Doing something new is often a steep learning curve and doing a start-up for the first time is one of the steepest. You may disagree but consider the facts. 1) Maybe not your life, but certainly your living (and your reputation) depend on it, so there’s a lot at stake; 2) Not only is your failure obvious for all to see, but it is at all times imminent, and so learning from your mistakes and rectifying them quickly is essential.
I therefore thought I’d dedicate this post to the first five things I would do to start a business, if I could start all over again, and hopefully help a few people over the initial ascent, or for those just reading out of interest, to show them how different the reality is to the traditional wisdom that has grown up around starting a business.
To start I’ll assume you have an idea already, but if not my tip would be to find a burning problem, ideally one that you’ve experienced yourself, and, if possible, in an area that you are either a. passionate about; or b. extremely knowledgeable. Neither of these are necessary but a. will help you stay motivated at times when things aren’t going so well, and b. will help you avoid (or at least anticipate and prepare for) those times.
1) Don’t bother making a business plan, coming up with projections, speaking to investors, or any of that stuff you think you should be doing. The only thing that really matters is if you are solving a problem that people want (really, really want) solved. Working out if that’s the case is all you should be worrying about right now. If you make something people want, you will possibly succeed, if you don’t you will definitely fail. To that end, you need to be able to tell if you’re failing or not. Eric Ries articulates the way to do this as “Build-Measure-Learn”", but start this in reverse “What do I want to learn? So what do I need to measure? So what should I build?”
2) When I say “Build” I’m not talking about an end product. I’m talking about the Minimum Viable Product to test your hypotheses. Right now, you just want to know if people have this problem and would be interested if you had a solution for it. The best way to test that is probably a splash page so without further ado get a professional looking landing page up (you can use unbounce or launchrock, or anything similar) with a short articulation of the problem, explaining that you have an amazing solution which is launching soon and to sign-up here to be one of the first to get exclusive access.
3) Contact anyone you know who experiences the same problem and set-up a call with them. On this call you want to establish if they actually feel this is a genuinely “burning” problem, how they solve it now, whether they’re excited about a new solution and to get them to put you in touch with anyone else they know who experiences the same problem. Tell them you’re really close to launching, send them to your home-page and see if they sign-up. Repeat this with the guys they put you in touch with. If people aren’t literally excited about you solving this problem for them, you need to change either the problem, or the people you’re solving it for. Getting people to make a behavioural change and use a new product requires a much bigger stimulus than: “it’s kind of annoying and I guess it would be cool if…”. Ideally they would be begging you to let them know as soon as you launch.
4) Once you’ve found a segment of people excited about using your product, work out the best way to speak to more of them, lots more of them. The easiest way to do this is to find a bunch of people in your target market through google and call or email them (calling is better for feedback, email is better to get a large sample size). I’d start with calling as that way you can learn what turns people on or off and hence what to include in the email. Position your call as a request for their “help/advice”, tell them the problem and see what they say, find out what they want, tell them you have this amazing solution in development which can do all of that and more and will be launching soon and send them a link to your page to sign-up for exclusive early access. Based on that, email a large number of these guys with a pithy distillation of what works on the phone and a link to the site.
5) Be honest with yourself and test and refine your problem, your target market and your planned solution accordingly. Are the people on the phone genuinely excited? If they’re not even following the link you send them, the answer is probably no. Same for the guys in the email. Once you’ve got enough people signing up (this number varies by business) not only do you have evidence that its worth worrying about building something, but you will know who you’re building for, roughly what they want and have a sample-set to test what you build with. This will take time but will save you months, maybe even years building something people don’t want and learning the hard way. Trust me, you will thank me for this (equity is fine).
NB. Alongside my own experiences, much of this comes from Steve Blanks’ Customer Discovery Process (here’s the Cliff notes version http://amzn.to/jO7D2Q) and Eric Ries’ Lean Start-up movement (http://amzn.to/iHCSLl). Both of these are definitely worth investing your time in reading.