This is the fourth post in a series of my top twelve startup tips from TechStars last summer.
Almost every startup begins with a theory. Many entrepreneurs believe that their theory is correct, and view their startup as a way to prove it. I think that this mental framework is completely wrong. In fact, I think it’s poisonous.
In order for your startup to succeed, you will almost certainly need to be open to the idea that you are probably wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. You have to embrace it. In fact, you should be happy to be proven wrong. It’s very exciting to be proven wrong by your customers. This is called learning, or evolution. Trying to convince your customer that they are wrong and that you are right is called not listening.
The TechStars mentors have funded more than 200 companies, and there’s lots of anecdotal evidence from them that the vast minority of companies end up successfully doing exactly what they thought they’d be doing when their founders incorporated the company. It’s very uncommon. But let’s look at some specific and very real data from TechStars. We’re lucky enough to be building up a tremendous amount of experience with companies in their earliest stages, so let’s take advantage of what we learned.
Of the ten companies who participated in TechStars last summer, 80% (or eight) of them have gone on to receive further angel or venture funding, are profitable, or have had early acquisition offers. So we’re dealing with reasonably high quality companies, at least as compared to the general population of startups. Today, of these companies, 20% (or 2) are doing more or less what they indicated they would be doing on their applications. Another 20% (2) of these companies are currently doing something different from what they proposed, although you can still spot similarities with their original application. 60% (6) of them are doing something decidedly and obviously different than they were founded to do. For these companies, you would not recognize them from their original applications to TechStars.
One might argue that this is because the mentors surrounding TechStars know a bad idea when they see one, and have somehow talked these startups into just going and doing something else. That’s not the case – each of these startups who have changed their vision, mission, product, approach, business plan, or whatever, has done so because they have accepted the basic premise that their theories are just that – theories. Each of them tested some sort of product vision or prototype with potential customers, and eagerly awaited honest feedback. They approached the problem of proving or disproving their theory with intellectual honesty. Rather than selling their vision, they presented it plainly and tried to understand the value of it to their customer. They asked great questions such as “what would make this more valuable to you?” and “what are your biggest, most annoying problems in this area?”
In my first company, we had a pretty good theory. Our theory was “ambulances need to be dispatched, and people shouldn’t have to pay a million dollars and use the crappy software that’s out there today to solve that problem effectively.” It turned out that we were right. We built a better product for a fraction of the cost. But then we grew. Our customers told us that this was not enough. They wanted us to solve their billing, employee scheduling, accounting, mobile data, and paramedic data collection problems too. So we did. Now they’re telling that company that they dispatch fire trucks too. And the company is listening. Could I, as a founder of this company, have envisioned the perfect product suite for the company’s customers of today? No way. I hardly recognize it.
Honestly, this is a best case scenario. You build a product people find valuable, and then you keep solving their problems. If it’s a big enough market, this is going to work. But for most companies, their first theory is not likely to be as good. They’re going to have to evolve and come up with new theories. They’re going to have to fail fast, redirect, reconsider, and restart. If your theories are totally wrong, that’s fine too. You can do something about that.
The worst place you can be with a startup is a place where you have confidently held misinformation. You are proceeding on a path that matches your theory. You’re spending lots of time and energy, all with full-on tunnel vision toward your goals, and man are you going fast. That is a scary picture. Try looking up for a second, and reorienting yourself to the fundamental idea that you are likely to be wrong. Does that change your perspective? Be honest: Have you really proven your theory yet?
If the answer is no, then here are some tactics. Build a prototype, not a finished product. Show people that prototype. Get them to play with it early on. Are they engaged? Do they care? Is it solving a problem? When you hit a pain point, you’ll know it. No prototype? That’s ok, build a set of slides, and walk your customers through the experience. Remember that they’re likely to be encouraging and nice. Especially if they’re your friends (the worst kind of customer to test your theory on is your friend). People like to be nice. They like to be supportive. Make sure you’re getting real data. The best real data comes from busy, random, detached people. Not from your best friend Jimmy.
If the answer was “Yes, of course, I have proven my theory.” then that’s great! Proceed quickly, and get to the next value point. But look up early, and look up often. There are things you will be wrong about in your future. And congratulations on understanding the basic premise that your theory required proof! You are miles ahead of the game.