I’ve been thinking about my first motorcycle accident. I’m not counting the time when I drove my Kawasaki Ninja to my friend Eric’s house and, while showing it off, fell over and needed his help to pick it back up. No, this was a lot more serious
I was attempting to make a left turn at a light and I think I must have slipped in something greasy on the ground, lost control and ended up running the bike into the curb. As I hit the curb, I flew off the bike and landed on my head and shoulder. My head was ok, but I really hurt my rotator cuff in my right shoulder. It’s been acting up a lot lately, so I’ve been reminiscing over the accident.
Riding a motorcycle is really dangerous. And some of the navigation is extremely counter intuitive. For instance, if you want to make a left turn while traveling above 5mph, you need to push the handlebars in the opposite direction (to the right) in order to turn left. It feels really weird when you first do it. And it takes a lot of practice to get used to it. I can’t really explain to you why it works, but I know that it’s counter to everything your gut instincts tell you.
We’ve all heard the story about the boiling frog. That if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if you set the frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will gradually cook to death. (For the record, this is one experiment I’ve never conducted. No frogs were harmed in the writing of this post.) The frog story is how I think about motorcycle riding and entrepreneurship.
Motorcycles are obviously dangerous. They're like the pot of boiling water. But entrepreneurship can be just as detrimental to your health as riding motorcycles; it’s just a lot more subtle. I’ve seen people lose their life savings, their relationships, and their health struggling to “make it” as an entrepreneur. To some extent, I’ve experienced each of these stresses myself through my entrepreneurial journey. It’s just hard to see when you are in a pot where the water is getting hotter and hotter, where the amount of risk you are getting yourself into is growing and growing.
And as is the case with riding a motorcycle, there are several counterintuitive principles you have to master to succeed as an entrepreneur. Just like pushing the handlebars in the opposite direction of the way you want to turn, there are things you need to do to be successful as an entrepreneur that feel totally unnatural, counter to your instincts, and downright hard to explain.
The most important of these counterintuitive principles is that people buy solutions to their problems, not products and services.
The more serious the pain you can solve, the more it means you can charge for your product. You can bank better margins, enjoy much shorter sale cycles, and spend a lot less on sales and marketing because your customers will be evangelizing the product on your behalf through powerful word of mouth testimonials.
Sounds pretty good, right? But unfortunately, 95% of entrepreneurs don’t follow this simple rule. That number is probably even higher than 95%, but I want you to keep reading and not get hung up on it.
It’s not that most entrepreneurs deny that solving problems is important. It’s that they go out of business because they build solutions for problems that don’t actually exist.
Here’s what usually happens:
An entrepreneur will get an idea and start thinking of all the possibilities of what it could turn into, the impact it could have on the world, and all the money it could generate.
Next, they will build the product. They spends a lot of time and money trying to build the most comprehensive version of it, rarely showing it to anyone because they want it to be perfect before potential customers see it. First impressions are everything!
Then, they brand the idea. They spend time and money developing a catchy name and a logo, purchasing a domain, building a website, creating marketing materials, etc. This has to look professional!
Finally, they go out looking for customers and, more often than not, strike out big time, causing them to realize that something is wrong with the initial idea. They revisit the idea and start brainstorming how to make it better. And then they repeat step one through four all over again, spending a lot of time and money, without making any forward progress.
This is the startup loop of despair. It can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, and it usually ends when the entrepreneur finally runs out of money. When they are fully cooked!
But successful entrepreneurs know that the startup loop of despair is completely avoidable. They know that once you come up with a great idea, the very next step should be to find potential customers and determine if your product is even worth building.
There is only one way to diagnose whether your idea solves a real problem. You have to conduct a Problem/Solution Fit Test.
A lot has been written about this process, but many still have trouble applying it because it’s so counterintuitive. It feels weird and awkward and it’s hard to know when you are doing it right. So I wanted to break it down and try to do my best to explain it.
What exactly are we testing?
1. The Problem – Does a specific group of customers have a migraine problem?
2. The Solution – Does my solution solve the problem?
How are we testing these two things?
We actually use different tools for each part of the test.
1. Diagnosing migraine problems is most effectively done through customer interviews. Believe it or not, customer interviews are extremely tricky because both you and the customers are coming into the conversation with a number of biases, so we have to conduct them in a very specific way to make sure we are getting honest feedback that we can use.
2. Solution testing is best done through objective experimentation. Humans are terrible at predicting the future. So we can’t really interview our customers to understand if the solution will work. We have to find a way to simulate the future and objectively test how customers will actually behave.
Conducting the Problem/Solution Fit Test before building your product will guarantee that you will build a product people actually want by figuring out which features and benefits are the most valuable. Above all, this means your startup will actually generate revenue.
But what about Henry Ford and Steve Jobs?
I get asked this question a lot. You’ve heard the quote, Henry Ford once said that if he were to ask people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses.”
He’s totally right. You can’t ask people what they want. They are terrible at predicting the future and sometimes they plain out lie. But you can ask them about the past or the present. About current problems they are facing. And if Henry asked potential customers if they had pain about trying to find transportation to their jobs or to visit friends or family, they would have talked his ear off about all the different things they’ve tried to solve the problem.
Ok, and what about Steve Jobs? Most people think he never tested any of his products. He must have predicted what we would want!
Yes, Steve Jobs is a genius. There is no doubt about that. He beautifully combined art and technology, but not all his guesses about what the people wanted were right. The original Macintosh that Jobs created was a failure. It didn’t have a fan because Jobs thought it distracted from the calm of the computer and ended up frying all of the internal parts. The Lisa computer he created was also a failure. His NEXT company, created another personal computer that was a huge flop. But he had something like a hundred million dollars from his initial success and the ability to make lots of big bets without going broke.
If you don’t have tens of millions of dollars you can afford to lose just trying out different startup ideas, then you’re not Steve Jobs.
But here’s some good news. You can use the Product/Market Fit Test to significantly de-risk your bets before you go all in. The best way to de-risk an idea is to make sure people want it before you spend too much time and money creating it. If you aren’t solving a migraine problem, you’ll need to spend a lot of time and money educating people about your existence and and convincing them that they can benefit from your product. It’s very expensive to convince people that they need or want something that they really don’t.
When All In Startup first came out, I put together a list of customer interview rules to help entrepreneurs conduct the Problem/Solution Fit Test. You can find the original list here. Since then, I’ve received hundreds of follow up questions. So I’ve decided to spend the next few posts diving deep into the process of interacting with your customers.
Whether you are an entrepreneur with a crazy idea or a large company with thousands of existing clients, the upcoming articles on interacting with your customers will help you significantly de-risk your business.
You will learn:
How to get honest feedback from your customers
Which questions are the most valuable to ask
How to conduct small experiments to make sure customers are interested in your product before you invest too much time and money creating it
To make sure you receive these posts when they become available, subscribe here. And please either send me an email or add a comment to this post to let me know specific questions you have about the process to make sure I answer them.
I have a small confession to make. As I thought about the bike accident over the last 15 years, I’ve always said there must have been some grease in the road to slip me up. Some kind of discharge from a car that made the road hazardous. But as I was writing this post and thinking about my experience level at the time, I think that it’s much more likely that I hesitated. That I went with my gut and what my instincts were telling me to do instead of following the framework that I knew would be effective.
I know how scary it is to start something new. I know what it feels like to put everything on the line. I’ve felt the pain of what happens when your instincts take over. My objective is to help both you and me find a way to follow the counterintuitive rules of the road to get us all home safe.
Thanks for reading.
Innovation within a corporation comes down to two factors:
1. How employees generate ideas
2. How employees determine which ideas to pursue
1. How employees generate ideas (problem-oriented vs. solution-oriented ideas)
Do you remember the Segway? The Segway is a two-wheeled, battery-powered machine that makes even the most popular kid in school look like he sits alone at lunch. What I’m saying is you look dorky riding the thing. There’s something about you not putting in much effort while standing and gliding down the street that just makes people uncomfortable.
When the Segway first came out, it garnered lots of attention. Steve Jobs predicted the Segway would be bigger than the PC. John Doerr, a prominent venture capitalist who backed Netscape and Amazon, said it would be bigger than the Internet. With this level of hype, the company raised more than $90 million. But it’s grand unveiling was a huge disappointment. It took the company its entire first year in business to sell the number of Segways it predicted it would sell every two weeks.
The company had generated a solution-based idea. The Segway was a shiny, new technological advancement…that nobody wanted. The product didn’t solve a problem for the customer. Most companies that are unhappy with the results of their innovation programs are generating these same kinds of solution-based ideas. They start with a technological advancement or a brain storming session that produce a product, and then they try to figure out who might want it.
They’re so excited to have created something new that they forget that no one necessarily asked them to create it in the first place. They just assume that if they build it, the customers will come. Unfortunately, that seldom happens. What innovative employees – or intrapreneurs – do differently is come up with solutions inspired by their customers’ problems.
Instead of taking stabs in the dark and guessing what people might like, why not go directly to your customer and figure out for sure? When Paul Buchheit at Google created Gmail, he did just that. He came up with a problem-based idea. Instead of modeling his email platform after others on the market (looking at competitors to see what features and benefits to include), Paul listed out all the problems he thought the existing solutions created for users. The existing email platforms had limited storage space, were hard to search through and were slow to load data. By designing Gmail around these problems, Paul created something that generated a lot of value to email users. He initially designed the gmail platform for his own use, but when others in the company saw it, they begged him to let them have access to the functionality he created. And when Gmail became public, users flocked to the service because word of mouth marketing was so powerful at explaining its value.
Word of mouth marketing only works when people feel compelled to spread the word – and that compulsion is borne out of feeling that a product has solved a tangible problem. Gmail wasn’t just different to be different. It was different in a way that generated a lot of value for its customers. So much value that they wanted to tell people about it at school or work.
Like Gmail, most successful products are built to solve problems. These problem-based ideas can only be found through customer interaction. You know you have a potentially great idea when you identify a group of customers who are ready, willing and accessible. Ready customers have identified a problem and are interested in fixing it, willing customers have taken steps to fix the problem in the past and have a budget to address the problem, and accessible customers are people you can easily reach. When you seek out this trifecta of customer interest for a problem-based idea, your product will practically sell itself.
2. How employees determine which ideas to pursue
Webvan is one of the most famous examples of a seemingly good idea that flopped. In 1996, Webvan launched an online grocery delivery business on the theory that people would pay money to avoid the hassle of grocery stores. Webvan spent hundreds of millions of dollarsbuilding an infrastructure (warehouses, technology, sales/marketing) based on a business plan that should have worked. But it never took off, and eventually the company went bankrupt in 2001. The online news site CNET went on to name Webvan the worst dot-com failure in history.
The Webvan story follows a plan-based approach to business that is commonly taught in business school. You write a business plan, see whether the numbers add up, and predict the success of a business based on this creative writing exercise. The plan-based approach seldom works because innovation is iterative. Your first business plan won’t be perfect, but most people don’t give themselves enough resources to make necessary pivots. Instead, many companies spend all their money to build a perfect product that is often a failure.
Entrepreneurs with the most positive results, however, know their company will be a success before their product ever hits the shelves. Instead of trying to predict the future, these entrepreneurs try to play detective by using an evidence-based approach to innovation. Theevidence-based approach determines customer demand and value of a product through experiments with actual customers. Simply by using this approach, the creators of Webvan could have launched a successful company or, at worst, abandoned the idea and saved hundreds of millions of dollars.
Zappos, an online shoe retailer founded in 1999, is the opposite of Webvan. Before the company spent a dime on building its infrastructure, it made sure it had customers by verifying a willingness among customers to buy shoes online. In the beginning, founder Nick Swinmurn would take pictures of the shoes available at local stores and post them on Zappos’s website. After a customer made a purchase online, Nick would return to the local store, buy the pair of shoes at full price and ship the shoes out manually. Before Zappos had built a single shipping warehouse, it was able to prove that its business model would work. This evidence-based approach is what prevented Zappos from becoming Webvan.
A few years after Webvan closed its doors, Zappos was acquired by Amazon for $1.2Billion. Swinmurn’s early experiments, while time consuming, obviously paid off. It’s important to verify that customers will actually pay for your product. A customer can easily give you an email address or a verbal agreement to buy your product, but real “currency” is different. When a customer gives you something that pains them, like money, time or an endorsement, you have strong evidence that your product is highly valued.
With everything on the line, entrepreneurs with access to little capital are under heightened pressure to build a moneymaking product on the first try. The best entrepreneurs reduce risk and expense by generating ideas that solve a problem and verifying those ideas with customer-backed evidence. This approach is often used out of necessity by entrepreneurs, but successful employee-driven innovations result from mimicking this method within the corporate environment. A problem-based idea and evidence-based approach is essential for innovation anywhere. Whether you have one employee or 5,000, the pain of innovation can be both eased and energized by following the example of successful entrepreneurs.