I had an idea: a game with weather as a central element. But how did I develop that idea into an actual product, the forthcoming Weather Zen iPad game? Well, it was a long process.
Most people myself included, focus on how great the idea is, and how wonderful the product could be, but can’t connect the dots to make it happen. This was my experience for 20 years – which I have now overcome. Others are so caught up in the idea they detail it, plan its optimal execution, and draw the ”hockey stick” of awesome projected sales for a monstrous business plan before they test the idea with even one other person. The .com bust was full of people who lost massive investments on these ”business plans”; the investors you want to deal with are wiser now.
The startups most likely to succeed do three things well:
1. Focus on customers;
2. Find value;
3. Execute while being comfortable with failure!
The giants build organizations that support some basic truths about startup success:
– It happens less often than startup failure. Plan on failures and get them as cheaply as possible therefore conserving resources for the next try, or for the next stage. Remember that Edison tried over 1600 different materials for a filament before finding the right one.
– No business can generate value without customers. There are no successful entrepreneurs saying, ”I have been locked in my room developing this product for the last 10 years!” These ‘entrepreneurs’ are broke, their idea is outdated, and they never sold anything! Stay relevant, find value, and focus on the customer.
”The Ask” is a simple idea that carries a lot of power, and can be the make-or-break skill of a young and growing enterprise.
Now that you have an idea, start asking people what they think. In particular ask people you think will be passionate about the idea. Try to see if you can find one really good ally, someone who will share your passion for the idea. Gaining this ally means you have proven that there is one passionate customer and you have spent nothing but your time to acquire this customer. For the Weather Zen game several allies were found very quickly.
The Ask is about how to get the most from someone by just asking and – most importantly – openly valuing their response. By asking someone, ”Do you like my game idea?” I immediately got valuable input. But for this to be really valuable information I had to listen! If the person said they didn’t like something it was important not to dismiss the critique and say ”well, it’s not a problem.” Instead by honoring the value they offered I could get even more, for instance by asking, ”that is really interesting, how might you address that problem?” Build value from conversation and every interaction.
Using The Ask at all points in a business can bring great value but especially for early startups. People love to have ”ground floor” input and everyone likes to see an underdog succeed. For example go to a the closest law school and see if there is a professor who will volunteer their services before offering equity to a high price lawyer. The best way to do this is to ask a lawyer who you think may be passionate about the idea and will likely be a customer!
Use the passion of customers to drive your lean startup thinking. Put the designs in front of customers and get their input. I did some quick paper mocks of the game and played it with friends. Nordstrom Innovation Lab took the approach of building the product in front of customers.
Getting your ideas, prototypes, and demos in front of passionate customers provides highly valuable information – regardless of how crude of a version of your idea. Testing, sharing, and reworking can give whole new insights about how the idea should develop. With Weather Zen there was a lot of focus on the planning and provisioning phase of the game while the movement phase had no user interaction. We played some paper mocks and decided the movement phase was too uneventful. Now we have an innovative control for the player to use during the movement phase. This learning cost nothing but fun hours with friends, family, and people becoming customers.
It is a great thing – except for the strings attached. As soon as you approach investors you need to take the time to do a business plan. The plan needs to be based on real information – not a Google data hockey stick, and you need to be sure the plan is for a viable product. Let’s call sharing your idea a thread. Let’s say you manage to knock a brilliant business plan out of the park and on a minimal budget. Then what? You track down investors, which is near impossible without a passionate ally to help you sell it to them. Now the business plan is a string binding you. This string is nothing like the rope that will be attached when investors give you money and expect a big return, often as high as 10x return. They expect you to execute the plan – so your chances to pivot, or rework, or morph into a new business just got massively limited.
This is not my metaphor; it was made at a meeting of entrepreneurs at the Darden Startup Now 2013 conference. Paraphrasing what one of the attendees said, ”Getting funding for a startup is like parachuting. You want to wait as long as possible so you can enjoy the ride, be free to do stunts – but you had better not pull the parachute too late!”
Keep this in mind! Use The Ask to gain value from others as soon as possible. Find passionate customers and make one an ally. Then when you have done all you can to learn as much as possible about executing your idea. Then it is time to brace yourself for the threads, strings, and ropes that will soon bind you as you work your business plan, spend investors’ money, and start to get market share of passionate customers!