With emotional balance now restored, I can reflect on takeaways from my experience at Google LaunchpadX – a mixture of new realisations and confirmation of previous thoughts.
Questioning around solution not problem
Though there are numerous books, not least Rob Fitzpatrick’s The Mom Test, that tell, teach and warn us about how to ask questions and common pitfalls, the majority of us still make the same mistake the majority of the time. Bias is already built into questions in the discovery phase because they’re based on a defined solution rather than using them to unearth a problem.
Ironically, I’d just completed IDEO’s seven week human-centred design course. Because we were starting with a challenge NOT a solution, we spoke to nine different stakeholders, identified common threads, clustered based on motivations, emotions and attitudes around the topic – healthy food – and on the analogs identified. Multiple solutions emerged because we’d identified different problems based on our findings but those that didn’t answer the challenge due to factors such as environmental or economic constraints were quickly eliminated.
There’s nothing wrong with coming up with an idea that is potentially a solution per se but it is essential to take a step back and pretend the solution doesn’t exist in order to see if the assumed problem exists as perceived. Either that or reframe the problem to a challenge.
You obviously don’t understand what we’re doing
This leads on from the first point. Though we ask for help and want mentors etc, what we’re actually looking for is someone, everyone, to agree with what we’re doing. As humans we crave the endorsement of other humans. We want to be praised for our achievements and so as entrepreneurs we slip into pitch mode whenever the opportunity arises.
During the wrap up one of the teams’ realised they had gotten so used to telling the pitch story to investors that this had become their reality. Again, this is common especially when you haven’t validated the problem from the get go. The situation is not helped by continual external distractions from peers who praise what you’re doing or the occasional prospective customer or user that comes along confirming your solution is the right one. Is there any wonder that it’s difficult to accept that your praised solution isn’t a commercially viable one. God forbid if anyone challenges your idea, they clearly don’t get it.
Pride usurping reason
Anyone who knows me knows it’s the one thing that drives me nuts – pride. As reasoned and fairly intelligent beings, we let ego blind us to reason. The sooner you accept you are wrong, the less it hurts. Yes, you have told everyone who will listen about your idea, you may even have employees, investors and a handful of customers but this is reason why it hurts so much to admit that you were wrong. The shame we feel is self-inflicted. We are so used to reading and celebrating the stories about successful startups that had almost run out of runway and pivoted at the eleventh hour to find success, that we accept this as the norm. It’s not the norm, most startups crash and burn. Why put yourself through the stress and risk failure when you could have avoided the heartache in the first place. There is enough to keep you awake at night when running a startup as it is. Do not let pride and ego get in the way of a good thing.
We’re going to change the world
Reality check, you’re not, well not any time soon anyway. I somehow doubt Mark Zuckerberg thought, much less talked about changing the world when Facebook launched to University campuses 11 years ago never mind pre-product. It was only when Facebook became the 10th largest country if you were comparing it to country populations that he earned the legitimacy to make such grand statements. I’m not saying don’t be ambitious, I’m saying be realistic with your ambition.
You don’t know as much as you think you know
Despite what you think you know, there are always new things you can learn, be it new tools, frameworks, approaches or perspectives. For instance, I aware of lot of tools, methods and approaches used in the discovery phase but I’ve never been 100% clear about how you put different elements together to lead not only to an outcome but an outcome that propels you to the next set of productive actions keeping overall objectives in mind. That very early pre-solution stage has always been a grey area for me. When building a startup, you are always in learning mode.
Productivity for productivity’s sake
We were certainly guilty of this. We had the most beautiful and colourful sheets on the wall but it meant absolutely nothing because our assumptions were incorrect. Our personas may have been correct and UI ideas and value proposition map looked great but it was a bit pointless when the user didn’t want the product. Human beings are great at looking busy especially in the workplace. It’s like staying in the office long after you should have gone home because it’s a sign of a committed hard worker. Or the meetings for the sake of meetings syndrome, it makes us look busy and feel important but to what end.
Build, test, fail, learn fast
In reality this is not what happens. The missing part of this process is discover fast. One thing is abundantly apparent is customer discovery, if it happens, does so after the solution had been built. It’s no surprise the techie guys hate UX. Ok, it’s not the only reason but it’s just another one to add to the list, right. A product has been lovingly developed, sweated over through long nights based on assumptions and now the users don’t want it or aren’t using it the way you intended…it’s the users who stupid not us!
The reality of the moving fast thing is the product is crafted over months at a jog pace until release date approach then it turns into sprint. The testing is done at a sprint, the learnings at a walk and failing at snail pace. We humans are wonderful at parroting, we say all the right things (Emil can attest to this, we all churned out the right kind of BS during our interviews) but practicing it is something else entirely.
Many of us on the programme, including myself, believed this is a pre-accelerator programme. When Emil said it was a hyper accelerator during our first briefing on Monday morning, I raised an eyebrow. By the end of day 2, I understood what he meant. Many standard accelerators are focussed on getting startups to the point of been investible or at least looking like it, this is mistakenly taken as validation. Some startups do pivot but again this is weeks into the programme. In this programme, you are forced to confront and accept your invalidated status within days whilst been given the tools that enable you to validate on your pivot, again, within days. You do not need investment, office space or to go into an accelerator to achieve product/market fit. You don’t even need to quit your day job for that. If the value of an accelerator is in the network – fellow cohorts, mentors and investors – then startups and accelerators should start to re-think the stage at which such a programme becomes useful.
Parting words of wisdom
question, test, iterate, repeat…question, test, iterate, repeat….
That’s all folks!