How long have you been working on that one killer idea that’s going to rocket your startup into the stratosphere?
I’ve actually got a great example of my own. Just yesterday, I was out with some friends, and one of them started complaining about a problem he was having. It was a problem that was causing him to lose a good deal of money, with no exact way of knowing when and how much until it had already happened.
Awful problem to have, but it also happens to be a problem I kind of solved about eight years ago. I say “kind of solved” because my solution, as a product, failed to find market fit. It never took off.
But as my friend complained about his own experience with this problem, there was a nugget of information in the details that sparked a new take on my original idea. And so I immediately mentally moved my old project back from the dead to the top of my priority list.
Then I got home and pushed it back down a couple notches. I’ve got real work to do and the kids gotta eat.
Entrepreneurs Are a Persistent Bunch
Let me tell you another cautionary tale about another entrepreneur friend of mine who spent six long years trying to perfect a use case and a certain set of features before launching his product. “James” was that guy who always showed up to our get-togethers talking about some new functionality he was working on, and he was always, always just a few months away from launching his product.
When he did finally launch, his product failed quietly. It was hard to get started with, hard to use, and ultimately no one wanted the damn thing. In fact, no one could figure out enough about what the product was supposed to do to decide if they wanted it or not. Including me.
The difference between James’ product and my product is the difference between falling in love with an idea and falling in love with solving a problem. As persistent as we entrepreneurs can be, it’s critical to know the difference between those two phenomena before we spend years running ourselves and our startups into the ground.
Idea vs. Solution
Entrepreneurs can spend ages working on one killer idea, the part of our product that makes it unique, attractive, useful, and valuable. Sometimes we’ll even chain together one killer idea after another, without ever finding the glue that makes our solution come together and ultimately results in a product that a lot of people want to buy.
James’ product failed because it was an idea that didn’t translate into a solution. My product failed because it was a solution without a big idea behind it. When either of those things hit the market, the market shrugs them off. Always.
Ideas are easy. For an idea to exist, it simply needs to happen. You can wake up tomorrow, have a killer idea, write it down, and get going. If your idea is good enough, you might even be able to get people to hop on board and support it, back it, even work on it.
But solutions are hard. In order for that killer idea to become a true solution, like any solution, you’re going to need proof. This is not only a basic tenet of mathematics, it’s a basic tenet of entrepreneurship.
Can Your Killer Idea Become an Elegant Solution?
Chasing excellent ideas is the work of a dreamer. Solving complex problems is the work of a grinder. For a startup’s product to be successful, it has to be rooted in the dream state of a great idea and then become the elegant solution to a big and complex problem.
You need to be both a dreamer and a grinder. That’s a lot to ask. It’s one of the top reasons why co-founders pair up. One has the vision, the other has the skills to make that vision a reality.
For the typical problem solver, getting this idea/solution mix right isn’t really that painful. A solution will always be a solution, and a solution will always have some intrinsic value. A solution can always be tweaked, modified, enhanced, simplified, or otherwise changed so that it might find traction in a market. A solution can even be a solution-in-search-of-a-problem until you find the right, big, hairy problem.
More importantly, the changes you make in search of market fit can be documented, and the results of those changes can be measured. In today’s digital commerce world, this kind of experimental approach to starting up has never been more accessible and less expensive.
On the other hand, the dreamer is necessarily fueled by blind faith in their idea. What they’re counting on is that, at some point, the solution will make itself clear.
Here’s the catch. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to raise a few thousand dollars on Kickstarter or if Softbank has sunk billions of dollars into your fake technology real estate venture, somewhere down the road, you’re going to need to show how your killer idea solves a big problem for a lot of people.
No matter how awesome your idea is, that bill always comes due.
Building the Solution Bridge
Most startups working on new ideas usually start building their solution as if they were building a bridge from the far side. On that far side is the destination, the point at which a perfect product is solving big problems for lots of customers. That’s where dreamers put their faith. They can see the other side, and it’s excellent.
The near side of the bridge is where that startup stands today, with its nascent versions of product, solution, and company.
The problem solver looks at where they are today, looks at where they need to go, and fashions that next step forward. The dreamer looks at where they need to go and, usually without regard to where they are today, they build the next step from the destination backwards.
Yes, doing that requires very long arms, which is a metaphor for how inefficient and risky this strategy is.
But I can’t stress enough how both strategies are mandatory to the development of a successful startup. The solution bridge happens in the maturation process of every idea, every product, and every company.
And this is where a lot of startups sink — like James’ six-year journey. When you don’t pull back from the far end and start building from the near side, you can’t validate as you go.
Killer Ideas Are Risky, but Necessary
It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur sitting on a killer idea that has yet to see the light of day, or you’re chugging along revenue-positive on your way to explosive scale and growth, or you’ve raised eight or nine figures trying to change the way the entire world thinks about X.
If you’re not building that solution bridge from both ends, you constantly run the risk of that great, big, killer idea taking your business down along with everyone who believed in that idea and hopped aboard for the ride.
You need a spotter for these validation moments. Someone who is tasked with rearchitecting the plans for that bridge based on what you know about where you are on the near side and how that impacts what you have to do to reach the far side. In fact, I’d have a role in your company dedicated to validation.
As an advisor, it’s a role I play often, almost always. And I can tell you that, if the conversation is put off for too long, all sorts of bad things start to happen as more expectations get missed, and more fingers get pointed as the dreamers start blaming the grinders for lagging and the grinders start blaming the dreamers for, well, dreaming.
That scenario is never healthy.
So dream. Dream big. It’s the only way your startup is going to stand out among the millions of ideas that are clunkily on their way to half-baked solutions. Just make sure you’ve got eyes on how much air that killer idea is sucking out of the company, and make sure someone is thinking about the problem and the solution.