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Commitment vs validation

 

The year was 2015 and everyone was into startups. Incubators were spawning left, right and centre. Coaches appeared out of nowhere teaching people about fundraising, product-market fit and million-dollar exits. It was hard to resist the hype. So I didn't. I also dreamt of my own startup. How cool would it be to work on something you believe in, on your own vision. Luckily I didn't immediately quit my job and run to incorporate a new company. No, I was a product manager for a while to know that more than 90% of all ideas and startups fail. And I also knew the top reasons why startups fail. I was determined to avoid the most common mistakes and "fail safely". 
Firstly I needed to find like-minded people. Successful startups built by solo entrepreneurs are extremely rare, besides I wasn't technical enough to even get to an MVP stage on my own. Luckily, I was going to all those startup-related events and there were no shortages of bright, energetic people who were as much into technology and business as I was. 

Like any good startup story, ours started in a pub. We shared interesting problems with each other, considered multiple ideas and fantasised about how those could be implemented in an innovative way. It all been fun and games until I put my PM hat on and spoiled the party. I said we need to choose problems and validate them before committing serious time and money. 

The idea we've chosen was about monitoring the changes on the Internet. As a PM you often need to do competitive research, you need to know what's going on in your industry. Usually, it's a highly manual process, a PM or a marketeer sits down and go through the list of their competitors, putting the findings into a spreadsheet or a presentation. This tends to happen either regularly or when the person in question has time to do it. We saw a problem there, say if your competitor does an important change and you're not aware of it until the next time you do competitors analysis - it might be rather bad for your business. So we thought about a product that could monitor your competitors automatically and inform you when they change or introduce something. 

To validate the problem we've chosen the "Wizard of Oz" technique. We've created a landing page explaining the product as if it was real. Potential customers were able to register their interest and provide several "targets" for us to monitor. We promised to send them updates every week. 
Surprisingly, quite a few people registered. And so for the next several months, we've been producing competition intelligence decks for them. It all was manual work, we didn't have a single line of code written yet. Nonetheless, we were learning rapidly. We understood much better the technical difficulties in creating such a product and we received great feedback from the early customers. One customer even offered us money to keep those reports coming. 

All was going well, we almost had a validated market problem on our hands worthy of a startup. And yet, half a year later I wrote our "customers" that we no longer will be sending them reports. Soon we took our landing page down. Why? Most likely because we weren't committed enough to continue. We all had our jobs and other life circumstances. I guess none of us believed enough in the idea or our own abilities to turn it into a real business. We've quit before the start. And maybe our cautious approach, my ever-validating PM approach was to blame. 

There is something about being a real startup, always on the brink of failure and without the safety net that cannot be replicated in other conditions. It seems the magic cannot happen by intrepreneurship nor by side projects. Perhaps because your focus blurs, it's no longer aimed at totally and fully the most important - survival of your enterprise. It happens not only with side projects or fresh startups but also with major scaleups.

The story of my (un)successful startup experience sparked in my brain a few days ago when I was browsing TC and found the article about Visualping. Amazed I scrolled through their website to find out it's the exact same idea we've discussed all those years ago in a pub dreaming of our own startup. I smiled at the fact that even the year when Visualping was found is the same. 

Surely I don't say that it could have been us. Statistically, we would have failed, like 90% of all startups. Like probably dozens of other groups trying to solve this problem. And yet at least one of us succeeded through thousand different factors, but most importantly through commitment and dedication. 

In product management, we're told to validate before committing. That's a reasonable, safe strategy. However, one could build a strong case for commitment to be able to compensate for a poorly validated problem. It's much riskier, no doubt. And still, it could sometimes lead to innovation and success.
 
The analogy I am thinking of is a walking trail. You could try and map your every step, attempting to plan every minute. Or you can think where you'd start and where you want to end up, but then just start walking. Maybe the path takes you somewhere unexpected, somewhere potentially more beautiful than your original destination. 

I struggle to think of a moral or call to action for this story. Creating products and businesses, innovating and inventing are still highly complex processes that incorporate skill and luck in unequal measures. However, it seems that dedication and singular focus could at times sway the odds in your favour. 

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