Of all folks, we have the IRS to thank for “garbage in, garbage out,” a techie’s term that just turned 50. George Fuechsel, an IBM 305 RAMAC instructor is credited with coining the term to describe computers’ need for every line of code to be right. (Etymologists will be pleased to know it may have come from LIFO, or ‘last in first out’ accounting.)
Garbage In Garbage Out is particularly daunting for startups, often leading to more pirouettes (nonstop pivots) than a ballerina and in the process driving staffers and founders nuts. Even worse—it drives customers nuts. They don’t know what the company is, does, or stands for as its product, pricing, value proposition or channel change over and over again, groping for consistent traction or product/market fit.
Imagine visiting the Color.com site once a month to consider activating, and seeing who knows how many different business ideas and positionings as the startup tortured itself into oblivion.
Generally speaking, the solution is simple: spend lots more time and perspiration up-front, refining and tweaking and evolving the startup idea…all before declaring your intentions, building the product, and—worst of all—interacting with customers before you know what you want to talk to them about. Two great ways to do this:
First, “Dueling Canvases:” This process takes Alex Osterwalder’s brilliant “business model” concept one giant step farther, strengthening the canvas that forms the baseline of aggressive customer discovery and validation. I first learned of this approach, not from Alex himself(who uses it adeptly as you’d hope), but from a bright young Russian founder who used it to optimize his startup’s chances even before he quit his “day job” to found it.
In Skolkovo Startup Academy #1 at the Moscow School of Management, we talked during the coffee break about how this young man decided to launch his clever business. (The business itself is irrelevant, but I love the process that got him there.) “I had a great job and had a big bonus coming at yearend, but knew I wanted to start my own company,” he said. “Six months before bonus time I began developing six different business model canvases in the healthcare technology field, where I’d worked for several years.“
The entrepreneur basically designed six different business models, and kept switching elements from one to the next, researching competitors, trying to understand what would work and what seemed weakest, all while working long hours at his day job. Soon it was time—not to launch—to show the canvases to potential investors and get the first outside reaction. “I showed all six to a wide range of healthcare technology investors, debated with them, and when one agreed to back idea #4, I quit my job, moved to Moscow, and started the company!”
Second, Structured Brainstorming: Despite our strong entrepreneurial preference to “just do it” and launch, another way to “power up” most any startup idea is with formal, structured brainstorming—again, long before the startup is launched. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better practitioner of the art in action than Bryan Mattimore, serial brainstormer and author of multiple “how to” books aimed mostly at his more typical clients, the Fortune 200 brand managers looking for a new kind of Fig Newton, Whopper, BMW or whatever. But extensive discussions with Bryan point to lots of ways startups can use pre-launch brainstorming(he calls it “Ideastorming,” title of his latest book).
Bryan’s like a magician with a big bagful of tricks—different exercises to evoke different aspects of a product or a business, and many are relevant to startups. He even challenges teams to come up with the “worst idea” and find ways to improve it. It’s another twist on reframing the problem your startup is solving, to see if it can be made more compelling, or perhaps more compelling to a more precise customer segment. A few other examples: redefining the opportunity you’re facing, questioning key assumptions about customer expectations(which Customer Discovery will certainly do later), and looking at “category analogues” for clues.
Whether it’s day “minus ten” at your startup or day ten, spend no less than a day attacking your foundational idea using at least half a dozen such techniques. Learn more about them at www.growth-engine.com where there’s tons of content and excerpts, or (gasp) buy Bryan’s book.
NEXT: The Perils of the Pirouette