Posted by & filed under Customers, Product development, Startups.

Startups almost always begin with a great idea. In the euphoria caused by the idea, the would-be entrepreneurs often feel invincible and ready to conquer the world. It feels that if we just build it, users will come – as if by a miracle.

Sidney Harris has a great cartoon about wishful thinking that sometimes happens in the world of science (see, In the cartoon a scientist has drawn mathematical proof for the beginning and the end of a problem. However, in the middle there is just “then a miracle occurs”.

Sounds familiar to anyone who has worked in or with startups, right? We plan the beginning (the idea) and the end (the business) and hope that the miracle (people want it) happens in the middle. As the popular wisdom says, you just need to “Trust in yourself” and “Have perseverance”.

When you go down this path, you also quickly get worried about not being ready for the masses that are just around the corner. Therefore before even getting the first customer, you start optimizing the “money-making machine”. You want to be ready for the inevitable success by making sure the product is feature-complete, branding and marketing is world class, the functional organization and processes are well-oiled etc. In fact, you probably don’t even remember anymore that the miracle needs to happen, because you are so sure about your vision.

I’ve been down this road, and still too often I see startups that try to run before they can walk. They waste a lot of time and money just because they have a “killer idea” that’s a big business just waiting to be done. The problem with the “let’s wait for the miracle” -approach is that you are really not in control of what is happening. What’s worse, you have no data on what are the customer needs that you should solve.

A much better approach is to try to be close to the customer every step of the way. You should test your understanding of the needs and problems you’re solving, your idea, your solution to the need etc. After every iteration you need to ask if you are really producing something that is valuable to your customers. Valuable enough that they will pay for it either with their money or time. If not, you should pivot and find something that is valuable. Sometimes the change may not be very big, but it can still make all the difference in the success of your future business.

In other words, startups can avoid waiting for the miracle by taking a rigorous attitude towards testing and validating everything they do. Now, this doesn’t mean that it is a simple process where just by asking you can find the answers to questions, such as “what features the product should have?”. Instead of answers you will get data that will help you to assess if you’re going to the right direction.

Sometimes this type of approach has even been described as “scientific”, but I find that a bit misleading. At its best it can be very rigorous in the quest for hard facts, but at some point the entrepreneur still needs to make the leap of faith. And a “leap of faith” is not in the vocabulary of any self-respecting scientist. In most cases, the entrepreneur cannot afford spending time with, for example, doing factor analysis of the empirical data. For the startup, the point is not to aim to find “statistically significant” results; the point is to learn about what could be a solid basis for a business by listening your customers. The rigorous process of assessing the assumptions and, if needed, “killing your darlings”, helps the startup to be in control of their destiny and not rely on miracles to happen.

— Topi Järvinen (