by Tim Henningsen on March 1, 2013
Have you ever been in this situation? Your startup idea is coming to life, you’ve got a passionate team, and you’re getting your first customers as your product approaches a launch. You feel like you’re getting traction, maybe you actually are. But it’s with your go-forward idea and vision you’ve been building on for the last several months or years — and funding is taking a little longer than you expected. You might just have a great product on your hands searching for a market opportunity.
Funders like BIG market opportunities. They like revenue too, like customers, because that’s how they get a return on their investment. But market opportunity makes it rain. Who makes a market? There are many who say it’s the “Apple way” always at play. Creators create a new market by delivering something people haven’t thought of before, and delight them in the process. Their own brilliance and foresight makes the market for their product. There’s just one problem. There’s only one Apple, and often only one chance to take a bite out of it. The rest of the world must actually listen to customers to make a market. And guess what? Sometimes THEY decide when to pivot, not YOU.
I had a tape recorder once. I thought it was the best damn tape recorder ever. Then the CD hit, and I tried really hard to hold on to my cassette tapes so I could play them on my awesome tape recorder. I even dreamed up ways of making the tape recorder even better, to keep people from moving to CD players. I thought it was innovative. Here’s the reality. For every day I would work on developing my idea, a chunk of my future customers were leaving out the back door for the new technology forever. A market had been made. And I had nothing to do with it.
This is the point. Have laser focus on execution. Don’t settle for anything but quality in your product. When your instincts are telling you something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. You want to change course, but simply won’t or are slow to do so. Resist the temptation to delay your pivot. Your customers, your market might not always tell you WHAT you should be doing; they absolutely are capable of telling you WHEN you should be doing it.
Write customers. Talk to code.
If all else fails, go the “MVA” route. Take a step back, and go get yourself a Minimum Viable Audience. Find out definitively what people are actually willing to use and/or buy. Then start manufacturing this audience as you build the product. An oft-repeated mantra that has stuck with me comes from Paul Graham. I was reminded of it in this insanely long but engrossing behind-the-scenes article by Tim Farriss called “Always Be Closing: Y-Combinator and The Art of the Pitch.” Tim writes:
“Two days before, at the dinner, Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox — summer of 2007 — had been the guest speaker. Afterward, he told Graham there was something else he had intended to say about successful startups but hadn’t gotten to: “They don’t F around, right? The startups that succeed, they don’t go to meet-ups, they don’t run around talking to boards of advisers, they just write code and talk to customers, right?”
It’s a great mantra and sanity check for tech entrepreneurs. I’ve purposely juxtaposed it in the heading above. Do you see it? As you look out at the market opportunity for your product, write a narrative about who your customers will be. Then start talking to them as you code. This gives you a great working model from the start, and later when these customers (not you) decide it’s time to change course.