Give Your Startup a Chance by Doing Less

Published: Feb. 20, 2015

Startups are counterintuitive.

When I was working on my first startup, I looked at the competition and thought “I need to do everything they do better than they do it, I need to do do a few things they don’t do, and, for good measure, I need to walk my customer’s dog.”

This type of thinking kills more startups than lack of funding / time / co-founders ever could.

And it’s such an easy mistake to make. You’ve probably had similar thoughts about your idea. Why would a customer buy your thing if it didn’t do more than the competition?

Because the competition can’t do “less” as well as you can. They can’t be uncompromisingly great at one little thing that matters a whole lot for a small group of people. You can. That’s your secret weapon and that’s how you’ll win. Do less.

Leave the hard, one-size-fits-all stuff to your competitors.

But you can’t just do any less. You need to do your less. The less no one can do as well as you can. That’s how you’ll stack the deck and build something no one else can. Entrepreneurship is hard enough. Don’t make it harder.

Time to get small. Time to find your less. It all starts with your idea.

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IDEAS MATTER.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Your idea may sound crazy* to some people. That’s important. If it didn’t, it’d probably exist already.

Maybe your idea contradicts a widely accepted assumption (“no one will hail strangers with cars by phone instead of cabs”), maybe it’s industry-specific (“people do things this way and they always will”), or maybe it just hasn’t been done well yet (“people have been trying that for years, it’ll never work”).

Whatever the case, at this point it’s crucial to have strong opinions, weakly held. Be confident in your idea and pursue it with purpose, but be open to solid information that points you in a different direction.

Most importantly, don’t take criticism of your idea personally. If it doesn’t make sense to pursue, fine. It’s just an idea. It’s not a reflection on you. You had this idea and you’ll have plenty more.

The first step in molding your idea into a product is understanding the problem it solves or the need it can fill. This will provide some early clarity on what the product could look like and who the customers might be.

*Crazy doesn’t mean technically impossible. If your idea is a hoverboard, settle down and think about the problem you’re solving (unless you can really build one. In which case… let’s talk).

SOLVING PROBLEMS

“You’ll never have to worry about ______ again.”

That sentence can be elusive.

Maybe your idea works well for it — Building an online service that delivers Trader Joes? “You’ll never have to worry about long lines at Trader Joe’s again.” Boom. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe people aren’t clear on the problem. If that sentence triggers an immediate reaction from some specific group of users, your life is a bit easier. If not, tweaking the sentence and finding the group it resonates with is critical.

Some things to think about when evaluating your problem — speak with customers to find the answers.

  • Is this really a problem people need solved?

  • How much effort (if any) will I need to put in to convince my eventual users that they have a problem?

  • How intimately do I know the problem? Are there small areas I can start with where I’m an expert? How can I slice this problem up?

  • How well do I know people who have this problem? How easily can I find them?

The goal here is to build to the big vision by solving the smaller, foundational problems. Small, manageable steps.

FILLING NEEDS AND CREATING PROBLEMS

“What if I’m not solving a problem? Angry Birds doesn’t solve a problem!”

Some products fill needs, some products solve problems. You might have some great technology that you want to find a home for. In Angry Birds’ case, there’s a need to be filled — time to be passed — and Angry Birds fills it.

If it seems like you’re filling a need more than solving a specific problem, it’ll be even more important to validate that this need exists and that you can build a product to fill it. Treat the need as a problem, then speak with people that have that need and understand everything we can about it.

“What if people don’t know they have this problem yet?”

Say you’re the Bonobos founders back in the mid-late 2000's. Your big insight, the thing you believe that no one else does, is that pants for men fit like crap, and — more importantly — that most men really don’t want to look like crap.

You also know that you can tailor pants in a way that drastically improves both the look and the comfort. You’ve got an idea and some “tech” (pant prototypes). But most guys don’t know their pants don’t look good. Now what?

You need to find people who know they have the problem, and eventually convince others they have the problem as well.

The group that Bonobos focused on to start were ex-athletes, specifically lacrosse players. They had big, muscular thighs — it wasn’t that their pants didn’t fit well — they literally did not fit them at all. These people knew they had a problem, and Bonobos solved it.

For the customers who had to learn about the problem — the non-college athletes — Bonobos leaned on the seven deadly sins. Bonobos used vanity and sex to sell pants — they convinced people they didn’t look good by having attractive members of the opposite sex say they didn’t. The problem wasn’t the pants, it was that they weren’t attractive to the opposite sex. These pants helped solve that problem.

Convincing someone they have a problem can be tough. You’re starting at a disadvantage. But, if you are able to pull it off, you’ll have less/no competition. High risk, high reward.

In any of the above cases, the key is to understand how your idea pertains to certain customer groups, and how you can turn it into a product for a focused group of people that really want what you’ve got.

Brian ScordatoStartup