I’ve been fascinated in the past few years to see startups repeat failure modes that have been (often painfully) experienced by teams for decades. Given the huge body of knowledge that exists about how to successfully build a startup, we might think that it was a solved problem. But it clearly isn’t.
To build a startup, you need a reality distortion field. You, your team, and your investors, need to believe that what you are building will work, will make a difference. You need to know in your bones what success will look like and how the world will be different because of you and your team. You need a vision.
The problem is: your vision is an emotional construct, not a rational one. You and your team are drawn to it for much deeper reasons than commercial success — it’s about creating something new, about changing the world we live in.
And because the vision is deep and non-rational it’s very hard to have it challenged. When you start to get feedback from the real world that indicates the need for change, you react with your emotional brain, not your rational one. You ignore, distort or fail to hear what reality is telling you, and hope that Everything Will Be OK.
The product is perfectly aligned with a great long-term vision. Google Glass: in the future, the virtual world and the real world will merge, and we will experience both simultaneously. Exactly right.
The problem is that the technology doesn’t support the vision yet. The product is too big, or too slow, or too expensive, or simply too hard to design in its current manifestation. There are dozens of examples of this failure mode littering Silicon Valley’s history: the Osborne 1 — a twenty-four pound “portable computer”, the Apple Newton etc etc.
Often there are a small group of very enthusiastic early adopters and a lot of buzz and excitement. The idea that the world is about to change is addicting! But traction never happens beyond the early adopters.
The product is a completely rearchitected version of something that more or less exists already. Phrases like “we’re really going to get the architecture right this time” describe the work. The team is often incredibly talented.
The distortion here is that getting the architecture “really right” will have an effect on user acceptance, regardless of the degree of product/customer fit. It won’t. Product/customer fit is everything. A great architecture will save you money in the long term (if it actually is a great architecture), and may give you flexibility in how you develop over time. But it won’t, by itself, produce a successful product.
The symptoms here are that the project is proceeding with a minimal degree of market testing, or the market testing is being “re-interpreted” or ignored. You may hear things like “the customers we asked were not representative”. Or “we tested an early version: when we add more features, we’ll get better results”.
The product is stretched to serve many, often wildly different, customers. One month it’s a consumer mobile app, the next it’s a platform. Then an interesting partner comes along, and the product is a super-low-cost OEM item.
Vision and Strategy are different. Vision is emotional — a set of scenes and stories that energize you and your team. Strategy is rational — a series of business steps that lead to a commercial result.
The Lean Startup approach provides a robust set of tools and techniques for testing your strategy against reality. Use them! Be clear about the assumptions behind what you are building, figure out an experiment in the real world, and clearly and honestly interpret the results.
Building a startup is an exercise in altering reality. We want to create something that didn’t exist before we started. It’s a creative act disguised as a commercial act, and the confusion between the two is what leads many startups off the rails.