Start with learning not building

Don't start with your idea

“Forget ideas. Go actually spend time with lots and lots of time with people.” 
— Amy Hoy

When an idea strikes, most founders buy a domain name, build a product, show a few friends (who tell them “it’s cool!”) and launch on Product Hunt.  

But they rarely expect what happens next: nothing. No customers, sales, or traction. The idea quietly fails, and the founder publishes a post-mortem to shake the experience. 

What went wrong? The founder started with an idea, took too long to launch, and didn’t validate their assumptions before launching. 

Starting with your idea, no matter how much industry experience you have, is one of the costliest moves you can make. 

How to build a house of cards

It’s not that ideas are bad. It’s that you formed yours in a microcosm—in a small world limited to your own experiences, biases, and pain points. 

Starting with your idea is one of the costliest moves you can make. 

This you-centered world has some benefits. But it also has big drawbacks.

In the same way Wicker Park doesn’t sum up Chicago, your microcosm doesn’t epitomize your target market. It may have similarities—very useful similarities—but all your microcosm tells you for sure is your problem is painful for you.

It does not tell you whether your target market:

  • Shares your problem
  • Thinks your problem is especially painful
  • Desires your outcome 
  • Will pay for that outcome
  • Will pay for the way you deliver that outcome

Meaning you have no idea whether customers want the outcome your product delivers.

If you continue down this insular path, you’ll create a product stacked with assumptions and biases. Assumptions about what job customers are hiring your product to do. Assumptions about how to do that job well. And a strong bias toward your own experience.

In short, you have no idea whether customers want your product.

The result, maybe 2 or 3 months later, is a house of cards disguised as a beta product. And when your product goes to market? One or more key assumptions crumble. The house of cards collapses. You’re left with the sound of crickets, two likes from friends, and the lingering question, “what went wrong?” 

What Intercom did instead 

In 2018, Intercom raised $125mm in Series D. They’re a unicorn platform offering a suite of tools for lead generation, customer engagement, and support. Nowadays, Intercom is so robust, it has competitors vying for pieces of what it offers. But this isn’t how the successful company started.

Back in 2011, Intercom’s founders wanted a better way to talk with customers using software products. So they built a simple content box companies could use for messaging. Eoghan McCabe, CEO, explains “We just built the smallest, simplest thing we thought would be awesome, shared it with the world, and took it from there.”  (This is their now-famous cupcake approach.) Real customers took notice, and Intercom kept going. 

The worst thing Intercom’s four founders could have done? 

Build everything they offer today, nearly a decade later. Or start with every feature that would support their mission to “make internet business personal.” 

If they had taken either of those routes, you wouldn’t know the name Intercom. Because that product would’ve been mostly wrong, taken entirely too long, and sunk the founders in opportunity cost. 

Thankfully, Intercom did something different. And today, they look nothing like the message box they first launched. 

Start with learning, not building 

One controlled Harvard Business Review study found 74% of ideas are overvalued. This is part of why every startup idea is partially or completely wrong at inception. If you succeed, the idea the market buys won’t look like the idea in your initial ah-ha! moment. 

But if you shouldn’t start by building an idea, where should you start? 

Start with learning about your customers. 

Talking with your customers and acting on your learnings is the best way to de-risk your business decisions.

If you want your fledgling company to succeed, the one thing that will have the greatest impact on your success is how quickly you can learn about your customers and adapt to their needs. To do that, you need to treat and test your idea like a hypothesis. 

A hypothesis is different than an idea: 

  • An idea is something founders fall in love with and pursue relentlessly; founders guide ideas. 
  • A hypothesis is something founders test and adjust sensibly; customers and evidence guide hypotheses.

Product Hypothesis: a product or solution theory informed by customer evidence and research

If you want to know whether or not you’re on to something, and gain confidence a solution is worth your valuable time and money, you need to test your product hypothesis. And the very best testing ground is customer research. There are proven ways to figure out: 

  • What your customers need
  • What problems are exceedingly painful for them
  • What outcomes they’re already willing to buy

So why waste time, energy, and resources building a house of cards and launching to crickets when you can know what customers will line up to buy?

1. An astounding 42% of startups fail because there’s no market need for their product.

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