Mitigating The Risks of Startup Ideas

Andrew Verboncouer and Chris Schmitz discuss different methods, strategies, tools and tactics you can use to start validating and mitigate the risk of pursuing your ideas.

Presented by
Andrew Verboncouer
Partner & CEO
Chris Schmitz

Andrew Verboncouer:   You're listening to the Seaworthy podcast episode one. Seaworthy is a podcast about validating and solving problems through software. Today, we're talking about mitigating the risk of startup ideas. 

Chris Schmitz:  Andrew, how you doing?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Good, man. How are you?

Chris Schmitz:  I am amazing. Thank you for asking. How was your long Memorial Day weekend?

Andrew Verboncouer:   It was good. We spent some time up north in God's country, fishing and swimming and enjoying the outdoors.

Chris Schmitz:  Sounds similar to mine. I guess that's just what you do in Wisconsin, on holiday weekends. Yeah, we were at a cabin. Spent a lot of times swimming and reading reading a book, Deep Work

Andrew Verboncouer:   by Cal Newport. 

Chris Schmitz:  Cal Newport. Yeah. It's going deep in it.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Going deep. Yeah. 

Chris Schmitz:  Yeah, it's really good. Have you read it?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Part of it, I'm not all the way through.

Chris Schmitz:  Book club! Let me know when you're done. We'll compare notes.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Sounds like a plan.

Chris Schmitz:  So I'm excited to dive in today. Pick your brain a little bit about validating startup ideas. There's a lot of ground cover here. And we're going to break this up into a few different series, phases, sessions. But to start, we're just kind of going to cover an overview of the whole thing here, the whole process that you kind of run at Headway.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right.

Chris Schmitz:  So I know you don't put a lot of value in ideas, I've heard you say this, a lot. People come in here talking about their next million dollar app idea. But well, a million is not even very much money anymore. Billion dollar app idea. And we really don't like "talking entrepreneurs" who put a lot of weight behind the idea. We like to see some action, some execution and things like making us sign NDAs before even hearing about it... Kind of red flags for us from the start. Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy behind that and why you put so much so little weight behind that?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, and I don't think this is a new concept, right to kind of put little weight on ideas, it's all about the execution. And Derek Sivers says that... He has a blog about "ideas are just a multiplier of execution." So if you have a really big idea, and the execution is excellent you have potentially billion dollar business, "if you have a poor idea, with great execution you might be able to make hundred thousand dollars on it," right? There might be a small market that you can do. But when it comes to ideas, a lot of people talk about the solution, right? "I have an idea for this," and it's really proposing solutions before they really understand what the problem is, even if they're their target market, it's easy to think about the solution, how awesome it would be for them without seeing if other people have that problem. Or if there's other problems that are kind of more valuable for someone to solve, right? Or maybe kind of prerequisites to putting the solution they have in their mind in place. We put a lot of weight on talking to customers on understanding, empathizing and really trying to get a holistic view of what the problem is for specific users.

Chris Schmitz:  Right, right. So say, I'm someone coming to Headway, to you, and I have an idea, and that I think, is worth pursuing. What should the roadmap be for me to try and take that idea to market? I know, that's a very... It varies from one idea to the next, and one person to the next, and the skill sets they have in house and everything, but just kind of the general rule of thumb for, like, the different stages of kind of product development and validation.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right, I think the first thing, if you haven't done, if you haven't talked to a lot of people, it's an idea that you've had for a while. I think the first thing is just mapping out what your assumptions are. A lot of times, we start with both business assumptions and user assumptions. And just getting those down on a piece of paper. With that you can kind of create your first version of your business plan, not the traditional plan that's 30 or 40 pages long. We use the lean canvas here to plot those out. Because in startups, it's ever changing. So, getting down your first assumptions, getting that into a plan form, and then just identifying, okay, if this products gonna fail, what what are the riskiest things? What's going to make this fail, and let's put those first. Right?Let's learn fast, let's fail fast. And let's prioritize those so that we don't spend years trying to validate this product and come to the end and find out we can't do it because of legal reasons. Really prioritizing what you need to learn first, I think is big when it comes to ideas and things taking off, I think there's a quote... Not sure who said it, I think it was started with a tweet, but "life's too short to build something nobody wants." I think it might be Ash Maurya. Everyone on this earth has limited time, right? We want to make a bigger the biggest impact we can. Personal lives, business lives. And those ideas that we have... We really need to prioritize. Because everyone has a ton of ideas, right? If you spend 10 years on one idea, and it tanks and you don't prioritize that, the opportunity cost of that is huge, right?  There's so many other ideas you have, or maybe even something that's closer to you that could have provided more value for people. Could have changed more people's lives or whatever. But really prioritizing  those risks first, so that if you fail, you fail fast. And that's a big kind of mantra of the industry. But from there, it's it's talking to users, creating personas. Who do we assume our users are right now? How do we define them? What do they think about? What's their family life? Are they married or they single? Thinking about income, even and the patterns that they might have. So we can think like them, we can think about how the product might fit into their life. And then we go out and talk to them. And we validate whether or not the people who we targeted initially and built this persona around. If that person is actually in need of this. Right? So that's kind of the first step. Some people calm them the "BS personas," because it's all based on assumption. And really, the next round of personas that you do is a lot more lot more accurate, a lot more representative who uses are. So once you do that, you talk to more people. You really have to ask the right questions to the right people. I think that's a big, big thing. Asking your parents what they think of the idea... They're probably always going to tell you, it's great. Your close friends. They might not shoot it straight with you, unless you have more of a professional mentorship type, relationship with them where they're going to speak it like it is, but finding the right people, asking the right questions. I think when it comes to the right questions, we think about the problem. the problem interviews, we call them, it's really asking questions like, "tell me the last time you did x" and how that fits into the problem. So, you're really trying to ask questions. Figure out if they have this problem without, telling them what the solution you have in your mind is, so you can have the best feedback.

Chris Schmitz:  Without steering them too much.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right. Exactly. And a lot of times at uncovers things that are more valuable than your initial idea, or maybe even impact that. You find out some more constraints, whether it's for enterprise or consumer, you can really start to uncover some things of... People's behavior, what they're doing now, how they're solving the problem, now... And really start to steer your product based on the feedback you get. At the same time, it's a delicate balance between what a user says, and what a user does. And there's many examples of that. We've experienced where users say one thing, and we do some observation and some screen recordings of how they're using an app and really uncovered totally different things. So you have to learn to balance that. And I don't think there's any specific guides around it. I think it's collecting both data right directly from the user. And then collecting actual observational data.

Chris Schmitz:  Right. So it's not always, do as I say, not as I do, kind of need to find a balance in there

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right

Chris Schmitz:  Okay. So I've got my idea of I've ran it past... I do have some personas... I've ran it past them, I've refined the questions that I'm asking... I've refined, the people that I'm interviewing... What's next?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, from there, you boil it down to a list of features. And those are all assumptions, something that's going to be valuable to the problem you're trying to solve. So creating a prototype, whether that's sketches or on a piece of paper, that could be on a whiteboard, it could be something you have online that you can share with those users and some other users to really validate... is this something that would be valuable to you? And really start asking those questions, and doing, essentially a solution interview, of here's what we have, here's our prototype, what do you think? Or maybe walking them through some flows, and there's two sides, right? There's the business value, or the actual value it creates for the user. And there's also the UX flow testing that we do. And so those are two different things. But I would put the problem first. Are we solving the right problems in in the user's mind? Is something that's valuable to them in their daily lives? Or whatever problem they're trying to solve. Does this scratch that itch? And then from there, honing in how that is actually done. And that's kind of the part of UX testing. Is this flow correct for this specific problem, that we're solving? Or this specific job to be done?

Chris Schmitz:  So you touched on it a little bit, their... Problem interviews, solution interviews, prototyping... But what are some other examples or just different things that you do to validate assumptions around a business idea? I'd love to hear different types of research that you typically perform for people. Rather than just a venue of different options... Hopefully, give them a little bit of context to help them figure out how to decide what might be right for them in their circumstance. So if it's alright, with you... Let's throw a fake company at you and pretend I'm coming to you for this very initial validation stage. It's just idea stage for me right now. What would the process look like? You can probably only speak to the first part, but maybe based on the feedback we get, we have a decision to make, we could do X or Y...

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right.

Chris Schmitz:  To talk through some of those. So my idea is, and you do know about this idea... I've talked to you a little bit about before, but we've never done anything with it. We've never researched it. But this problem is probably unique to people like us who do client work for companies all over and use all kinds of different task management systems. So I get annoyed because I've got tasks assigned to me and Base Camp, Trello, GitHub, Asana... And then I have my personal task manager, OmniFocus. And it's hard to know which inbox to check and stuff could come in one of the inboxes, but it's not in my personal task manager. And it's just hard to keep everything in sync. So most of these applications have API's. So my idea was to build one inbox... And that's what I was going to call the app... One Inbox. And have it sync with all these different services that I have to use. So it provides me one interface for, like, a GTD interface similar to OmniFocus, but I get assigned a task in Asana...  It shows up in my inbox in One Inbox and then I can communicate... There's a lot of similarities between how all these different apps use them. It's either done, or it's not done, there's a completed at date. There's comments, attachments... So, how would I... and it's a big investment to go about building something like that. So how can I mitigate that risk of making that investment? What's that process look like?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, so as we've talked about, before... The first thing we should do is map out what our assumptions are right now, right? So this is a case where... You're doing developer, a very specific example or maybe like a power user example of, you have all these in boxes, you work with all these different people, we work with clients across these different apps... Would be, map out our assumptions and then build our personas. Who's actually having the same problem? Right? Or who do we think is going to have the same problem? And that would be exploring markets, like designers, development agencies, people who share some of the commonalities and see. Tell me about the last time you used a tool? What was it? When was the last time you use a tool to manage a project? Or what tool is that? Well, it's actually these six different tools that we use, depending on who our customers are. And diving a little bit deeper into that asking them what happens if they don't get one of those things done? Or they missing notification, right? What's the consequence of them not being on top of all of these different inboxes, right?

Chris Schmitz:  And it might be nothing. In which case, it doesn't actually provide much value, but I'm assuming that it provides value to other people and...

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right, well, it could be, "Hey, I missed a deadline. Someone assigned me this thing in base camp. But for some reason, Gmail is blocking it out. It went to my spam for whatever reason or it got batched with another email that I didn't see. And I could lose my job over it." Right? And we can see the value that would create would be pretty big, or we would miss a launch... It really depends on,  what that actual task is that they do, but just learning, what are the different consequences that it has? What's the value, that clarity in One Inbox might provide and not telling them that, hey, we're going to bring all these into one, what do you think? That's kind of later down the road, but just learning about the problem. What are the consequences? Or what's the value that we provide them to have total clarity on that stuff? And then what would they change about it? If they could. If they had the power to change anything about how they manage projects. They might very well say, just one stream of stuff that I can actually look at, right? And that kind of gives us a good idea without steering it. But from there, I think I mentioned this before, it might... the people who we talked to, might not have those same problems, then we'd go back to the drawing board. And we'd say, well, we think they work in this industry. And we think they are this old and they use these different apps. And they're busy at home, they have a personal inbox of stuff they need to do, they have a work inbox that they are trying to balance... They're a family person, they have a wife and two kids, and they're really trying to struggle through their week to bounce this stuff, right? So they could get to the weekend and spend some time with their family. But from there, it's kind of taking the insights that we've learned. Steve Krug says that, "You can learn anything you need to, from 10 interviews." So, we can really do 10 interviews to validate, asking these questions. And it depends on the feedback, we can pivot along the way if we did, not who we think they are, but do these 10 interviews, look at the data, see that if it's conclusive, or if there's common patterns that we see through there, maybe in this example, maybe it's prioritizing which API's we plug into first, right? So who's using more of this, and we can even do some more qualitative research on project management tools, the quantity of them, talk to people and other agencies that we know, talk to people on the client side. See what people are using in our industry and target that one industry. So, we could really build a niche tool for agencies to manage their streams, right? And it could be an enterprise tool for each one of their people on they can really steer it, or it could be a standalone tool for one person who works with multiple teams as a consultant, but there, we would try to measure it and try to make the decision of where do we think we can provide the most value? And where do we think... where are we most certain on who our first customers going to be? So, we would take that, and we would start building out, once we have that data, would start building out a prototype, In our case, here, we would probably build something in sketch, a quick prototype with the features we have, or something representative of it, and start doing some solution reviews. If we take a step back, and we want to take a more low-fi approach...

Chris Schmitz:  Yeah, why would we use Sketch? Could you talk about why it's good? Why that's a good fit for us versus someone else?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, so Sketch is our tool of choice right now when it comes to wire framing and design. It integrates really well with other things, I just gave a Sketch lunch and learn last week about this stuff. But it does has data population tools with JSON, so we can get an export from, a real database, and we can use real data. And that's really important. When you go to users, seeing something they're familiar with the actual data, they can visualize it versus holder texts, like, learned some more blah, blah, blah, whatever, you know...

Chris Schmitz:  Right. So that sounds great. And everyone probably wants that. But how do you decide should I go through all the effort to create Sketch mockups, and then prototype... We use InVision for most prototyping... Versus back of a napkin, drawing some screens...

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yep. So I think one of the things to consider is who your target audiences, right. So if this is something for agencies, and people that are in the creative world that manage a lot of different in boxes, it would be a balance of sketch, and perhaps maybe like a smoke screen, or video MVP, where we put up a landing page, right, we do one mock of the app like a dashboard, something that visualizes the main value proposition, and then put that up on the landing page with a sign up, right, or maybe even a beta test sheet we can test it a few different ways there's sites like beta list, you could throw it on early bird, you could definitely do to try to get it into production. I know, they're a little bit wary on betas that are private and aren't actually released yet. But there's a few different,  places, Designer News, Hacker News, Cora, and really start getting this out there. Organic means you can talk, throw up a medium post or a blog post about it. Hey, we're building this tool and try to get people to sign up. And you could pay to do that as well. So you could get social traffic for people that maybe like the pages of the tools that we're integrating actually use those tools. We could do some media buying things where we know, they went to the site. Let's display this ad to them, or we know that they like this, or they follow this person know, we can get really kind of granular with that and target the people who we believe are our main customers.

Chris Schmitz:  Okay, so you mentioned one of the variables you consider his target audience, if it's designers and developers, are people who focus on maybe a little bit more on the user experience, you might want to go higher fidelity. So that's, I'm sure there's other variables, what do I mean, imagine prices? One price, what, what else do you take into consideration?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, I mean, the price, you need to know what your technical skills are, right? Do you have any funding that you can, that can get you there? I think establishing relationships is, is a big part of it, and talking to people. We said, we will talk to agency partners for rolling out this tool, that's really kind of an unfair advantage of ours, as we know, a lot of people, right, versus someone who's maybe coming from the consumer side isn't in the industry, they would have to build those relationships over time trying to get the decision makers on board to build those relationships, email them talk to them, there's a lot of friction there. Whereas we can really just pick up the phone and talk to some of our trusted partners and people we know, in the industry. So, connections is one of those things like you said, price point. An audience, that could be an enterprise product, it could be a consumer product, it really depends, like you said, in our industry designers and developers are probably more... would put more credibility in something that has a great value prop and has strong visuals, even if it doesn't have anything, or is catchy, right? Or maybe something that has unique messaging...

Chris Schmitz:  Right, we appreciate the effort that went into the design, write the copy in the UX and...

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right, and it could, yeah, and it could not be designed, it can be great copy, right? It could be you talking on video about this, it could be... The Dropbox example... Where they had 5000 people signed up to their list over a few months span. And they created this landing page with the video. And really all they were doing is they sketched, a computer, they sketch the iPad, they get some data that a little cloud icon and really had, a camera face down on a desk, and they walk through their value prop of, Hey, I share data from my computer, I go to the store, and I can access that on my phone, really visualizing capturing their value prop in a video without building anything. And so that got posted to Hacker News. And they ended up with 75,000 signups for beta, right. So there's, there's an example where they didn't build anything, they worked on their value prop, they talked to users, they had the problem themselves, they tried to get signed up so that when they did launch, or when they went to do solution interviews that they had people to talk to, they knew people were interested, right, by the volume of people that signed up, there's a lot of chatter, kind of, in the tech community that press picked up on, hey, this products coming out, this really solves a pain point for all these people. So up until that time, it was email, it was right, backing it up on a USB drive, and handing it to someone... Presentations, all kinds of things that we can think about. But there's video, like, that's an example where they use a landing page and in a video as an MVP, so it's a way to communicate the, the product, the value prop and they propose a solution.

Chris Schmitz:  Do you think that they did any problem and solution interviews? Or any How often do you think people just... Their idea is what they end up building versus this kind of iterative thing and finding out... Like in our example, the way you're describing it, I'm realizing... I'm probably well, I'm lucky, I didn't just start developing this because, there's a lot of assumptions there, and there probably is some pain like, I'm sure other people feel the pain of having seven inboxes, they can assign tasks in. But my specific solution, they had 1000 assumptions made in about the target audience and where would be most valuable? Yeah, and all that. How often do you think that happens? People hit the mark right on their first?

Andrew Verboncouer:   I think it's pretty rare, I think that you have some semblance of the idea kind of always, I think there's a way. There's other things where... One startup we worked with, in the past... What they ultimately pivoted to was 10% of the product. They really niched down. They focused on one aspect of their product offering, instead of offering this entire suite of features, they offered one thing, and they started to gain traction. For a long time, they had this comprehensive product that solved all these problems. But it was such an overwhelming undertaking, for anyone that was going to onboard that they were very hesitant to do it. There's less friction there. So they focus down into probably the most valuable thing and they started gaining traction, started validating, getting users signed up.

Chris Schmitz:  Less is more.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, less is more. So if you can... The more targeted you can be in your value prop in who your target audiences in, your actual product value, the better it's going to be. When you think about creating an end to end product that solves supply chain management for a distribution company you're probably not going to penetrate that market the friction for them to even come on board is huge. They have to make a massive investment. But it's probably easier to start with, "hey, we're going to make invoicing and billing for this specific industry 10 times better."

Chris Schmitz:  Right, and we'll integrate with these three systems that already exist. So you don't even need to worry about migrating your software or anything like that.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right. And so you make a simple decision around this specific pain point, they can think about, instead of trying to solve all of their problems with one product, You can start with one and kind of expand from there as you uncover new problems. And gain some user adoption.

Chris Schmitz:  Right... We talked a lot about prototyping and some different types of prototyping that you could do, what are some specific tools you use aside from Sketch and InVision? I think I see a new app from you every week that you can use for gathering a different type of customer feedback, or making it a little bit easier to, to kind of lower fidelity wireframe things like that, what were some of the tools that are on your radar right now?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, for people that aren't super tech savvy or have the time to invest in learning tools, like Sketch, and InVision, you can also always use pencil and paper. Sketch things out and you can present that to a user. Can also install things like pop. It's an app, where you can take photos of those sketches that you put on the paper and actually link those together. So you pretty much sketch out exactly what the apps can look like or what it looks like, in your mind and take photos, link those screens together, the menu, the back buttons... All the different options that lead to a different screen, and then you can link it together as if it's an app. So you can then have a conversation with someone, or maybe test flow, you can talk about the solution that you're offering. That's a way for you to do it. The other example, kind of a level up from that would be doing something manually. I think they call it the "concierge MVP," where you do something manually first to prove it out. And then you build a system or a site or software around it. A good example of that would be Zappos. Where they listed things, and they manually went and bought these things from another site, and they ship them out. Before they even built a software on top of that, that people could come and browse. The other one that comes to mind is Groupon. Where they essentially started with a WordPress theme, and they got these orders in, they manually sent the purchaser, the coupon, via email, and they did all of these things to prove out that people actually wanted this and that depends on the stage of your idea and where you are in validation. They had this idea that, here's a problem they were having, here's a solution we want, but really went lean with it. They could have built, tried to raise investment, and built an application that did this from the start, but they wanted to prove it out first. So they did a lot of manually, they proved it out. I don't know what their step was behind the scene, if they then went to investors to build it out or they hired a team, whatever it was, but they started there and said, "Hey, this is our solution that works, obviously, it has to balance UX in that case when you're customizing WordPress themes to do some advanced actions. But that's just one of the ways that people do it, the other way you can do it manually, would be creating Excel sheets for things that do computational stuff, or have someone use Excel, do it manually, prove it out that it's valuable, and then build software around it.

Chris Schmitz:  Yeah, I can't tell you how many applications I've built that are really just glorified spreadsheets. I mean, they're automating process that happened in spreadsheets in the past.

Andrew Verboncouer:   Right... The other way, there's bootstrapping foundation out there. If you're a developer, you don't have designed chops, you can download or you could probably learn bootstrap or foundation in, less than a week, build something clickable, that you could give to users that's responsive. You could open it up on your phone, and kind of fake it. There's other technologies that you could use it or a little bit more advanced than that. But there's a lot of things out there now. UI kits that you could use and, and kind of connect the dots between things. I know that Creativedash has a lot of UI kits that you can use. That's really just focusing on the visual. So that's why it's so important for you to understand the problem you're solving and how that applies from a flow standpoint that you can implement those. That would use a tool like Sketch or Photoshop, for example.

Chris Schmitz:  Yeah, that's great. So with all these tools, seems like it's probably easier than ever to get the feedback, you need to figure out if what you're building is truly... Meets the demands of your target market. So, why do you think people still don't seem to do this for apps? It seems that people still get really married to ideas, like we talked about the beginning... They make you sign an NDA before you even hear about it and they jump right into development without doing any kind of validation? Why do you think that to happen so much?

Andrew Verboncouer:   Yeah, I think that it happens because it sounds easy to go and talk to people, right. And it sounds easy to put this up first. But it's easier to think of an idea as a designer, developer, creator, and just create it for creating sake, right? Hey, I created this app. I'm guilty of this in the past too. I had this idea. I just wanted to create a new interface for this, you know what I mean? And it turns out to that, you build it, and no one comes. So, that's one of the myths. If you build it, they will come. But it's easy to do the hard skills, right, then it is the soft skills and talk and learn, learn from people and kind of slow down and have the patience for the process. It's easier to just jump into code and not worry about that. And, and I have the solution in my head that I'm gonna go ahead and build without understanding. And then that's how you get to the point of 9 out of 10 startups fail these days. You fall in love with the solution you had in your mind. When you think of an idea, you're really thinking of the solution, because you assume it provides value you to you, but you have to detach yourself from that and learn about the problem more, fall in love with the problem. And your users, really empathize with them, what they go through on a daily basis, whatever your idea is, follow your users, follow the data, right? So try not to make decisions based off emotions. And iterate.

Chris Schmitz:  Awesome. I think that's a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much, Andrew, for pouring out so much knowledge here today. This is a lot of fun getting to do actually interview with you. And I think we look forward to some more of this kind of format in the future. And we will have some some guests some external guests coming on soon. We've got Brian from Handshake. Joining us in the booth here. Yeah, hopefully in a few weeks. More to be announced soon. I'm Chris Schmitz. Keep up with me on Twitter, @ccschmitz.  

Andrew Verboncouer:   I'm Andrew Verboncouer, you can follow me on Twitter, @averbs. Thanks for listening to Seaworthy. Connect with us on Twitter, @seaworthyfm and make sure to subscribe, ask questions, and leave feedback on the Remarks app. We'll see you again in two weeks.

show notes
  • Validating Product Ideas
  • Methods, Tools and Strategies
  • Solving Problems Through Software