As part of Atomic’s gratis consulting practice, I speak with three or four early-stage startup founders each month. These founders want to understand how to engage with a firm like Atomic to build some or all of their products. I’ve done this for a few years now. It’s become increasingly clear to me that many early-stage founders focus on the wrong things, ultimately decreasing the possibility of success for their companies. These mistakes manifest in a variety of ways, but I have identified two common patterns.
Mistake #1: Falling in Love with a Solution
One of the most common mistakes founders make is becoming fixated on the solution they have come up with, rather than thoroughly understanding the problem they are trying to solve. This can lead to creating products or services the market doesn’t need or that don’t effectively address a target audience’s needs.
At Atomic, we often say the most expensive software is a product no one wants to use. Sometimes, a startup founder becomes enamored with their idea (solution) rather than the need in the market (problem). That runs the risk of building something no one wants to use. If I were a startup founder, that possibility would keep me up at night. I’d do whatever I needed to do to avoid it.
I’ve also seen founders attribute a lot of value to the fact that they have an idea for a product. That’s one reason early-stage startup founders want us to sign an NDA before we even have a conversation about their idea. Ideas don’t have value. Execution of ideas has value. Don’t seek to protect your idea. Instead, seek to protect a product that exists.
If you base an idea on mistaken premises, it can even have negative value. That’s because you spend time, money, and expertise building the wrong thing at the cost of other opportunities, possibly better ones than the idea you have currently.
To avoid focusing on the wrong thing, founders should take the time to conduct thorough customer development and market research to truly understand the pain points and needs of their target market. The ambitious among us would read “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steve Blankl (Full disclosure: I bought the book, but I was not ambitious enough to finish it). For a less academic approach, I heartily recommend
“The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development” by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits.
Spend time with your customers. Talk with them. Deeply understand what they are looking for and what they’d be willing to pay for it. Then, find the cheapest, quickest way to scratch that itch, and build on that. What you end up building may or may not reflect what you initially envisaged. But you’ll save time, effort, and expense, and you’ll be more successful in the long run.
Mistake #2: Focusing on a Unique Future
Many startup founders believe their idea is unique. Sometimes they’re right, but often, they’re wrong. Humanity has been around for a long time. In that time, the rate of innovation across human existence has accelerated greatly in the last 200 years. A wise man once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I’m inclined to agree. Today, there is less space for truly unique, revolutionary ideas. Trillions of dollars have been spent in the past few decades to innovate in the technology sector alone. It’s foolish to believe that given all that investment anyone will come up with a unique idea.
Believing that what you are doing is unique can be a trap. It inherently cuts you off from learning. Instead of a defensive “my idea is unique in the world” reflex, I recommend founders cultivate a curious “someone has to have done this already” attitude.
Do your research. Figure out what sort of vertical your software product would land in and see who the players in the space are. What kinds of words do they use to describe their software? Google those terms. See if you can find a label that effectively describes what you want to build. Take that label and search for existing products on g2.com and capterra.com. In the last 10 years, I have yet to find a truly blue-sky market without any firms vying for business.
Once you figure out who the players in the market are, you can get even more valuable data about your idea. If other people have built something similar in the past, how much did it cost? Websites like crunchbase.com often make previous funding rounds public knowledge. It’s reasonable to assume that around half of a seed round for a VC-backed firm was focused on bringing a software platform to market. So if you see a competitor in the space who took on $3 million in funding, it’s reasonable to assume the first release of what you are looking to build will cost $1 million+.
This is all valuable information for any early-stage founder to have as they look to build their first technology company. Don’t tell yourself the story that your idea is unique. Spend time researching and studying your chosen vertical. Learn from the successes and failures of other firms.
Successful Startup Founders Avoid Focusing on the Wrong Things
Focusing on the wrong things at an early stage decreases the possibility of success. The most successful startup founders focus on the problem, the market, and past patterns of success. They conduct market research and learn from other companies to understand the industry and create products that meet the target audience’s needs.