The current trend in startup land, especially in the ideation or initial product development phase, is to validate, validate, validate. Thought leaders proclaim, you MUST know there’s a customer base needing your product and eager to buy before you build or launch anything. In the case of software, before you even write 1 line of code, you should have done a good deal of product/market validation.
The Lean Startup methodology has propagated this philosophy to some degree, and startups have taken that mantra even further by conducting pre-product validations with mechanism like pre-selling and pre-orders…before product development begins at all. The core message of this movement is clear, “If you build it…they will SURELY NOT come”…so you better make sure they’ll come before you build it.
As an entrepreneur who has battled through a fair share of painful product pivots and failed startup ideas based on faulty market assumptions…this practice to validate the product & market seems like a logical and welcomed approach. If given the choice, why wouldn’t you want to take the risk and guesswork out of the intrinsically high-risk pursuit of startups?
Personally, the more startup experience I gain under my belt, the more daunting it becomes to start new ventures. When you’ve fought through the many complexities of building a business: dealing with customer acquisition, marketing, sales, competition, product market fit, revenue, cash flow, hiring, market size, churn (the list literally goes on and on and on)…the thought of launching a new business is terrifying. Wouldn’t a wise repeat entrepreneur do as much market/product validation and due diligence as humanly possible before diving into a new business venture?
The problem I fundamentally have with this whole theory is this little psychological phenomenon I call “start paralysis”. No need to Google it, I’m pretty sure I just made up this disorder. When an entrepreneur is battling their own self-doubt and fears, and faced with the hundreds of entrepreneurial tasks on their todo list…adding this step of market/product validation can very likely kill any forward progress. In my experience, the main enemy that can quickly kill a startup is not all the business challenges listed above…a lot of times, it’s the simple act of starting that’s the biggest hurdle.
There is something powerful about creating a product and putting that creation out into the world…and this critical moment can’t be underestimated. In my opinion, any barriers set up to prevent product launch, however wise and savvy it may be, must be highly scrutinized. As they say, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”…and if you’re always second guessing launching a product into the world, well then you’re not even in the game.
What if Google overly questioned themselves and asked if the world really needed another search engine? Or, what if Zuckerberg, before hacking away at his dorm on The Facebook, asked fellow college students if they wanted to join yet another social network? What if Apple asked if people needed personal computers, during an era when no one even knew what a computer was? My guess is that all these companies would have found very little product or market validation…but I’m sure glad they all decided to hack away at their hunches regardless.
I wonder if this is what Steve Jobs meant in his famous Stanford commencement speech, when he ended it with the encouragement, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. Sometimes, startup entrepreneurs just need to be foolish. It’s this foolishness that compels them to start creating something…even when the odds of success are dismal, the risks high, and the unknowns countless. And, it’s the hunger that keeps them fighting and refusing to take ’no’ for an answer.
I started thinking about this “start paralysis” a lot recently, especially after hearing a Mixergy interview with serial entrepreneur Jesse Itzler, founder of Marquis Jets & early investor in Zico water. Almost all of Jesse’s successes in life transpired from his attitude of “getting his foot in the door…and figuring out the rest later”. Lot of entrepreneurs call this strategy, “fake it till you make it”…where you fully commit to something way above your head, and worry about the details later.
One of Jesse’s most poignant stories was when he was 22 years old, he promised the CEO of Footlocker that he’d get all-star basketball player, Grant Hill, to say publicly that he shops at Footlocker…or risk losing his job. He had just one day to do it with absolutely no plan and no connections to accomplish it. I can’t do justice to his story here, but he committed to this impossible task, put himself in a do-or-die scenario, scammed his way into the stadium where Grant Hill was scheduled to play, managed to get in front of Grant Hill for 1 minute during the pre-game warm-up, and actually hustled his way to capturing that sound bite he desperately needed. This is the epitome of foolish and hungry.
To me, the real interesting thing about this interview with Jesse is a passing statement he made that was quickly glossed over. He said that today, this approach would bother him…but at 22, that was the right path. The insinuation is that the wise and experienced Jesse of today just wouldn’t take such a foolish approach.
It made me think…sometimes, the greatest advantage you have as a young startup is foolishness. It’s this naive drive to just START something…versus over-engineering a solution or strategy prior to starting. Is it possible that experience, however revered, is actually debilitating and detrimental in early stage startup journeys?
I took a quick inventory of my life and found this to be so true. In my younger foolish years, I started businesses that I had no right starting whatsoever. I just had an idea, did some tiny bit of due diligence, and just started executing. Starting quickly was my strength, and this resulted in me quickly launching several businesses, including: a Ruby on Rails app dev shop, one of the first coworking spaces in LA, and a retail optometry that’s 5 star rated. I managed to launch all these businesses within the timespan of 1 year, with almost zero knowledge/experience about these industries, no operational experience on how these businesses would run, with no pre-launch market validation. The result is…they all did reasonably well. Now, I look back on that time fondly…but it’s gut wrenching even thinking about repeating it based on my current “entrepreneurial wisdom”. In my mind…experience can be debilitating.
Upon self-reflection though…this is something I want to change. I want to practice foolishness again. I have to remind myself that I’ve created this blog to put myself and my bootstrap ventures out there. Even as I’m diving into these ventures in full-on research and strategy…I find myself merely just cautiously dipping my toes in to test the waters. Truth be told, I already have 3 – 4 concrete bootstrap startups I know I want to tackle in the coming year, but I’ve only really written about 1 so far. It’s because of this “start paralysis” that keeps me from doing something as simple as just writing about the ideas. Kinda pathetic.
To counter this, over the next several blog posts…I plan on writing about each of these ideas just to start putting it out into the universe.
Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Stay tuned.