Lose the to-do list, there is only one thing you need to focus on
The tl;dr: There are too many things that distract entrepreneur when starting a company — get in front of customers, and do it immediately.
It doesn’t have to be so hard
You are doing this to yourself.
Having a big list of things to get done in the early stages of starting a company is a recipe for disaster.
I know this because, after years of working with entrepreneurs, I’ve seen the damage that comes from a lack of focus.
Don’t blame yourself. There is a metric ton of poor advice out there. Some of that information is ill-conceived. Much of it is fantasy (otherwise known as the “overnight we got rich fallacy”). Almost all of it is well-meaning.
Very few people witness the very beginning. The lonely, frustrating nights as an initial idea takes shape. The nights of sweat and zero glamour. So much of the advice we read comes from the next round of hires. The folks who have inherited a process already in motion, or a product already flushed out.
You do not want this advice.
Early success in launching a new product (business) comes down to only one thing. Are you making something that people want and do they want it so much they’ll give you money and tell their friends to do the same?
That’s it. That’s the ballgame.
Now, are you willing to get ruthless?
I already have a plan in place smart guy
I need to do all the business things you say.
I need a website. I have to find someone for designing a logo. What about a catchy name that’s fly and that has a trademark available.
I need to source partners. I must write all the code (or find someone to) for an MVP. My precious product has to be working, with some level of polish.
It does not.
Unless we build our product in a way that can scale, we’re dead. We have to write a business plan. We have to incorporate. I’m going to sign up and pay for Shopify. I want it to be pretty! I have the press release ready to go. I ordered business cards.
All of that can wait. Everything in that list, alongside countless other distractions, isn’t required for you to start.
You need a sellable thing. You need something, no matter how rough, no matter how it does the thing that it’s supposed to, that people can get value from.
You also need to get to this place as fast and as cheaply as possible. Even spending hundreds of dollars should be anathema at this stage.
Fake it. Cheat it. Build a single sample. Make a temporary product that runs on manual labour. Beg. Borrow. Cobble the thing together with duct tape and spit if you need to.
Anything you can us to prove value to a customer. Do that and only that.
The faster you can get to the point where you can ask some version of “If I took this away, would you be sad,” the better positioned for success you’ll find yourself.
Your idea has to be so good that people recommend it to their friends-in fact so good that they want to be the first to recommend it to their friends for the implied good taste. — Sam Altman
So how ruthless are we talking? How simple should this really be?
Let’s talk real world examples, based on the founders I’ve worked with to get their products to market.
The SaaS Startup
A few months ago, a founder came to me with an idea for a SaaS platform aimed at service based small businesses, focusing on driving repeat business. Think an automated version of “hey, you haven’t had a haircut in two weeks, would you like one, we have these slots available, pick one.”
Interesting problem / solution. A decent addressable market (small businesses in Canada alone number almost 1.2 million) is a good time to launch (all businesses are hurting during Covid and will be open to new ideas for generating revenue).
By the time we talked, they’d already sketched out how the platform should work, what the interface needed and had engaged with an offshore developer on starting development.
They had also talked to a handful of potential customers, who quite expectantly had all said some version of; “Sure, we’d absolutely like to make more money.”
Hit the brakes people.
A few problems with this plan.
First, they were planning to take a bunch of time (weeks, months maybe) to build a working version of the platform, one that had most of the functionality needed to make this self serve, and they were going to spend a bunch of money to do that.
Second, you cannot just ask people if they’d like the hopeful, planned outcome of a fairy tale new product. In this case, no business was going to say no to making more money, especially when the hypothetical proposal involved them having to spend no money and take zero action.
It’s a false positive.
Side note: Never underestimate the human dislike of change, of doing things differently. Products have to blow our minds before we adopt them into our workflow.
So what did we do?
We stopped everything. Didn’t build anything more than a landing page and some basic forms. Until we know if our idea is what people want, why are we spending time and money?
Instead, we sent the team around to talk to potential customers. Asked if it was possible to sign them up to trial a new system (sales practice), ASKED THEM TO PUT IN NEAR ZERO EFFORT, then sat in front of a computer and spent a few weeks staring at calendars, finding open times, and manually sending the messages it takes to drive business for these customers.
But that won’t scale. It’ll be too much work. It’ll take hours each week.
You can start tomorrow.You’ll have wins to show your customers. You’ll be in the mix and see firsthand when things break down.You’ll spend almost no money.Best of all, by starting fast, you’ll have data to validate the uptick in business for your clients, and you’ll know right away how well the market responds to the service. Getting your next customers will take significantly less effort when you have a great story to tell (one backed up by data).
None of your initial clients will care how the sausage is made; they, like all customers, only care about how your product benefits them. Do that, and they’ll look past how basic the solution is (for now).
The new retail brand
Next up is a retail startup. This founder has an exciting style and story around a proposed line of designer bags, belts and wallets.
Once again, instead of validating that potential customers got excited about her products, she spent weeks trying to source material (at scale), build relationships with manufacturers (both local and overseas), struggling with brand development, and collect piles of learning material on how to master Shopify.
She did all this before making a single bag, or belt, or wallet.
Guess what I got her to do?
Get some rough materials and get to work. Make a couple of bags, a belt and a wallet, by hand, herself.
Then start wearing the goods, take them around to every shop, every boutique, every fashionable friend she had and see how interested and excited they got. Tell anyone who would listen the story about who she is and how she came up with the goods, the styles, and why she wanted to make them. While this was happening, collect the email address of everyone who shows an interest, and tell those people they’ll be for sale soon(ish).
If the people you come across at this stage don’t get frothy, revisit your ideas, rejig, or sit down and have a hard discussion about whether or not this is, in fact, something worth pursuing.
But again, this won’t scale. Manufacturing only a handful will be expensive, we need to make money selling in bulk, without a store no one will know where to find us.
Even a small production run won’t be that expensive.You’ll have a product in hand before spending every dollar of your savings.Your job at the beginning isn’t to make money. It’s to validate the idea and the market. Money comes later.You’re getting immediate and invaluable market feedback.No one knows who you are, and isn’t looking for you, yet.
Finally, you’re generating content for one hell of a founding story, who doesn’t love the scrappy upstart?
The complex, highly technical product startup
This last example is a little trickier.
A team whose entire product is based on an advanced machine learning solution and a technology platform with tons of moving pieces.
Pretty hard to take a solution with this kind of complexity, and get it out the door to test your market.
Difficult, but not impossible.
In this situation, we need to get real crafty.
Can we pull out one feature, one small slice of the product that won’t take long to get running? Just enough to demonstrate the path we’re on to a broader solution?
Is there anything off the shelf or pre-built systems from other providers that can handle a portion of what we need?
Can we manually perform some of the required functionality and get to an end result of value?
Can we test our hypothesis of what’s possible, back that test up with data and pencil in the rest?
Do not lie to people, but even Apple and Google will demo “canned” functionality, as they finish up the actual development…and usually they figure it out (though not always.)
For the clients I’ve worked with, this is hands down the hardest of discussions. Founders have a bias for action, and that’s often manifested in a misguided sense that they have to build from scratch. That if the code isn’t theirs, and proprietary, that somehow it can’t work.
Once again, all we are trying to do here is get validation and set us in the right direction.
For this team, we’ve been building a small system using mainly Google ML resources to “create” some parts of the system, and then manually compiling the results to present a clean and understandable product to customers.
Did we build the system, no? Did we craft something that demonstrates where we’re going and brings the overall concept to life, damn rights we did.
The caveat, in this instance, this solution was only possible with a single trial client. The level of effort to provide complete results was insane, truly unscalable. Still, it got us to validation and step two in the process, and that is all that mattered.
Yes, we did “waste” development cycles that could have gone towards building the actual product. I’ll repeat it, don’t build anything until you know you’re on the right track with what customers want. In this case, that first client led to a much deeper understanding of further potential customers and caused the team to pivot, if ever so gently, in direction.
Let me repeat that for emphasis. Build what your customers actually want, what solves a need for the people you want to pay you money.
It’s the only thing that matters.
Putting it all together
Building products and launching companies is a practice in problem solving and prioritization.
The successful entrepreneurs among us focus on the needs of their customers (even before they have many) and prioritize product validation (market fit), above everything.
If you’re thinking of launching anything, ask yourself whether that sounds like you.
That focus is going to be tested. Daily.
The lure of what isn’t important is strong. Many of the tasks listed earlier in this post are fun to work on, and easy to wrap your head around.
Talking through logos and company names is fun, futzing around with a new website feels like progress, neither is fundamental to early success.
To succeed as a company, over an extended period of time, requires all the things I’ve listed as not important initially…and plenty more. I beg of you to put all that aside for a time, and solve for market fit. Nail that and everything else can follow.
Being an entrepreneur is both the most rewarding and most stressful thing you’ll ever do. It’s a world of ups and downs that most folks can’t fathom. You’ll hear no so often you’ll think it’s your name. Have days, weeks and months where all seems lost, and odds-wise, you are almost guaranteed to fail.
But if you can be scrappy. If you can focus relentlessly, and solve for your customers (and those customer always), there is no better “job” in this world.
Be sensible. Be crafty. Be smart.
I love talking about these type of challenges, and if you want to even just shoot the shit about issues you’re having with your startup (or established company) drop me a line kerrym (at) hey.com.