And what if I told you that this journey can actually be exciting, not scary? What if every conversation you had actually moved you forward in your business? All of the above is entirely possible, but not without the mindset shift we're about to dive into.
Every business starts with a vision. For seasoned entrepreneurs, that vision is a detailed picture of the world, where something new and exciting exists - something that wasn't there before. It provides value and transforms the world in an important way - solving a problem or enabling new possibilities. For first-time entrepreneurs this vision can be as vague as a feeling of excitement. What's important is that it's there - that detailed picture, or vague feeling is your compass.
Ask good questions, find answers.
Other than that vision, the entrepreneur has only questions. An endless list of critical and wholly unanswered questions, like - what is the product I'm making? Who are my customers? What do they really want? What is the quickest route to finding out all of the above?
First guesses to all of these are almost certainly all wrong, so the job of the entrepreneur in these early stages is to form these questions and get answers to as many of them as possible. Only that will shape what the business is and what it actually does. Otherwise, you're just following the 80%+ of startups in building and scaling something nobody wants.
In other words, your goal is to learn how to build a business that fulfils your vision in the real world.
Speed up your learning process
The faster we learn, the faster we're able to create a business that works. So, it's in our best interest to maximise the speed with which we are learning.
What is the sign that shows that we've learned enough? A strong product-market fit and organic growth that comes with it. Without product market fit, you don't have a business.
How do you learn?
In the beginning, it's the role of the founders to answer all these questions. As you find early success and grow your team, you will have the ability and resources to go deeper. Let's quickly go over both of these approaches.
Speak to real people and listen. Repeat.
In the very beginning, your goal is to identify your customers, learn their reality and the problems they have. Only then you can propose a solution to their problems.
Thankfully there's a book that brilliantly teaches you a really effective way of doing this. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick teaches you how to listen for insights, learn answers to your questions and learn better questions to ask.
It's very important that you don't delegate this or try to replace this step with surveys. In the beginning, you as a founder have to speak to your customers. As you do, you'll get key insights that you can't get any other way. They'll show you when to stick with what you're doing. They'll tell you when to pivot. They'll tell you when to redefine who your customers are, if it turns out that people you speak to don't have any problems you can solve by realising your vision.
Run a team design sprint.
The principle behind a design sprint is to take key bits of the whole innovation process and give them hyperfocus for a few days. To focus on the idea → learning cycle and skip everything else.
The idea was pioneered at Google by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky and used successfully in thousands of worlds most exciting companies. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has also been infinitely adapted and reused by teams and consultants around the world.
The principle of a design sprint is the most important takeaway. You block out your and your team's time for a week. During that time, you will accurately answer one critical business question. You don't need to know the question when you start on Monday, and by Friday, you will have an answer, verified by customers.
The Google Ventures website is a great resource to learn about this process and how to implement it.
Building a successful business is about listening and learning first, then speaking. It's a careful balance between vision and reality that we can only find in practice of running the business.
Most of us tend to go into business shouting, instead of listening. And only after we fail, we learn that we were shouting for the wrong reasons. I hope the approaches in this article will support you in following a different path.