The lean startup methodology really turns business creation upside down by focusing on a market before an actual product idea. Theo and I have been following the lean startup methodology with Ncentiv. We knew that the parenting market was changing dramatically, where kids were becoming attached to technology in ways parents and teachers wouldn’t understand. The question was, what was the minimal addressable problem that would double as validation of a larger addressable opportunity.
By starting with a market and focusing on data/interviews to find an addressable problem, rather than building software from day one, we encountered problems I would never have predicted. For the last month we haven’t written a line of code and have instead spent our time talking to as many parents/teacher/psychiatrists that would give us their time.
Hitting the Walls
The first wall we hit during the process was in week two. We looked at what we had accomplished to date and where we had to go. Unlike coding software, the data collection process doesn’t have tangible metrics to measure productivity -- it’s actually a really vague process. And no two companies will go through it the same way. It felt like we hadn’t made any progress. How do you properly measure learning and insight? We’re lucky to have a great set of advisors who continued to tell us to focus and to refine our problem/solution pitch. We kept asking ourselves though, how can we possibly cut off 99% of the market and focus on that 1% problem/solution fit?
This led to the second wall, which we hit during week three and four. The more we narrowed our focus the less motivated we became. We went from looking at a massive addressable market to a subset of people and a minimal product offering. This quickly became our biggest challenge.
We struggled to stay in love with the market the more we narrowed our MVP feature set and target market. We got stuck going in circles for about a week. On one hand we were lucky that we picked a huge market and that we had an incredible group of parents who were more then willing to spend an hour talking with us about anything we wanted to know. On the other hand, we had to segment them and ignore the obvious opportunities they were telling us about.
What made it even worse was that as we narrowed our description, it was continually met with positive feedback from each segment. And we knew, from a technical standpoint, that there was little to no difference in the offering from one segment to another. So why cut anyone out?
Finally, six weeks in, it is much clearer. Focusing, as difficult as it was, was necessary given the reality that we were two people trying to help the same group of people as Disney and Johnson & Johnson. Something changed for us last Monday. It was wake up call that came in the combination of being called out by our advisors and by other pieces suddenly clicking together. We were able to define a set of goals for the week, which we met and soon surpassed. Finally, laser focusing made it possible to stop getting pulled between opportunities and to put all of our effort into proving our current set of assumptions.
The take away.
As we look back on the struggle to find an addressable problem while still staying motivated, we realized a few steps we should have considered.
- Write everything down. This is one the best ways to drastically narrow your scope, it’s easy to list four or five options but having to pick just one and describe it fully really focuses things.
- Pitching everyday. Just like writing everything down, when you force yourself to articulate what you're doing (even if you have no idea or even if it’s going in the wrong direction) it helps you to iterate much faster. You can kill an idea effectively when you’re actually able to explain it to someone and witness their reaction. People tend to love your idea when it’s vague, as they develop their own picture of what it will really be. -- What we found to really work well was building a baseline pitch deck and iterating on it every day based on what we had learned. By taking the last 30 minutes of the day to review it, our focus and message became clearer.
- Balancing macro and micro visions. This idea is practiced in buddhism and game design and it’s a real art. Being able to hyper focus on just the tip of the iceberg while staying focused on the entire iceberg is tough. It takes practice and discipline but it is crucial. Doing it properly allows you to see how your MVP will actually lead to the bigger vision.
- Take all the “ands” out. This was a trick we learned late, but it’s a great way to get to the crucial part of the problem solution. Instead of saying: We help parents to fix the problems in their child's daily routine and to encourage them to try new things. Say: We help parents to fix the problems in their child's daily routine. Even the second one seems too big, so to take it one step further. Say: We help parents to fix the one or two main problems in their child's daily routine.
We failed to do all of the above, and I can’t say for sure, but I really feel it would have helped keep the vague process slightly more structured. If nothing else, I’m sure we would have saved a week or two of wandering.
No one said the Lean Startup methodology was easy. Like any good exercise, it takes real discipline. It’s tough to not start writing code after your first positive interview. It’s also tough to know you’ll likely throw away weeks of work. But it’s all part of becoming smarter. I do feel that we are going into the MVP stage smarter than ever. As we stay disciplined through our MVP testing, I am confident will be even more savvy, and that we will be in a better position to pivot our product to the best opportunity.
Now we are confident. Not because we found the best problem/solution mix, but rather because we found one solution that we can quickly test and on which we can iterate. We will spend the next few weeks building and quickly getting our product into the hands of customers for testing.