I’ve been a “wannabe-preneur” my entire life. I always told my friends and family that “one day I’ll start my own business” but deep down, I didn’t truly believe what I was saying. I had a comfortable corporate job, a good salary, and a relatively easy life. Like most other wannabe-preneurs, I had plenty of business ideas that I became excited about from time to time. But I never became fully committed to any of them, and certainly never quit my job to work on them full-time.
In short, I suffered from three diseases that prevented me from becoming a fully committed entrepreneur:
- Analysis paralysis (Is there a market for my product? How big is it? How much can I charge for it?)
- Fear of failure (What if I fail? How will I support myself and my family?)
- Golden handcuffs (Do I really want to give up my comfy corporate lifestyle?)
That is, I suffered from these diseases until I found the cure. When I first found it, I didn’t realize it was a cure. Instead, it simply seemed like a useful framework for validating business ideas. While that is indeed true, it also cured me of my three diseases and gave me the confidence to become a full time entrepreneur. More importantly, it can cure the diseases that prevent you from starting your business, too.
The framework I refer to is called Lean Startup. And this is how I used it to overcome my fears and start the company of my dreams, Retrium.
But First, Some Background (You can skip this if you know about Lean Startup already)
Lean Startup is a methodology first proposed by Eric Ries in 2011 that emphasizes short development cycles, frequent customer feedback, and “validated learning.” A complete description of the Lean Startup methodology is well beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re considering starting your own business, I strongly encourage you to read about it (start with The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries himself, followed by Running Lean, by Ash Maurya).
For the purposes of this post, here’s what you need to know. Lean Startup encourages you to “get out of the building” by talking to, and learning from, potential customers early and often. So early, in fact, that you don’t even need a product to start talking. All you need is an idea and the courage to talk to others about it.
How Wannabe-preneurs are Different From Entrepreneurs
Both wannabe-preneurs and entrepreneurs typically start with the same drive: a love of building things. What separates wannabe-preneurs from entrepreneurs is that wannabe-preneurs tend to be focused on product alone, while entrepreneurs understand that building a product is only a part of building a business. Building a business also requires marketing, sales, customer development, business models, pricing strategies, HR, and more. Wannabe-preneurs start and end with product. When it doesn’t catch on, they give up.
The trouble with building a product without simultaneously talking to potential customers is that you’re just guessing. You’re guessing that others will find your product useful. You’re guessing that people would pay for it. Most wannabe-preneurs never gain the confidence they need to quit their job and start a business because they are just guessing.
Enter Lean Startup
Lean Startup fixes this problem for you. It encourages you to “get out of the building” by talking to potential customers in order to learn from them. It forces you to validate your business hypotheses early and often. It forces you to iterate on small bits of product by testing them in the marketplace. And best of all, you can do all of that before you build a product and before you quit your job. With Lean Startup, you no longer need to guess that your business idea has a real chance at success. You’ll know it has a real chance at success because potential customers will have already told you that they would pay for your product. And all this, before you even quit your day job.
Here’s My Story
For me, it all started with a simple hypothesis: that it’s difficult for distributed scrum teams to run effective sprint retrospectives (if that sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, don’t worry, you’re probably not in my target market!). Here’s how I used Lean Startup to test this hypothesis and cure myself of my three diseases.
First, I started talking to people I knew who were in the broader software development space. I did this on weekday evenings, after dinner and after I put my kids to bed. I quickly learned that most people I talked to did not suffer from the pain points I was trying to solve. Good thing I hadn’t quit my job yet! Instead, I simply narrowed my early adopter target market to Scrum Masters of distributed teams. Since I didn’t know too many of these people, I turned to Twitter, found a group who were in this target market, connected with them, and asked to chat. Most were happy to oblige (thank you!) primarily, in turns out, because they did suffer from the pain points I was trying to solve. Great news! I had found my initial target market.
Within two weeks, I had talked to over 25 potential customers. Over 95% had the paint point I was trying to solve. Most were actively looking for a solution, but couldn’t find one. Best of all, the majority of people I talked to were willing to pay for the solution I was proposing.
Notice that I still haven’t talked about actually building a product. That’s because I didn’t have one, nor did I need one yet, as long as I kept working on validating my problem hypothesis. And the more people I talked to, the more I became convinced that I had an idea that could really work. And not just as a cool product, but as a business. In effect, my potential customers had convinced me that the primary risk of going full-time on my startup was no longer whether people would pay for my product, but whether I could build such a product in the first place.
Did you hear that? Product! The thing that wannabe-preneurs are good at. The thing I know I’m good at and my co-founder is good at. I now had the guts to quit my job and start Retrium, the company of my dreams.
Lean Startup As The Cure
Let me end by going back to the beginning. I had three diseases as a wannabe-preneur: analysis paralysis, fear of failure, and golden handcuffs. Lean Startup cured them all. It allowed me to gain confidence that there was a market for my idea (overcoming analysis paralysis), it helped me validate my problem statement (overcoming fear of failure), and it let me believe that my startup could realistically lead to financial success (overcoming golden handcuffs).
Lean Startup can do that for you, too. All you have to do is start talking.