I realised something a few weeks back: most of the founders I’ve worked with this past year have been first timers. They’ve read the Steve Blank books, got the Lean startup t-shirt and can quote Seth Godin in their sleep. Their chutzpa takes them so far.
But as I look back I reckon more than 80% have failed. Like the stat says.
They got fixated on their idea, their product, their view of the world.
They started with great intentions, worked with me to understand their customer; many even talked to real people and made adjustments based on what they heard.
But only within the boundary of their idea. In other words, they still really relied on “build it and they’ll come” (running). It’s hopeful at best.
When I think about the 10-20% that seem to be succeeding, I see something different: experience, battle scars and more than a touch of cynicism…
But the main thing I see is more system when it comes to customer and a much greater acceptance that the founder is probably wrong.
I think we have a lot to learn from these more experienced founders – and if we do, we might, just might find ourselves on the other side of the 90% in the successful business camp.
Here are some reflections:
1. Second (and third, fourth and fifth) time founders know there is no business without a customer, so everything starts here.
They talk and talk and talk to customers. Non stop. They see it as “the job” not something to give an hour to every other Friday afternoon. They listen and as early as possible they show what they’re thinking, asking “What’s wrong with it?” so they can discount everything bar customer truth.
2. They aren’t precious about their ideas; they only care about building something for which someone will pay hard cash. And they’re in a real hurry to find it out as quickly as possible.
But just because they’ve been through this startup game one or more times doesn’t mean they think they know everything. Quite the reverse in fact.
I have found them much more open to challenge, up for running really quick experiments (often that day) and much more patient with customers, listening out for pain and its causes.
I’ve joined many over the years for calls with potential customers and what stands out is the humility: “You’re right, I’m wrong. But I want you to help me, so that I can help you”.
3. In many ways, what sets apart the more experienced founders from the first-timers I’ve worked with is, counterintuitively, a greater sense of vulnerability; maybe failing has made them see that ego was their biggest enemy first time round.
Starting out we’re all convinced we know best, the world is waiting for what we build.
Second time round we know the world is far too busy and distracted to care about us and is barely interested in our story. So more experienced founders start with a much smaller target audience, a niche – not the hyped up TAM/SAM/SOM pie-charts.
They know if they build traction here with early adopters, no matter how small in number, they can build from it. And if not, they can quickly move to another niche who seems more interested. They know that they don’t know - and they don’t seek to hide it behind false confidence.
4. Experienced founders play to their strengths and partner where they’re weak – pace drives everything
The more experienced founders I’ve worked with have jumped on Familiarize (the customer development tool I’ve built with my friend Yunus) because in their words “it helps me go faster”.
They’re looking for efficiencies, to cut frictions, to take the path of least resistance. They’re not hung up when something’s not their idea – they see everything as either helping them go faster or slowing them down. But in my experience they also like to get their hands dirty and see progress directly, they don’t swallow anyone else’s hype.
So let’s learn from our more experienced forebears and increase our chances of success, with more focus on customer discovery and validation, less attachment to our ideas, a bit more vulnerability and more partnering where we’re not so strong.
Learn fast to build better businesses with products that customers really want.