Counting Mistakes

Have you ever watched an interview with a successful product creator?

I have, and lots. Typically the interviewer will ask what mistakes the entrepreneur has made. Invariably, the entrepreneur will roll their eyes and say "All of them!" or "You mean what mistakes haven't I made?"

This post is about idea stage startup mistakes. Rather than preach generalities, I'll narrate a real life project I'm currently working on. The client's name and industry have been changed, and specific examples adjusted accordingly.

Mistake #1: coding features right away

David, an accountant, came to us with detailed wireframes for an app that would solve his headaches at work. As we reviewed the drawings together, I saw how carefully he'd thought through the functionality. The features were simple enough, but there were lots of them.

David was not a wealthy person, and he had no outside investors. He was spending his own hard-earned savings on this idea simply because he believed in it. I could see it was going to take months (and $$thousands$$) to build, with no guarantees.

Instead of building the whole thing, I suggested we pick just one core feature to start. Customers could start benefiting right away, and David might start collecting revenue in weeks rather than months.

But how could we know which feature to pick? David had his hunches based on personal experience, but that was all. We decided to do a short research engagement to gain more certainty about a) whether an audience really exists and b) which feature they need most.

Mistake #2: catering to users instead of customers

As we started to prepare for research, David kept talking about accountants like him. He spoke passionately about their core problems, and how much better their lives would be with this app.

There was only one problem. Staff accountants are not authorized to make purchasing decisions - software procurement falls under division management. If we built out the accountants' dream app, we would have lots of happy users but no revenue.

Once we started profiling a persona representing the division manager segment, the problems (and possible features) began to take a much different shape.

Mistake #3: coupling the problem with the solution

David formed his initial hypotheses, and we created a problem interview script. We would do several passes of interviews, but the first wave was to fully understand the problem without imposing a pre-defined solution. This allows for unpredictable innovation, and reduces false positives.

We filled the script with open-ended questions like "Tell me about your receipt collection work flow." We left out leading questions like "I've got this receipt scanning app - would you buy it?"

After finishing the script, David said "What if they say they don't want the Receipt Scanner app?" Divorcing the problem from the solution was probably the hardest habit for David to change, and he's still working on it.

Mistake #4: letting emotions get in the way

We set a goal for David to interview at least 20 people across 2 segments (10 per segment). He's conducted three interviews so far, and none of them are responding to the problems he had so confidently predicted based on his own experience.

Being a first-time entepreneur, this is pretty demoralizing for David. Without the methodology in place, it might be easy for him to throw in the towel or jump to conclusions. Emotions can cause one to quit too soon or - on the opposite end - cause one to stubbornly refuse to change course until it's too late (and one is out of money/energy).

I would never want David to lose his passion, or curb his emotions. This is the juice that keeps an entrepreneur going whilst the world's largest peanut gallery gathers around to rip apart his idea. As long as we've established structures that facilitate good decisions, he can get discouraged all he wants. We'll hold steadfast until we've reached our empirical goals.

How many more mistakes will there be?

Insert eyes rolling. Not even 3 weeks in, we've managed to avoid 4 costly mistakes. These blind spots tend to reveal themselves surreptitiously and unexpectedly, even despite all the blogs one reads and lectures one attends.

My goal is for David to not have to pay for his mistakes, but try and catch them as they happen. I want to be an objective coach through the roller coaster ride that is product/market validation.

We can't guarantee, or even know, where this road will lead. We can only evaluate each turn, and select the right methodology amongst many until our hypotheses are either validated or refuted.

Want to know how things turn out? Tweet me to stay in touch, and if I have permission to share, I'll give you an update!

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