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One Stupid Trick to Make your Startup Successful

October 15, 2012

Throw out your science fiction and start reading mysteries.   A good science fiction novel is the very model of the failed startup, but a good mystery shows how startups succeed.

Why?  Science fiction moves from vision (space colonies, genetically engineered children…) to a world incorporating the vision (maybe clones living on Mars) to a problem endemic to the setting (maybe one clone comes out different…).  Science fiction writers succeed by constructing a plausible world around their innovations.  The more detail they make up and fit together, the more real it looks.  Writers like Tolkien and Herbert spent decades constructing and fitting together imaginary details, and as a result, you read their books and feel like you could step right into Middle Earth or Dune.

The same thing happens in real life.  An entrepreneur can fit together lots of painstaking details in the form of a scenario (“Here’s how marketing managers will use my software to analyze the success of their campaigns….”) Even more wastefully, he can fit together details in the form of features on an actual product.  The details make the vision more plausible, even compelling, to the founder, and to potential customers.  But this is the conjunction fallacy.  As Kahneman and Tversky famously demonstrated with the Linda experiment, the more details you add, the less likely it is that a story is true.  Even if you started out with a critical eye toward your product idea, the process of answering objections and filling in details leads you toward belief, at the same time leading your idea away from the truth. So stay away from science fiction.

Mysteries, however, are perfect.  They move from “problem” (the old lady was stabbed! Who did it?) to “motive” (turns out the housekeeper was in love with the grandson and the old lady was having none of it) to means (the housekeeper noticed that the sneering young handyman was always losing track of his screwdrivers…)    The “means” in a startup is the product.  In a mystery, it’s usually the murder weapon.

Mysteries start with obscured means.  Sometimes, they’re totally invisible (“I can’t believe it, there’s not a mark on her!).  More often, the means are hiding in plain sight (“She was clearly done in by a screwdriver.  Hmm, perhaps that sneering handyman? ”).  But a well-written mystery almost never tracks directly back from the means to the criminal (his fingerprints are all over it! Book him!)   Instead, the absolute rightness of the means doesn’t become clear until the final chapter, where motives and circumstances have been laid bare, and the murder weapon could not have been anything else but the handyman’s lost screwdriver.  At that point, it’s not just a screwdriver, it’s an object that anchors a rich set of meanings.  The screwdriver is proof, for example, that the crime was premeditated, and that the housekeeper was ruthless enough to frame the handyman.

Just so in a startup.  Even if you come to the game with a product vision, gleaming and compelling as a bloody screwdriver, set it aside.  Instead, explore your customer’s hidden motives and exact circumstances.  If you do that, the shape of their need will become clearer and clearer, like the shape of a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle.  Until finally, customer discovery becomes a template for your product.

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From → Problem First

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