For the past couple of months I’ve been working on ideas in the lean startup space. As explained in previous posts, it seemed logical: I have a solid background in it from my days at oneforty as well as consulting before and after and the subject is hot now with Eric Ries’s book out, Steve Blank’s book coming soon and a seeming never-ending discussion about the principles in our community.
After initially exploring the opportunity to provide tools for performing customer development, I pivoted to the broader idea of providing a tool to help with Lean Product Management. Initially, the response was great; I wrote a blog post on the concept of Lean Product Management and it was universally loved. It’s the most read blog post on my blog ever and it generated significant inbound interest. At the same time, I talked to quite a few people that had interesting feedback on the process and where they were coming up short. I also met a number of people and companies that needed help in the areas I was looking for the product to work. However, in the end, a few major issues are leading me to place this idea on the scrap heap with the other previous 8 ideas I’ve evaluated over the past year.
The Concept – Product Chasm
The biggest problem in developing this idea was a major gap between the buy-in to the concept I wrote about and the actual execution of the concept.
In the product management world, it seems everyone has a different way of implementing it. Some people are absolutely hardcore and have impeccable wikis and project management tools (like a 1-2 punch of Jira and Confluence). Others keep it loose with simply a Google Spreadsheet and a Kanban board (both real and virtual). Finally others have utter chaos and have absolutely destroyed their project management tool by jamming everything in there (usually Pivotal Tracker or BaseCamp). It seems individuality is greatly valued in the world of product management…
This presents a series of problems:
1) There is no silver bullet
The difference between a Kanban board and a wiki based product management tool is significant. This would mean any tool that was valuable for one is unlikely to be interesting to the other.
2) Marketing is a nightmare
With everyone having their own ideas on how to implement product management principles, targeting and acquiring a customer would be extremely difficult. Even those that I confidently believed had problems in their process often either A) did not perceive there was a problem or B) even if they knew they had a problem, they weren’t actively seeking a solution.
3) There was no MVP
As I talked to over 40 people who owned product at their company, I found no consensus on what part of the process was broken for them; without this consensus, there was no way to build an MVP. More importantly, the lack of consensus showed no agreement on a core problem which could be used as the tip of the spear towards acquiring customers and building out a platform over time; building a Lean Product Management tool would take significant time to become a complete, full life cycle solution, but there was no clear path for doing so.
A Greater Problem – Passion?
One of the most fascinating things about my trip to Silicon Valley in December was seeing how entrepreneurs interact with one another there versus here in Boston. Specifically, I’m talking about the first questions an entrepreneur is asked about their startup/idea. There is no right or wrong here, just different.
In Boston, common questions are:
- What stage are you at?
- How will you make money?
- Do you have any customers?
In the Valley, common questions are:
- Why are you passionate about this idea?
- How will you acquire customers?
- What is the big vision for your idea?
Of all the questions, the one I found most jarring was, “Why are you passionate about this idea?”
Over the past 9 months of questing for an idea, I’ve been attacking ideas with laser focus and rigid customer development methodology. While this has likely saved me a lot of time on any of the ideas, it also was devoid of the thought of passion; was I ever really passionate about an idea in the moving industry or restaurant services? Being completely honest with myself, I don’t believe I was.
Rebooting – a Focus on Passion
Paul Graham, amongst many others, has always said, “solve the problem you wish someone would solve for you.” I actually have an Evernote full of “hack project ideas” that are just that. I plan to start looking hard at those ideas and working on approaches to test those ideas.
Jason Baptiste wrote a blog post back before Cloudomatic (which came right before he and his cofounder discovered the OnSwipe opportunity) which covered a series of ideas he was thinking about. He got a great response from people showing who also cared about the ideas. I may do the same soon.
I had a great conversation with Eric Paley after a Dart Dinner early this past fall about my struggles to find an idea. He told me, “I think founders have to believe in a little fate; the right idea will find you at the right time.”
Those words have stuck with me and ring true with my first real venture: Greenhorn Connect. I could not have had that idea come to me at a better time both personally (it was the only way for me to build credibility in the Boston startup ecosystem and land a job 4 months later at oneforty) and for the ecosystem (October 2009 was the very beginning of our ecosystem’s awesome resurgence…the perfect time for a uniting site).
More importantly, I wasn’t even looking to start something when Greenhorn Connect happened. It just grabbed me and I couldn’t not do it. As many of you who knew me then may remember, I was a man possessed to make it work. Despite all the obvious reasons not to do it, I still did it (Lean Startups principles would have definitely it shot down). I will never forget my first Mass Innovation Night after launch and Adam Marchick and Michael Cohen both giving me the proverbial “You’re crazy. Why are you doing this?” speech. Both are great converts now, but it was only the passion and a touch of fate/destiny/luck that really possessed me to so blindingly go after the idea.
After 9 months of trying to force ideas, I’m trying to get back to basics. I need to find my passions and try to let the right idea find me instead of desperately grasping in the dark for ideas or trying to force an idea through the grinder. A quote from Drew Huston has stuck with me in this process. He said that of all the 5 or 6 companies he’s started, only Dropbox felt like, “the wind was at our back.” That feels telling and reminds me of the commonly discussed need of Skill, Luck and Timing to build a truly great company.
It’s been 9 very long months since I left oneforty. While even today I have a runway left that most young entrepreneurs would envy, I’m realistic about my endeavor to start something; how long should you stick with it before you realize the timing isn’t right?
The great entrepreneurs say it takes Skill, Luck and Timing to build a great company. I believe I have the skill to build a great company, which is why I left oneforty. I was also inspired by this oft-tweeted blog post encouraging you to quit your job and start a company even if you don’t have an idea. However, as time continues to slip by, I ask myself if I’m making the most of my time.
That’s why I’m beginning to evaluate working opportunities for the first time since I started this process.
I’ve thought a lot about the framework of what I’m looking for; not needing the money gives me the luxury of weighting all my other priorities over compensation. I’ve realized the most important things to me are:
- Working on a really big idea
- Working with a truly great leader I can learn from
- Having the opportunity to further develop skills that are assets to a business founder
I have ZERO regrets of how I’ve spent my time since leaving oneforty. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself, what I need in a technical cofounder and thanks to this most recent idea, how to manage product. I’ve also continued to build my network which is filled with mentors I know I can count on for help when I need it and people I can’t wait to invite to join me in working on that great ideaI know I’m going to find.
Like Steve Jobs said in his Stanford Graduation speech, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” If you found me 3 years ago and told me I’d have done the things I’ve accomplished thus far, I wouldn’t believe you. However, looking back I can see how critical each step was in this crazy journey. Frankly, the less logical the next step, the more it seems to have worked out for the best.
I can’t wait to see what’s next and hope you’ll stay tuned; my beliefs are unshaken: I will build a great anchor company one day.
I admire your courage and especially your introspection. It’s a quality I like a lot about you and a few of my other oneforty coworkers – one of whom I get to work with again. It’s important for decision making :) Can’t wait to hear what your next steps are.
At first I found it a little scary to be so open about what I’m doing, but now it’s honestly cathartic and liberating. Being open and transparent is really helpful and allows me to share what I’m doing with more people than I can have beers and coffee with…
…speaking of which, looking forward to catching up next week!
i think you benefit from a solid mix of pragmatism and insanity. Pragmatism, as in, “i believe this will work because of a, b, c logical reasons.” Insanity, as in, “i’m so damned passionate about this that i’ll do it despite any logical reasoning.”
Without the latter, it gets very tempting to quit when those a, b, and c reasons start to look in doubt – which they will again and again as you hit the troughs in the up and down cycle of doing something new…err on this side, if you can. Worst case, you’ll have some fun.
great post, man. cheers.
Thanks for the comment and insights. You totally nailed the balancing act. I’ve got all the pragmatism I think I need, but I lost passion somewhere and so I need to figure out how to strike that and then worry about evaluating the idea.
Hope things are rocking with OnTheBar! …it’s an obvious balance of pragmatism and insanity for you!
My advice to you is get a job………………………at a startup and learn a domain.
Someone smarter than me said ” young founders tend to breed stupid startup ideas. Not because they are themselves stupid, but because they lack the proper execution context. ” http://an.ton.io/blog/articles/2010/02/12/startups-and-experience-context-matters
This is not a cut. You have plenty of time to start your own deal.
I appreciate the sentiment and take no offense. However, the advantages that young people have are many and evaporate with age:
1) Extremely low burn rate
– No wife, no kids, no house, can get away without a car, etc.
2) No one else to account for
– Without the family issue, and likely parents still young enough to not have serious health problems, you’re not responsible for anyone else. That provides significant independence that a founder often needs (or becomes strained because they lack it).
3) Ignorance is bliss.
By not knowing something “won’t work” (a true failing mindset prevalent in Boston) young entrepreneurs can charge ahead and create the future.
4) Time and learning
My father once told me, “by the time you’re about 35 years old, you are who you are going to be. It’s really hard to change then.” In my experience this has held very true. Being a founder requires such depth and growth along the way that I think the flexibility (mentally and personality wise) is extremely under-rated. The way Zuck has grown in his abilities to lead a company as Facebook has grown is a prime example; I don’t think someone older would have been able to grow along the way.
5) 4 Score and Some Odd Years isn’t that long…
I may only be 26, but I have many goals in life and so I personally think it’s folly to think you have all the time in the world. I know waaay too many people 1.5-2x my age that have tons of regrets for things they never did.
You can push life to the limits or have it slowly push you out of the way. If I had waited until people said I was ready for anything, I’d never have gone to grad school right out of undergrad, never built Greenhorn Connect nor had any of the career moves I’ve had since.
This is not a slight at the idea of getting a job; I’m in fact very open to it. What it is a slight at is the idea that there’s plenty of time. No one knows how much time they have nor what lies around life’s next corner.
I agree with your response. But, my point is, you might get there faster by gaining market experience which will point you to the idea rather than trying to will it to take shape.
The customer dev tool idea was based upon the experience you were having trying to come up with an initial idea. Sort of spiraling inwards in a limited field of view, whereas experience with actual paying customers at a growing concern in a growing field may kickstart your ideation.
Jason, good for you for having the guts to test out your ideas these past months. It’s clear you are a founder at heart. There’s no shame in working to make someone else’s dream come true while building your skills. Don’t worry. The right idea WILL come at the right time.
We met earlier this year and I was going though a similar ‘reboot’ myself. I’m glad to see you not losing spirit, thats the most important thing, if any thing has served me well in 23 years.
I’ve also found some tip of direction I think, and its funny about a week ago I posted similar posts on my blog (its on tumblr -a ridiculous platform considering I pay for vps/own my own server, but I like tumblr). Reading this off of twitter I feel like I’m re-reading my own stuff haha. Its good to hear at any rate, I feel like as long as you are in the arena, you can play the game, so having the presence of mind to be looking means you will find something. Once you lose that presence, its hard to get back. I have faith though, you strike me as a determined guy. If you ever despair, just check out Paul Arden’s books.
The perfect idea will come, just be ready when it does.
A persuasive idea needs to convince on the three dimensions: logos (logic), ethos (credibility, trustworthiness) and pathos (emotion). Sounds like your Silicon Valley trip helped you to rediscover the importance of the third!
[Sorry, but it’s the time of the semester when I’m going over Aristotelian Rhetoric with some classes and this just fit that model!]
Going through a similar soul searching exercise in the recent past, I am impressed by your reflective and cohesive thought process. Good Luck discovering your passion.
(and on a more mundane note, blossom.io seems to attempt some of the innovation accounting as part of a product/customer dev process) You might find it interesting.
Thanks for the tip on Blossom.io. They’re definitely in the vein of what I’m talking about and Sprint.ly is at least doing the first part of engaging all parts of a team better.
I still think it’s a good *idea*, it’s just not a good *business*. I look forward to seeing how both do and using them in future work myself.
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One missing feature I have yet to find in any product management tool is the ability to publish unlisted task lists. Any ideas?
What is an “unlisted task list”? Not sure what you’re looking for so can’t help :-/
Sorry I put it in the wrong way. I meant the list of tasks or subtasks that are not yet assigned to any specific project or group of projects. For example, you can create a filter that lists all tasks that are to be completed by a certain team member and have them sorted by creation time, for instance, latest on the top. However, this filter would not show you the tasks that you haven’t assigned to anyone yet.
I don’t think the tools were ever designed for that; you can give ownership of a task outlined in a PM tool, but it was never designed to be a to do list.
I think the problem everyone runs into is trying to make their Project Management tool do *everything*. That doesn’t work for any tool. The more processes you jam into one tool, the more it slows everything down. At some point, it’s actually better to segment out aspects of the overall product lifecycle so that each stage stays lightweight and organized.
This is the thesis of my discussion above in that the work to prioritize and research your next steps for your product should all be done *outside* of the project management tool like a Basecamp or a Tracker. Similarly, when a teammate is setting up their to do list they should have tasks assigned from the PM tool, but then manage themselves outside of it.
Hope this helps.
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