The question regarding whether an entrepreneur is born or made goes back since the beginning of time and is quite the same as the chicken and egg discussion: everybody has a valid point of view in order to sustain the side of the theory that he believes in, but no one can reach a solid and fully accepted conclusion.
Greg Watson, author of “DNA of an entrepreneur”, has a bunch of enchanting statements that may influence us in our beliefs. He is actually leaning towards the idea that while an individual can be born an entrepreneur, the entrepreneurship skills can in fact be learnt and developed by everyone. Indeed, it needs some fierce guts to achieve a certain standard and occupy the top rank in the market, but with a little cold blood, it does not seem such a hard task to accomplish.
Regardless of one or other’s beliefs over this issue, when it comes to beginning a startup, there are a set of crucial questions that you need to ask yourself when starting your own business. And these questions don’t do anything more than help you create the proper strategy, the normal work-flow and the right amount of resources to invest in your new company.
Whether it is related to the number of people that work for you, to the beta-version of the product or simply to the investor pitch, these questions will allow you to start on the right path and follow it until you sense the need to do it all over again.
Every entrepreneur, when starting a business highly believes that his product is the best ever made, that he is a genius and that the product can sell itself due to the large amount of awesomeness it possesses. But while no one can argue at the genius part, the other ones are not so true (let’s put it in a good light) because no product, regardless of its features or the development that it has gone through will sell on its own. Ever.
You need a market, you need customers and you need competition (OK, maybe you don’t need it, but it’s usually there and in many cases that’s actually a validation of your business). And this is not all. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and start with the beginning.
Usually, the Product Development stage has a diagram that helps you visualize what it is all about and I am sure that every one of you knows what I am talking about. It gives you a complete overview of your product and strategies for the future to be marketing and sales departments.
It also helps you further develop your product scheme or investor pitch and with a little bit of help from a figure-oriented person, it can also be transformed into your company’s first financial chart.
This chart appears helpful and harmless, showing you the right steps to take when developing a new product in a well-established existing market, where the basis of competition is understood and the customers and known. But how many startups start in such a manner? Ironically, very few because few of them actually know to which market they address.
Statistically, most startups fail miserably not because of the product or the product features, but because of the lack of customers and a proven financial model. The essential key in this matter is to understand that startups are different from any other form of business you may know (for example, a big company releasing a new product) and therefore they conduct themselves through a different set of objectives and milestones. The focus in a startup shouldn’t be on the development of the product (since you can basically “build” anything these days), instead it should be on the customer.
Before starting coding (or getting funds or resources) please answer these simple (yet tricky) questions:
1. What are the problems your product is solving?
Inventors usually understand this one pretty easy: does human kind have a problem with hand washing dishes? Is this stated and commonly known? Then your automatic dishwasher idea of a product already has its customers.
2. Do customers really perceive these problems as important?
Since everybody is washing dishes by hand and everybody is complaining then it means you have a global problem. If everybody complains constantly about this and the complaints become bigger and louder, then this means that the problem that you have found is important.
3. If you’re selling to businesses, who in the company has a problem that your product can solve?
Let’s leave the washing machine for now and concentrate on something more contemporary. Say you are producing industrial sheets of white paper and you want to have a business-to-business selling channel. Who do you contact in a company that offers IT support? No one (or maybe just the secretary if you want to sell 8 boxes of paper per month).
Who do you contact in a company that is selling notebooks?The Acquisitions Manager, because you can offer him a financial solution to his raw-material issue, that will improve the financial outcome of the entire company. My point is: identify and address your product to the person who has the problem, instead of his boss or subordinate, who don’t see a problem there.
4. How are you going to reach your consumers?
There is no proper way to reach to your customers (although there are some wrong ones). You can try every social or content marketing strategies out there but what you have to keep in mind always is: proper reaching methods + well-targeted customer = sale.
5. How many customers do you need in order to be profitable?
This is a simple calculation you must make in order to find out when you will start to sell products and actually win money from their selling; it will also help you a lot in your investor pitch.
6. How well do you understand your customers’ problem? Do your product features solve this problem?
Let’s go back to the washing machine again. Are you sure you understood correctly the complaints? Aren’t people complaining about the water that wrinkles their hands every day? Or are they complaining about the fact that they have to wash dishes everyday? How about the detergent that harms their skin? Take a good look and see if your product solves every problem they stated. If not, can you adapt your product so that it does?
7. What will you do if your model turns out to be wrong?
I know you don’t want to answer this question, but it’s a must. What do you do if people aren’t interested in the washing machine that you are selling them and are interested in the plastic tableware that doesn’t need to be washed? What is the next step to take? Do you have a back-up plan? Do you start over and hope that you will succeed next time? Do you start over, realize what you have done wrong, learn from your mistakes and then succeed?
All right, to the untrained eye of the first-time reader, this may seem like questions to be asked when talking about the consumer strategy. And you know what? Those eyes are right! Because in startups there mustn’t be any product development strategy; it would only lead to disaster. You should concentrate on the consumer and the consumer alone, since he is the key to success. Why go to hell and back trying to create a non-functional spaceship, when all he wants is a functional bike?
You should always keep in mind that by answering the questions stated above, you are in fact finding various indicators that will help you outline your business model, which will help you have in clear sight the big picture and that will keep you on the correct path when you start overflowing with joy or disintegrate in sorrow.
But the catch here is the following: this is only a small piece of what there is to come. In fact, this is merely the Consumer Discovery segment from the entire Consumer Development road. You will find out in the end that even though each of the four steps that outline this road has its distinctive objective, the entire process has the only goal of proving that what you have in front of you is a profitable and scalable business.
About the Customer Validation, the Customer Creation and the Company Building (the other three parts of the Consumer Discovery model), about their importance, the small steps they contain and the objects you achieve by following them, you will find out on the next article from this series.