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Your Startup Idea Is Bad - Now Make It Work

I want to help you not to fail. I respect you might have your vision and you are confident it is good. Your product or development team respects that as well. There is a chance you are a genius in the making, and your business idea will change the world. Or you’re not and you just don’t know it. This is why I’m being honest and why I want to tell you not to rely on your gut and vision all the time. You don’t have to learn from your own mistakes and this is how to avoid some of the most popular ones.

You can also find inspiration by looking at other startups and analysing their stories. Learning from others’ mistakes and successes always saves you time, effort and heartache.

Understanding vs. Believing

When they start working on a product, or found a startup, people often believe they have a solution to an existing problem. Whether the solution works or not is often not a case of deep understanding but more of a leap of faith. Some founders I’ve met showed a lot of belief in their own abilities rather than theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. As designers, we often spend a while explaining the difference. Knowing the difference between understanding and believing is really essential.

Your Idea Comes from a Real Struggle

You’re solving a problem that seems real to you – that’s great! You’re off for a good start and have an actual chance to solve someone else's problem. You have to get to know whether the fact you want to solve this problem means that somebody else wants to have it solved too.

It is hard to stay focused and unbiased when you’ve never built a product for masses but you want to. How do you know your solution would help people other than yourself? You will leave personal footprint on a given product, but how do you know when it’s too much?

It’s always hard for newbies to research and measure the market for a product. It’s especially

hard if you’ve never done it or you don’t have any people with such experience to help you. Luckily there are ways. Find an existing solution to a similar problem. Then, add your own experience and expertise and you’re off to a good start. Launching a product isn’t exclusive to experienced specialists. Ask simple questions and look for the unobvious answers.

The maker community is alluring – startupers love success, share it and embrace it. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reverse-engineer somebody else’s success. You can try and learn how to be successful by reading dozens of articles about The 10 Principles of Success, or, alternatively, conduct proper research and get to know the market and your competition.

Luckily, it is much easier to reverse-engineer failure. The maker community doesn’t like failure, though. The community hates failure. We say fail fast, fail often, but failure is virtually invisible... or wait..is it?

Failure Porn

Repackaging failure into success has been very popular lately. Especially by those who made it in the end: a shiny example of success reverse-engineering. What product teams may sometimes experience from stakeholders/founders is this:

If they (entrepreneurs) first failed but then they succeeded, I can do it too! This gives me the right to be less rational, less factual, to take unnecessary risks, stand by my beliefs, and to swear by ‘my vision.’

Can you see a problem there? During the design process, a lot of time will be spent on dismissing “disruptive (yet unviable) ideas” just because the stakeholder/founder will refuse to hear criticism most of the time. This serves no one. Neither the designer nor the founder. The hunger for success is great fuel to start off with. Fear of failure, however, can be a true blocker. You just can’t hide your head in the sand and ignore the facts. This would be foolish.

I know what I’m talking about because I failed and understood why. I co-created a startup - it had all the magic stuff to change the world, we even had a working prototype, and yet we failed miserably. A couple of years later I understood what went wrong. At least I believe I do, having been involved in many more startups since then.

This was not right after the failure event but more than two years later, when I was exposed to good practices, which I compared to my past experience. It’s hard to know or describe what the light is if you’ve never seen it. When the reasons I had failed became obvious, it was sad, revealing and cathartic. I constantly draw conclusions from this lesson, and I hope every project and every man I have work with ever since have benefitted from the lessons I learned then.

Expose Yourself to Good Practices

Knowledge is more available than ever before. Libraries aren’t filled with books on bad practices and lies. I suggest you read a lot, enhance your vision with others experience.

I Have an Idea, You Have the Money – Let’s Found a Startup!

An idea is not a solution. A proven and working system is. Having a live product, support team, development and sales teams are. Having a groundbreaking business idea on your mind or paper means nothing. Especially ideas from first-time fledgeling founders. This is how the market sees you, and I hope I’m not the first one to tell you that. To top it all, your idea how to solve a problem isn’t close to actually being a valid solution – a solution that works in real life and has solid business foundations. Haste and an eagerness to quickly corner the market can give you a false impression you must rely on your gut and intuition to be quicker, more agile and more competitive. Yet there’s high chance you’ll oversimplify wrong things, take the wrong shortcuts and make critical errors that will hurt your business the day after tomorrow.
Tips on how to become more self-aware from a guy who has seen a fair share of successes and failures.

  • Explore different options and don’t get hung up on the initial idea – even thought experiments are better than nothing. What seems to be an obvious solution is often neither the simplest solution nor the best one. Participate in a design sprint or try to run your own.
  • Know how to monetize and know it before you start the development. Late adjustments to core product features caused by the lack of clear strategy will cost you a lot of money, time and frustration. You’ll also lose your competitive edge.
  • Start with an MVP and think how to scale, but don’t scale at the beginning. Decide on what the MVP is going to look like, then focus and stick to the MVP. However hard it is for a person with a vision to let go, without doing so you may find yourself building up a feature creep – adding more and more unnecessary features for no apparent reason. Design for the MVP only. New and untested ideas should end up in your notebook or the backlog before they are approved for development.
  • Think about growth, and I don’t mean adding more features here. What I am driving at are a scalable architecture and a flexible product roadmap. Have a marketing and growth strategy – a good product isn’t enough.

Stress-test Ideas

  • First of all, google your idea, because someone may have done or started doing it already. If in fact there is something like your idea, don’t panic and don’t put the lid on it yet. Instead, try to learn and copy what’s good from your unexpected competitors.
  • If you know who your competitors are, do your research. Check their history, talk to people who know the market, read whatever you can find.
  • Talk to market experts. If the market you’re after is not your area of expertise, talk to an expert or somebody with more experience or knowledge of the market
  • Talk to the most intelligent person you know and ask her/him to bash your idea and pick holes in it. Get to know your market and try to find a niche – this will help you gain initial traction.

I Have a Random Golden Idea + There Is Nothing Like This on the Market Today

You probably think you’ve just won the lottery. You should ask yourself whether there is really no product like this or maybe:

  • Your research was insufficient
  • You can’t get the knowledge/insider info out of your desired market

Just ask companies that could create something similar to your idea why there is no such product on the market. You may learn valuable things there. Sometimes, there is no such product because it failed earlier for various reasons. Why did it fail?

My Idea is Wrong or Has No Market Value – What Do I Do Now?

If you’re done with research and conclusion is sad, yet your problem remains unsolved, giving up isn’t always the best choice. Participate in design sprints or iterate until your idea fits business and customer market needs (or kill it before you go bankrupt). The beauty of the design process is that it provides solutions for problems. Know instead of just believing. Don’t believe if you don’t need to.

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