Don’t settle for success, prioritize purpose over giving the people what they want

The Lean Startup methodology has proven to be the most effective and efficient way to build a successful company. But if it’s your only North-star, you risk optimizing yourself into building a company your customers like, but about which you could care less.

The Lean Startup methodology, first codified by Eric Reis and now in wide use by the vast majority of fast growing companies in the US, is the scientific method applied to startups. It’s lessons are many and profound, but first among them is the virtue of building a company by first transforming it into a series of assumptions by a process of abstraction, and then systematically validating those assumptions against actual customer behavior, BEFORE ever actually building anything (to whatever degree that’s possible).

This process saved us $999,400 on an idea I once had.

It was an app that would geofence communication and media sharing into a single experience available to people attending high school sports events. Instead of building that app immediately, we figured the riskiest assumption was that people would actually use it, so we tested that by marketing a Twitter hashtag as a proxy (we thought that if we could get people to communicate and share on Twitter, that would indicate that there might be an appetite for a standalone app dedicated to high schools). After a grand total of 6 tweets over 5 events we killed the app idea, having spent $600 instead of the $100,000+ we might have spent if we built the app on a hunch, only to find out people didn’t want it.

It’s examples like these that have earned the Lean Startup methodology its status as the de facto best way to build a startup. But like so many things, it can be taken too far. Lean Startup enables you to optimize your business for what customers ACTUALLY want, rather than what you think they want. But as potential customers guide you to the business most likely to succeed, you can find yourself losing the spark that made you want to build your initial idea in the first place.

And you’ll need that spark for what comes next.

Customers, on average, want average stuff. That’s why the concept of a bell curve is so pervasive in every industry. If you optimize for what most people want, you’ll find out that they want something pretty close to what they already have, maybe with one little tweak. So if customer feedback is the only thing guiding your business, in the effort to optimize for success you may end up building yet another me-too app in a competitive market.

You didn’t set out to build another me-too app. You set out to change the world.

I’ve spoken with founders who started out passionately chasing an important idea — solutions to climate change, PTSD for veterans, homelessness — only to pivot to more palatable, generic solutions after learning through customer development that the market for their revolutions was weak or immature. And if sacrificing the soul of your company to ensure its success sounds like a fair trade, there’s no guarantee that even that will work, because it turns out you need that soul to build your company.

The greater the distance between the business you’re building and the one you are passionate about, the less resilience you will have to weather the inevitable storms (tempests/hurricanes/tornadoes/gale-force winds, whatever you like) that come with building a company. You need to want it so badly, way worse than your customers ever will, to succeed. So you can counterintuitively optimize your business toward your customers at the cost of the resiliency which is also a prerequisite for success.

At the end of the day, successful companies require both a market in need of a solution, as well as a founder with an unreasonable passion for building that solution. You won’t have that unreasonable passion if you pivot to something that doesn’t inspire you, even if customers want it.

The answer, so far as it looks to me, is to lean into customer validation and Lean Startup as hard as you can, but only at the right time, and only with appropriate constraints.

For example:

  1. Define why you want to start a company
    1. Is it just about building a successful business?
      1. If so, no problem, but maybe stop listening to me.
    2. Or is it about making an impact in the world?
      1. If so, be really clear on the impact that you want to make, so you don’t lose it along the way. Having that crystal clear definition of why you’re doing this will be critical when you’re putting yourself through all kinds of necessary hell.
  2. Setup constraints around whatever it is that really lights you up, and commit to not going beyond them, even if that’s what customers want
    1. For example, if you’re trying to save the world, commit to only building a business that you are confident will drive humans to be more sustainable, even if what customers tell you they want is to look at new dance videos
  3. Then run a Lean Startup process within those constraints

The smartest businesses leverage lean startup to bring all the power of the scientific method to building companies. There’s a reason that science has eaten the rest of the world. It works. Bringing scientific process to startups enables founders to build their companies with an efficiency not otherwise possible, by surfacing customer desires & feedback early in the process while you still have time to pivot.

But pivots change businesses. Mostly for the better, for sure, but if not done consciously with each pivot you risk losing the spark that made the business worthy to build in the first place. You risk building the business people want, but one you don’t care about.

Protect your spark at all costs, even if your customers don’t yet understand. Building a company is an opportunity to change the world for the better. Don’t let the masses convince you to settle.

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1 year ago

[…] Prioritizing purpose over success isn’t the only positive coming out of the COVID Pause, but it’s a biggie. Frodo, help us break it down: […]

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