A frequent mistake for startup entrepreneurs is allowing the fear of potential theft of the next great idea or failure to maintain a shroud of secrecy to prevent sharing and customer validation early in the process. Spending time and money on issues unrelated to a complete focus on ensuring that our product or service meets customer needs is not only a distraction, it can also lead us down the wrong path and away from our primary mission.
As a former professor teaching innovation and entrepreneurship and now business accelerator mentor and serial entrepreneur, I frequently see this issue play out, as startup teams spend more time protecting their intellectual property creation than on seeking customer feedback. Spending time and money on perfecting an idea that has not been validated by potential customers is a great example of the aphorism “perfect is the enemy of the good”. The lean startup approach is not about pinching pennies or surviving on ramen noodles – that’s just part of the startup process. The concept of a minimum viable product is just that – a minimum. It’s not a finished product, perfect product or final product. Whether a physical product, service offering, software solution, mobile app – the MVP is a vehicle to test market acceptance and acquire valuable customer feedback in a continuous feedback loop, allowing for further iteration and additional testing.
Failure to adopt this common sense approach occurs when secrecy and lack of customer feedback have us develop something the market does not need or want, is not willing to pay for, or simply lacks the key benefits and features customers are looking for. Had we simply taken the time to seek input from the people who will truly determine our future success, we could have included that valuable feedback in our creative process. A laser focus on the customer requires that we see our potential customers as an essential part of our development process. As I frequently remind startup founders: you always should know what your customers need, want and are willing to pay for. And Always Should Know provides the perfect acronym for how to get that feedback: ASK.
Our current startup took a “practice what we teach” approach, conducting a large scale beta test for our mobile marketing platform in 12 communities across 7 states, with approximately 300 prospective customers and hundreds of test app users over a 6 month test period. The feedback was not only invaluable, it also pointed us to a major pivot that allowed for more rapid deployment and significant cost savings. As a result, we are now on the 19th iteration of our mobile app, and we will continue to add new features if and when our customers tell us they are needed and, of course, provide a return on investment.
In our experience, the most important and often difficult realization is that we may be founders, owners, CEO’s and Presidents, but we all work for the same boss – the customer. If we listen to the people who are paying us and give them what they want, that’s the best recipe for startup success.