What is the biggest mistake that aspiring entrepreneurs and startup founders make? They start with an idea. They start with a product. They forget that a startup is an experiment to figure out what's working for the company, the idea, and their own selves.
Start with a worldview.
Instead of solving problem X or using tech Y, build your worldview. Build your vision. Where do you want to see the world with your startup? What do you want the world to become with what you are doing? The problem, solution, and technology come later in the life cycle of a startup.
Before Invact or NeoG even existed, I knew that my vision is to bring joy to learning and create an environment where students have limitless opportunities.
I like to think of it as similar to driving. Say, I want to drive 600 km from Bangalore to Goa. When I start from Bangalore, I have my destination in mind but I cannot see it yet. I might take different routes to reach Goa. I might get lost on the way and use Google Maps to find the right direction again. Whatever happens, whichever path I take, my destination does not change. My long-term vision stays the same.
Build a hypothesis, not an idea.
Now that you have your worldview in mind, the next step will be to find an idea, right? Not so fast. The issue with jumping straight to ideas is that one gets emotionally attached to them. It's your baby and you cannot listen to anything negative about it. It's the best thing to have ever existed.
And when you start talking to users, your emotion conveys itself in the conversation. The first users you talk to will anyways be your friends and acquaintances. Because of your attachment to your idea, they might never criticize it or share their honest feedback, just to appease you.
From the start, call your idea an experiment or a hypothesis. It might seem insignificant but the terminology is important. It ensures that you do not get emotionally attached and stay critical about your work.
Understand and analyze the problem space. The problem space I am emotional about is education. What are the companies solving for this space? How and what problems are they tackling? What's working for them? What's not working for them? What pain points have they overlooked?
Once you find those pain points, develop a hypothesis. Take a best guess of how you can solve the problem. Run cheap and fast experiments. The objective here is to learn from experiments and validate your hypothesis.
Before we get to building
We have our worldview in place. We have studied the problem space and found out the user pain points. We would have ideally talked to customers and figured out what the final solution would look like. But customers don't know what they want.
So how do we know whether what we plan to build is right or not?
For early-stage startups, there are not much supporting data available. The hypothesis or problem space might be too novel. That's where intuition comes in.
VCs and investors back second-time founders more often because the founder has worked in the problem space for long enough to develop intuition. I was able to raise funds so early in my startup journey only because I had been working in education for almost a decade. VCs knew that I have the intuition needed to build the right product in this problem space.
And even if you don't get it right in the first few tries, it is totally fine. Recall that it's an experiment, and experiments fail all the time. Even the legendary entrepreneur Steve Jobs failed massively with NeXT computers.
You have taken up the task of solving a new problem. You are bound to make mistakes. That's where the next point comes in.
Don't take time to build.
Testing your hypothesis is more important than anything else you do. Start with Google Forms, No-Code tools, or even SaaS products and get the wheels rolling.
Before Invact existed as a company, I was exploring the non-tech education system and industry. I created a Telegram group and spread the word on my social media channels. I then created a basic document of what I was thinking about in Notion. I created some exercises and asked the people who had joined the Telegram group to complete them. This exercise gave me the initial idea validation even before I had thought of building a product.
The goal of the product is to test if users are interested. It should perform the one task that is important for the user. Every other feature can be added later.
Once your primary experiment starts showing signs of success, it's time to build on top of it.
Start with a 10 mm pencil. Create the topmost flow of what the users will see. Then take a 4 mm pencil and start adding details. Figure out how the user will interact with your product. Finally, get a 2 mm pencil and get into the finer details like colors, fonts, icons, etc. Even then, take your time, develop the details slowly, and do not jump and finalize the product design at once.
Measure the metrics.
One mistake that I often observe founders do is that they don't think of Analytics until it's too late.
Your metrics will help you understand what's working and what's not. This is how you will build the next iteration of your experiment. Remember we talked about the lack of data in a new problem space? Now's your time to collect as much data as possible and inculcate a data-driven process into your system.
What sets you apart is not just the solution.
Honestly, the solution is a small part of building a startup. There's the worldview, the product pieces, but most importantly, the people. You need a people process even for a 3-4 member team.
Your competitors can copy your solution in no time. Clubhouse came up with audio spaces. Twitter copied the feature. Now LinkedIn also offers audio events.
It's easy to copy features and products. But it's difficult to copy culture, and that's what transforms a company. Believe it or not, culture does give you a competitive moat in the long term.
Think of Microsoft in 2014. It had the best people and engineers. The company was still falling behind and the stocks were plummeting. In comes Satya Nadella, who changes the direction of the company.
Another reason why I used this example is to emphasize the importance of a founder's motivation and work style in a startup. If you are documentation-oriented, your organization will become documentation-oriented. If you come to the office on time, all your employees will arrive on time. If you come to the office at 2 pm and work late at night, others will follow suit.
You may not realize it, but your team is also a product. The founder, being at the helm of the organization, has to take care of the culture and direction of the team.
Apple is still a design-centric company because Steve Jobs built it in this manner and engrained the value in its culture. That's what still sets the company apart, even though Jobs is long gone.
Till next time
Becoming a startup founder has taught me a lot. It has transformed my worldview and how I process information. I had been thinking about how to build a startup right and found the urge to document my thoughts.
Do let me know if you found this newsletter issue insightful. I have been reading a lot about entrepreneurship and would love to share my learnings with you.
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