Startup scoping: Swimming back to shore

One of my favourite places — Tulum, Mexico. Image via Spencer Watson at Unsplash

Preamble: This is the first in a series of posts on exploring and validating startups and side projects. They’re not intended to be exhaustive or ‘how to’ guides, but open meditations and provocations on topics that can’t be easily answered with a 5-point listicle or a pot of cash.

Recently I’ve been validating a couple of new project ideas, doing my best to follow the core principles of Design Thinking and Lean Startup as well as elements of other well-established frameworks.

One of these core principles is customer development, and specifically customer discovery and validation, i.e. speaking with prospective customers to ensure a problem exists and then getting feedback from them that the resulting initial solution is on the right path.

I’ve been through this process quite a few times now, either developing my own projects, working with clients, or training groups of people in workshops.

There’s a question that seems to sit just under the surface both in my direct experience and from observing the startup / side project community more broadly. However, it doesn’t seem many people are openly considering this question or the possible answers.

What happens when the customer development process takes you somewhere you don’t want to go?

I don’t mean where you didn’t expect to go, but somewhere you’re really unsure about going to. Where your interest in the space starts to stretch and strain as the problem and/or the solution appear to be in a place where you question if your passion is as strong and bright.

Or to use an analogy; when the customer development tide sweeps you away into a different current, what do you do? To my mind there are 3 main options:

  • Keep paddling, go with the current and see where you end up
  • Try and break out of the current and carve your own path
  • Swim back to shore so you can try the next beach (or just head home for a cup of tea and a quieter life)

Most people in startup world rally around Paul Graham’s call to ‘build something people want’. I agree with this, but what if people want something that you don’t want to build?

Do you build it for them, feeling confident you can validate the problem and your solution?

Do you keep with your vision and build something you want regardless?

Do cut your losses and move on to a different place?

Unless you have a passion for building the thing people want it’s going to be hard to succeed.

You may be able to persuade them to want the same thing you do, but you’ll be going against a lot of the principles successful businesses are built on.

If you cut your losses it’ll be frustrating with a sense of ‘what if?’.

None of these are particularly enticing options.

In the end it boils down to doing what you want vs doing what they want.

We assume most projects and startups naturally find themselves at the utopian balance or intersection of these two points, but in reality there’s often a trade off.

How willing are you to build what they want, even if you’re not sure you want it? I’d love to know — feel free to share or add a comment below.

When you’re not killing it

Tiga (from Tiga’s Facebook page)

This post by well-known DJ and producer Tiga popped up on my Facebook feed last weekend.

There’s a lot packed in to just a few sentences: ego, aloofness, self-deprecation, humility.

Tiga’s post got a huge response. This was likely in large part due to his sizeable fanbase as well as his eloquence, but it was also because of its rarity. You just don’t see people in the entertainment business talking this way very often.

I really respect him for sharing his off-night publicly but it made me think this kind of thing shouldn’t make such a large impact.

It should be seen as… well, normal.

None of us like to admit we were wrong, we failed, or we just didn’t perform well. This is especially uncomfortable when it’s concerning our trade, profession, or something else we hold close as part of our identity. It makes us feel vulnerable and questions our value. But we should do so more often.

Whether by coincidence, fate or the law of attraction, a series of tweets by the author James Clear got my attention the very same day as I saw Tiga’s disclosure.

The 15-tweet thread also includes:

The results of success are usually public and highly visible, but the process behind success is often private and hidden from view.

When your screen is filled examples of the strongest, richest, and smartest, it’s easy to overvalue the outcome & undervalue the process.

I believe a lot of us are guilty of this. I know I am.

However, I’d extend this message to cover the process that leads to both success and failure.

Recently I’ve been investing time into building web apps using Ruby on Rails. I’ve been following a few video tutorials to help me build ropey clones of Reddit, Pinterest and several other of your favourite websites.

Where I’ve learnt the most is by failing (i.e. my app throwing an error or some kind). I have to rewind the video, re-trace my steps a few times over, and find out what caused the error before trying to fix it.

It’s slow and painstaking but the process towards understanding failure makes me more likely to either fix it more quickly in future or avoid it completely.

A web developer known as Levels (who has a pretty sizeable cult following) recently took this a step further by documenting an entire startup build via broadcasting it on Twitch.

Maybe the process isn’t very pretty to watch in its entirety, but making an impressive outcome more transparent enables others to learn, develop and get comfortable with failing and making mistakes. We can better respect and understand the process, rather than just marvelling at or dismissing the outcome. It encourages us to appreciate the practice and sometimes even think ‘I could do that’.

I believe we’ll see transparency around the process appear more in everyday life — from the way food is produced to how laws and legislation comes to pass.

Where this transparency may have the most fascinating impact is in the creative industries.

A lot of people in this area seem to be very afraid of opening up the process rather than just showing off the (selected) results. A previous post of mine touched on this in a slightly different but connected context — hunkering down or fronting up.

By being transparent we may expose some of our tricks of the trade, but to paraphrase an old adage “it’s what you do with it that counts”.

We now have platforms taking us inside the processes to learn to play video games, code websites and even build houses.

Maybe the world’s top DJs could take us deeper inside their process: away from the selfies, hotel suites and big tracks dropping at a festival; to the filtering and preparation of the music, the practice and honing of the craft, and knowing where, how and why they may have made mistakes along the way.

Despite what may show on the surface we all have times when we’re not killing it, whether as a rookie starting out or as a seasoned professional.

Openly sharing and learning from each others’ mistakes will improve our aptitude, help us find new ways of doing things, and relieve some of the status anxiety that’s everywhere around us in an connected age when we only measure outcomes rather than valuing the process.

After all — we’re only human, right?