. Furthermore, if big problems had many ideas laying around, others would have most likely tried them. In the event entrepreneurs get lucky and select the right idea for the right problem, lack of passion in the field is strong enough to cause failure or quitting. Again, ideas are not for picking or selection. Instead, entrepreneurs should start with a problem they deeply care about solving. Even better if this problem or need is painful to them and they cannot live or comfortably live without finding a solution to. The solution (idea) to this problem is a result of customer interactions and not listing and self-selection of the best.
4- At this point, the internal challenges that only you know of have made a very big impact on your beliefs as to what your future should look like with the selected idea that you stop listening and avoid every statement or person that can contradict the conclusions you came up with. Unless you get very lucky, you build a product no one wants to use. You sell hard and they still don’t care. Few months later, a younger (in startup experience) you calls you asking, Hey, I remembered you were into startups. I have this idea about building an Uber for cockroaches, what do you think? And that’s when you say, that’s not how it works.
Lessons learned: The correct method of building successful startups is simple. It’s what it takes to build such startups that’s challenging. Keeping an open mind is a rule of thumb unless you’re building a product that only you want to use then Yes, select your own best solution. To keep my enthusiasm up, save time, money and energy, I have taken a quantitative approach to validation and pursuit of startup ventures. The steps I take follow this order.
- I have passion for building solutions that help startup founders initiate, validate and scale startup solutions. Problems must thus exist in this area.
- My daily reading, writing and interaction with entrepreneurs expose me to multiple problems. I take not of recurring problems.
- I focus on the biggest and most frequent recurring problems by proposing potential solutions and users.
- I interview 50-100 of such users. If 60% of users claim it being one of their challenges, I move to the next step.
- I use a landing page as a validation tool. If no less than 70% of those who claimed the challenge take the time to go through the registration steps, I move to the next step.
- In no longer than 4 weeks, I build the simplest software. If the response is still as high as the earlier step, I commit more time and energy to the venture by building better products otherwise, I iterate or move on to another venture.
- I limit the whole process to 2-3 months at most. because life is too short to spend countless hours building useless products.
5- You learn what it takes to solve problems and build big companies. You realize that if it was as easy as brainstorming ideas and building products, everyone would have built billion dollar startups already. You learn what it really means to experience an overnight success. You learn that some steps cannot be skipped or burned. So you go back to the basics. You read, you keep an open mind, interact with successful founders, make smarter decisions, dream bigger, fail again to learn again until inevitably you build products millions of people want.
First time founders, it’s wiser to start from step 5.
What are your lessons learned?