In his Startup Lessons Learned blog, Eric Ries says “Very few startups fail for lack of technology. They almost always fail for lack of customers. Yet surprisingly few companies take the basic step of attempting to learn about their customers (or potential customers) until it is too late”.
I can’t find this to be less true for many of our startups in Malta. And that also includes some larger ICT companies and organisations. They work on designing and building a product based on what is nothing but a hypothesis on what they assume will work for their users and paying customers. Eventually, it is this clumsy omission which prevents the innovation from bearing fruit, causing their product to fail, perhaps by not reaching the desired take-up or not passing on the value that the customer expected from the product. This happens ever so frequently.
Paraphrasing his article, Eric Ries argues that it is easy to focus on product and technology, particularly if there is no market risk. But for the majority of startups and companies, if they want to thrive in a highly competitive market, they have to get some facts right and validate their hypotheses and guesses. Quoting Steve Blank’s maxim “In a startup no facts exist inside the building, only opinions,” Ries argues that we all have our opinions and guesses which we embed into our business plans adorned with much hope and glamour, but customer development is a process which must happen in parallel with product development. To do that you inevitably have to “get out of the building, and start finding out whether your dream is a vision or a delusion”.
If I have to be honest, I am not seeing that much of “getting out of the building” happening among a number of our startups. It is a need that is acknowledged, endorsed on paper, but seldom practised. Many prefer to continue to tinker with their product, postpone its launch for fear of an embarrassing failure, rather than taking the bold step of deploying a beta version and then learning from the feedback and experience to refine the product in the next version, and perhaps get it right. Even if it means going through several iterations.
In our next YouStartIT programme we plan to do just that – evangelise on the need to “get out of the building”: talk to your early adopters, show them your wireframe and later your prototype, understand the nuances, your prospective customers’ behaviour, allow them to ask questions about the product, their likes and dislikes; ultimately, how the product can solve their problem and pass on value. Even at the cost of being faced with the stark reality that your product is not heading anywhere, compelling you to go back to the drawing board.
I’m sure you’ll all agree that it is better if this happens early, rather than later after much effort, pain and money has been spent in building the product.