How three ideas per day cured my fear of startup failure

Mister Bubbles had better get used to it.

I just murdered my first startup. It had it coming.

Let me elaborate.

To do customer development, you have to be willing to kill your idea.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working HireRiot through the early phases of the customer development process.

For each iteration cycle, I produced a walkthrough video or scripted description of a low-fi MVP, then asked a number of potential customers their thoughts on the problem and on my solution. If a key aspect of the business model was thoroughly invalidated through these interviews, I would take some time to rebuild, then come back with a new angle.

  • Plan A was to run a two-sided marketplace for outsourcing job interviews to industry veterans, who would give their expert opinion on potential hires.
  • Plan B was to let industry experts monetize their professional network by letting recruiting companies pay them for access to their connections.
  • Plan C was to let recruiters “sponsor” (schedule and pay for) lunches between target candidates and client firm employees.

I’d heard the customer development process was all about failure, so I was prepared to iterate to Plan Z if necessary. Fortunately, I came up with a Plan D that made a lot more sense.

I killed the whole concept.

This was a pretty low-risk move, since I hadn’t actually built anything, hired anyone, or made any promises to customers. But it was still hard. I really liked my logo.

You're pretty, but you're not worth going insane for.

One thing made it much easier though: I had a pile of other ideas that I was excited about.

If you only have one idea that excites you, you will be too afraid to test it.

Note: this does not apply to Spartans, or George Washington. Everyone else, ‘fess up: you’re afraid that your “big idea” won’t stand up in the real world, and if it dies you’ll have to go back to your lame cubicle. This can lead you to do silly things, such as never attempting to falsify your key hypotheses. This is bad.

You fix this by having more ideas. Unrelated ideas. Ideas that suck — until they don’t.

As a fun little challenge, I’ve tried to generate three new business models per day over the past few months. I usually sketch them out with the help of Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas. Many (many, many) are simply atrocious — Facebook-for-Dogs atrocious. I would say 90%. To be kind.

But during my customer development process, I noticed that my growing “maybe” folder was having a surprising effect. That bench of backup ideas made me far more comfortable with breaking out the validation sledgehammer on HireRiot. I wasn’t afraid that customers would hate my concept, because if I couldn’t pivot after a crushing invalidation, I could simply dust myself off and start working on another idea. There had to be something interesting in that pile.

This mindset allowed me hear feedback from customers I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to hear. It suppressed my natural ego defense, and let me see my idea as just another business model that needed to stand or fail on its own.

It failed. So I’m back to Plan A on another cool idea.

I’ll keep you posted.


Skillshare, Codecademy and the gamification of education

Codecademy badges

I'll stop with the "-ifications" when I'm good & damn well ready

Two Skillshare classes taken, 500 Codecademy exercises completed, and about 200 hours under my belt trying to drag my startup toward anything that could reasonably be termed “traction”… my brain hurts. In a good way.

The non-traditional learning opportunities that have emerged over the last year are almost unbelievable in breadth and scope. But the content isn’t new. Little is being taught today through these new platforms that you couldn’t get for free at the library (or worst-case by paying a course fee to your local community college).

So why the hell are they so freaking amazing? Why can this average-to-difficult student not get enough of this here ol’ larnin?

The best thing about these education platforms isn’t cost (although Codecademy is free and Skillshare courses often barely tick above single digits). It’s the concreteness of achievement.

In middle school, for every book that we read, we received a paper trophy that we could color in and pin to the wall. Then after 5th grade graduation, that stopped. Why?

I’m serious. Why?

It was a brilliant play to human nature. In general terms, we like getting things for doing things. We’re not good at receiving abstractions as consideration for a job well done. I’m not reading Wuthering Heights until I get a POG slammer with Heathcliff’s face on it, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. [Note: update this reference to something less painfully nineties].

“Badges” are a teensy step in the right direction, but clearly are only motivating to the weak-willed (guilty!) and easily impressed (ditto!). Soon, someone is going to discover a way to apply the crack-like effect of well-designed games like World of Warcraft to the educational realm. I want to learn algebra about as much as I want to spend eighteen hours killing and skinning virtual warthogs. Why is it so easy to get people (not just kids) to do the latter?

Education is just the beginning. Companies like EmployInsight are tackling the problem of employee engagement with psychological assessment platforms, so that people are matched up with the most appropriate positions. But what if you took on the problem from the other direction? What if you could increase engagement by gamifying work?

(Stephen Hawking called. He says that I just broke the universe.)

Is that so crazy? Dan Pink argues (convincingly) that job satisfaction is driven mainly by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. A well-designed game dynamic strokes all three. Maybe in ten years, we’ll have Level 62 Accountants running around, completing audit quests and hustling to get above 85 skill points in Tax.

Do games make us stupid? Sort of. They jack directly into the “dumb” part of our brain that rewards us, bypassing the “smart” part of our brain that makes us do things we don’t want to do. The end result? Underachievers can be motivated to learn and accomplish things beyond their conscious capacity.

And that will be awesome to watch.