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.

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5 thoughts on “How three ideas per day cured my fear of startup failure

    • That’s the spirit!

      To be fair, I’m not just talking about “wouldn’t-it-be-cool” ideas — it doesn’t count unless I fill in most of the Lean Canvas boxes. That means I need some ideas about customers, revenues, costs, marketing channels, etc. The process of coming up these is a good mental exercise in a way that spitballing ideation is not.

  1. Like your recruiting ideas! I ran a recruiting company for 10 years. If you would like to brainstorm together let me know. I think a Facebook or twitter recruiting app. Where people recommend friends for a job. Paid for with a tweet or like?

  2. Hi,
    I recognize the relief after the letting go of the “single biggest idea of a lifetime”.
    I was wondering, who are those customers you talk about ? Are those the same people you talk to for each and every new plan of yours ? How did you find them ? Are they customers of yours in a related (like “hiring”) activity ?

    • The “customers” I’m talking about are people in my target segments, which vary as the business model evolves (“industry experts” >> in-house HR >> corporate recruiters, in this case). I reach out to them through professional contacts, LinkedIn, direct emails, and any other method that comes in handy. People love complaining; if you’ve identified a high-impact problem, it’s not too hard to get someone to talk about it!

      I try not to interview the same potential customer twice. If I respect someone’s opinion enough that I feel the need to keep going back to them again and again, that’s not a customer — that’s a mentor (far more valuable).

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