Entrepreneur’s Block

Giff Constable startups

On Friday, a reader sent me an email. They were suffering from “entrepreneur’s block”, where they kill off every idea as quickly as it arises. It is the opposite disease to those who fall in love with an idea, are afraid to talk to anyone about it and thus build something no one wants. In this case, the person never builds anything at all. The cure to both problems is actually the same: get outside your own head.

It is incredibly easy to kill an idea. Innovations tend to be obvious only in retrospect. There are a million reasons why startups fail, and so a million reasons never to start in the first place. But if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you need to balance intelligent caution with entrepreneurial can-do optimism. My problem in my youth was too much of the latter, which is why I so appreciate Blank/Ries.

You need to accept that it’s ok for an initial idea to be imperfect, because they all are. You need to have a core insight, but product-market fit comes from the *process*, not from the idea. Given media-perpetuated myths, I think this notion is as surprising to some as realizing that Steve Jobs practices the hell out of his speeches, rather than just being awesome due to innate, unobtainable talent.

If you have a passion for an idea, start doing market and competitive research*, but also get talking to real people. Try different validation methods (aside: part of the fun of watching this weekend Lean Startup Machine experiment was seeing the creativity and diversity of customer development tactics). So what if the idea is half-baked! Until you start customer development, no matter how much you “bake”, it will always remain half-baked! At Aprizi, we started out with a thesis and 10 related ideas. Early customer development quickly narrowed that down to 2. The wizard-of-oz alpha brought that to one, and our crude beta made us evolve even that one quite a bit. We have a lot of learning and improvement to do still — I don’t think that ever ends.

There is nothing like hearing excitement in another person’s voice to add fuel to your own fire. But if you do not hear that excitement right away, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily kill the idea. Stubborness has a place, as does flexibility to evolve. As entrepreneurs, we work in a cloud of imperfect information. We constantly face the risk of false positives and false negatives. You have to navigate with customer development, gut and vision, experience, and the help of other smart people.

*Note on market and competitive research
If you are thinking about doing a startup, it is worth thinking through your personal filters for ideas. Do you need a billion dollar business or would a niche market make you happy? Does an idea have to be bootstrappable all the way, or would you contemplate raising money (this hugely impacts the kinds of business models you can take on)? Do you care more about enterprise or consumer? Where is your domain knowledge and passion? (Note: you don’t have to be the customer. Club Penguin was built by a group of dads who really cared about what they were doing.)

I also want to stress that the existence of competition is not, in itself, a reason to kill an idea. Excessive noise and fragmentation can be troubling (although that can open up different opportunities), but competition can be a very good thing. There are advantages to having a more educated, mature market. It all depends on how vulnerabilities match up to your strengths. A big, complex topic!