Damn! This was one of my startup ideas!
This was my immediate reaction a couple of months back, when I saw the news of a one-year-old startup being acquired for USD 30 million.
I had the same startup idea two years ago in my dorm room in college. There are a dozen successful companies that are working on ideas that were born and immediately discarded in my dorm room.
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And a few more on ideas which I built MVPs for but gave up on soon after. I was wondering if I should feel good about myself for having such amazing ideas, as my ideas taken together are worth billions of dollars.
The fact that not even a tiny percentage of that money is reflected in my bank account affirms the fact that ideas not followed up with proper execution have zero value.
It was a surprise, but nevertheless a huge relief, to know that I am not the only one who kills ideas before they can evolve and realise their full potential. I have seen my friends do it. Why, even Ev Williams did it before he founded Blogger, Twitter and Medium.
“After folding my first company (at 25), I did a retrospective and counted 32 different projects — most of them, whole new products or product variations — I’d started (and almost never completed) in the prior year. I realized this may have had something to do with my failure.” -Ev Williams
The birth and death of ideas follows a very familiar pattern.
Ideas hit you when you least expectthem: you may have been staring into the all-consuming darkness of the night when you suddenly come up with one.
You sift it through your personal, highly subjective filters of good versus bad ideas. If it does not pass, it dies then and there, not even getting an opportunity to evolve into something substantial. If it does, the real fun begins!
Now you are in a state of what I’d like to call idea euphoria. You can’t stop thinking about your latest strike of enlightenment. You can immediately see how far reaching your idea is. All pieces seem to be falling into place. This might just be the next Google or Facebook!
You can’t wait to discuss it with your friends. Many of them share your excitement. You will tend to ignore the ones who don’t.
You get a few people on board and start building a product around the idea. You want to launch it out in the real world as soon as possible.
Okay, so the product is live. It is not unexpected to assume the world will immediately sit up and take notice of it.
You share it in your immediate network and see a spike of interest. You get a couple of hundred likes on your Facebook page.
You then post the product on Product Hunt, Hacker News and also get some PR. Many people are trying out your product and giving you feedback on it. Things, so far, are going pretty well.
Unless you are Instagram, the early interest in your product slowly dies down. Even your initial spurt of excitement is also wearing off. You are slowly going into the “Trough of Sorrow”.
Once you are past the initial euphoria and glamour of the idea, the real slog starts. Now that you have some exposure with users, you start to notice some real issues in your product idea. And you hit a wall when you try to figure out definite answers on how to solve them.
Your product does not have product market fit. For that matter, you may not even know what product market fit looks like or how to reach there. Neither would you know where to get a steady stream of new users.
This stage is where most startup ideas get killed. Either the founders give up or get excited with another idea and make a pivot (which is, in most cases,not a pivot but a completely different idea).
Ideas in their initial stage are like infants, in that they are unable to stand up and walk on their own. They need to be nurtured with patience. They have to evolve with time in order to take off.
If you patiently evolve your product and idea, you might have a shot at success. Here’s how to cope when the going gets tough:
It is natural to have thoughts about giving up on your new idea when things are not working out as expected.
Do not give up because of the problems; they are a part and parcel of every startup. You should only consider giving up if you have lost all faith in the startup’s vision.
When your original idea is giving you problems in execution, you interest will suddenly waver tomore attractive ideas for you to go after. And these ideas, at your current state, will be devoid of the seemingly unsolvable problems that you are facing right now.
I have done this a couple of times. Unsurprisingly, every ‘perfect idea’ gave birth to loads of problems once I went deep into execution. The rogue ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’– a feeling that you are capable of a lot more than what you really can offer - was at work again, but are better off pursuing your current idea where you know the underlying problems rather than pursuing a new one where you have no idea what problems may crop up.
While you should not go into a completely different direction, you should be open to making minor changes in your idea or business model as you iterate and get customer feedback.
When you are not getting validation from the market, you might be tempted to get validation from investors. Considering the current investment scene, you might very well be successful in raising money despite your problems.
And you will feel a bit happier. Investors are pretty smart people. Their belief in your idea gives it some validation, right?
Never ever confuse investor validation with customer validation.
As one hears of startupsraising millions of dollars easily, it is easy to confuse fundraising with success. This is far from the truth. Along with the money, the investment also brings higher accountability and pressure.
There are lots of examples of startups that tanked after raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Remember Better Place, Webvan and Solyndra?
Having said this, you should definitely raise money if you do not have enough runway to experiment and take your product to product-market fit.
Going on a hiring spree or spending thousands of dollars on ads to get users will not get your product to product-market fit. Unfortunately, some problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them.
Users acquired through ads might lull you into a false sense of security. And if your product is not right, most of those users will leave soon. You can’t nail traction without nailing your product first. As the age-old quote goes:
“The worst thing that can happen to a bad product is good marketing.”
Hiring more people than absolutely required will shorten your runway and add inefficiencies in the team.
This phase can be one of the most frustrating ones in a startup. There’s this foreboding feeling of imminent failure in the air.
One natural reaction is to consume yourself in the work, and dropeverything else happening in your life. What this would lead to is low productivity and burnout.
You will not get solutions on demand. You have to give yourself time to experiment different things and find out what works.
One needsa relaxed state of mind to get creative solutions to problems. It is often wise to take a break from work to sort out things and then get back with a fresh mind.
Leaving the Trough of Sorrow
There is no silver bullet on how to get past this phase because each startup is unique and has its own unique set of problems.
The path to follow is at the same time obvious and vague. You need to keep iterating on your way to product-market fit. As Ben Horowitz says:
“Like playing three-dimensional chess on Star Trek, there is always a move.”
Not all startups get past this phase and succeed. But if you fight through it, you have a fair chance of hitting that sweet spot and seeing your startup take off.
We are also fighting our way out of the trough of sorrow in our current startup,FundaMine.
FundaMine is a community for professionals to discover what experts in their profession are reading and discussing.
It has communities (mines) on entrepreneurship, product management, android development and IoT. Check it out, give us feedback and help us in our fight.
About the Author:
YashKotak is Co-founder of FundaMine. Before FundaMine, he co-founded a home automation startupLumos. He did his B. Tech. in electrical engineering from IIT Gandhinagar. Yash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed at@YashPKotak.)