28 February 2011 by Published in: business 1 comment

So I’m reading Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany:

What if a customer tells you the issues you thought were important really aren’t? Realize you’ve just obtained great data. While it may not be what you wanted to hear, it’s wonderful to have that knowledge early on. Do not, I repeat, do not, try to “convince” customers they really have the problems you describe. They are the ones with the checkbooks, and you want them to convince you.

This has pretty much been my week.  Ten different ideas, 30 different customers, all of them said “eh.”

I mean, it’s a good thing that I’m finding out now instead of later, but it’s frustrating not to have a single idea that customers get excited about.  Who said “execution is everything, ideas are nothing?”  I could have executed several of these in a week, but I can’t find a single good idea.

Paul Graham wrote:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

Certainly, bad ideas have no value.  They’re worse than worthless–they suck up all your time!

But what about good ideas where the customers get excited?  Steve Blank says:

You can think of these characteristics as making up a scale of customer pain. Characterizing customers’ pain on this scale is a critical part of Customer Discovery. My contention is that earlyvangelist customers will be found only at points 4 and 5: those who have already built a homegrown solution (whether in a company by building a software solution, or at home by taping together a fork, light bulb and vacuum cleaner) and have or can acquire a budget. These people are perfect candidates to be earlyvangelists. They are the ones you will rely on for feedback and for your first sales; the ones who will tell others about your product and spread the word the vision is real.

It’s my observation that finding such a mythical creature as a customer who rolls his own solution is about on par with finding a unicorn.  In particular:

  • The field of “easily executable ideas” at this point is picked over, even on new exciting platforms like iOS and web.  There are already thousands of task managers and notetaking applications; yours will get lost in the shuffle even if you have a new take.  What’s left are the difficult and risky projects that require a large MVP and a big investment to ship.
  • Many times, your competitors are smart, nimble entrepreneurs like yourself, which are the scariest kind of competitors.  Four out of the ten ideas I started with this week ended when I found twelve startup-size competitors who were doing everything right.
  • Oftentimes, the solution to the customer’s “problem” is just not doable, i.e. voice transcription or holograms.

Of course after going through the process I have a better handle on customers’ problems and such, and I hope to dig a winner out of some pivot of some pivot of one of my conversations this week.  But things just feel a little bleak right now.  I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.  It’s a lot harder than writing for loops, that’s for sure.

The next time somebody tells you ideas are worthless, ask them how long it took them to generate an idea that got customers excited.  Boy, I’d pay something for that.

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  1. Tue 01st Mar 2011 at 8:54 am

    I think your reasoning hinges on the assumption that customers will only pay for products based on ideas they are excited about. I don’t think that’s true at all. People will buy well-executed products based on old ideas or ideas that don’t really excite them.

    I guess my point is that even if all your customers say “eh” at your 10 ideas, do one of them anyway. Spend the time to execute it well and see how well it does. The results may surprise you.

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