For the last couple months I’ve been researching a business opportunity using a Lean Startup process. If it’s true that we learn best from our mistakes, I’ve done some really solid learning over the last several weeks. ;) I had previously posted 9 Tips To Improving Your Lean Startup Validation. Here are 7 more tips to share with others on a Lean journey.
#7 Start With a Market, Not a Product
As an engineer, I naturally gravitate to the product before the market. When I was eleven, I had a plan to bring fine dining to the skylines of U.S. cities through helium-powered blimps (guess who read a book on the Hindenburg?). My plan was not based on the identification of an underserved market (which I guess is this case was people looking to spend exorbitant amounts of money eating dinner while precariously flying in blimps), but rather what I thought was a clever idea.
The startup landscape is littered with the dead carcasses of clever ideas. When we hear about successful clever ideas, we never stop to think that in addition to being clever, these were also solutions to a real problem in an unserved or underserved market. By starting with the solution, you close your mind to seeing the other problems in a market; problems that might actually be more important than the one you are currently solving. So work your validation process in priority order and let the solution hypothesis flow from a validated customer and market hypothesis.
#6 Don't Stray Too Far From Your Expertise
I am sure it is possible to start a business outside your area of expertise, but I suspect the odds are not in your favor. The further I strayed from my areas of expertise, the less reliable my instincts. For a while I pivoted my customer hypothesis to enterprise financial companies, a market segment about which I know next to nothing. What I learned from the pivot is that all businesses opportunities look wide open when viewed from inexperienced eyes. Fortunately for me, a few customer calls to Wall Street helped me realize my chances of building a business focused on the needs of enterprise finance were about as likely as being the starting left fielder for the 2013 Boston Red Sox (Ben: why aren’t you calling?). The closer you can keep your customer and problem hypothesis to your experience and expertise, the easier you will find your Lean journey.
#5 Stay Close To Your Passion
Most successful new businesses have one thing in common: they are started by people with a passion for the customer, problem and/or the solution hypotheses of the business. I bet there are great opportunities still in green energy, but I have as much passion for that field as I do for filing my income taxes. Unfortunately you can’t fake passion, and as you execute your Lean process, your passion (or lack thereof) will be clear to the people in which you engage. Also, if you do find the Big Opportunity, do you really want to run a business for the next several years in an area in which you are not passionate? For the sake of validated learning, you can let yourself stray a short distance from your passion during pivots - but just don’t stray too far.
#4 Clearly Identify Hypotheses & Assumptions
I really liked the structure provided by the Leanstartupmachine’s Validation Board, which provided me a simple way to visualize my validation progress. Before the Validation Board, I engaged in calls and ran experiments without clear objectives, making it hard to qualify my progress. Remind yourself that every phone call, customer visit, or experiment is a test of a customer, problem and/or solution hypotheses. By defining the pass / fail criteria before performing the validation, you will ensure better results from your calls / experiments.
#3 Get Advisors
If a Lean validation process were a movie, it would have a long list of credits at the end. Find people smarter than you to provide support in areas where you lack experience / expertise. As an engineer, I found resources with greater expertise in a market segment or product category to be very valuable. Having advisors with very different backgrounds also adds some much needed diversity to the process, often resulting in uncovering something you otherwise might not have seen.
#2 Don’t Be Dissuaded By a Little Competition
My instinct when finding existing solutions supporting a customer and problem hypothesis is to pivot. Why would anyone enter a market with existing competitors? There are three reasons not to let competition dissuade you from performing validation in a market with existing solutions and competitors: 1) you may find a problem and customer segment underserved by the existing solutions, 2) the existing solutions may not be fully meeting the needs of their market, and 3) the data you gather may lead to validated learning that may advantage you in future pivots.
#1 Fail Fast
If you’ve clearly identified your hypotheses and assumptions, then knowing when to pivot should be like porn: you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. If a critical assumption to a customer, problem or solution hypotheses has been proven wrong, the time has come to pivot. A pivot could be as simple as changing the customer hypothesis from one segment to another - but it also could be as fundamental as changing your solution hypothesis. Follow the data and don’t be afraid to pivot.
If you’re like me, as you follow your lean journey, you will often develop strong opinions. Don’t sacrifice the integrity of your validation process to your opinions. Fail fast, pivot, and move ahead. This tip is better applied before you raise money than after.