New Ideas in the Right Order

February 2017

I’ve worked with hundreds of potential and current entrepreneurs at the earliest stage of their idea development. With that, I think that I’ve gotten pretty good at helping assess those ideas and provide entrepreneurs with a few useful frameworks that can help them take their ideas forward.

One of the first frameworks that I’ll share focuses on the simple triumvirate of the customer, the problem (or unmet need) and the solution. Having a solid understanding of these three are essential to not only moving an idea ahead but also serves as a foundation so the entrepreneur remains centered in what they are attempting to do. While each of these will likely change over time, any entrepreneur who plows ahead without having put significant thought and work into validating them runs the risk of focusing on the wrong things.

The validation efforts can take many forms but usually starts with a few essential questions:

  • Customer validation – who is the customer what and when might they use your idea, how do you envision them using it? This is rooted in design thinking methodologies.
  • Problem/need validation – what is the problem you are solving for the customer or the unmet need that you are satisfying? This is rooted in lean startup approaches.
  • Solution validation – what is your solution, why is it unique and what is the technical feasibility for it?

First-time entrepreneurs may have a sense of one or more of these. Often though they’ve only thought through one (usually the solution) and rarely have they fully validated all three when I’m initially meeting them. So the first task is for me to make sure they’ve considered all three areas.

But beyond that, the real challenge I give them is to consider the sequence in which they are validating these and whether they have put the proverbial cart before the horse. What I often see is a solution-oriented idea that has little or no thought put into the actual problem/need and the ideal early customer. That means their initial thinking looks like this:

  • Solution → customer → problem(need)

In this case they become a solution in search of a customer and a problem/need.

Instead, their thinking should look like this:

  • Customer → problem(need) → solution

or this:

  • Problem(need) → customer → solution

Either of the two improved approaches put the customer and the problem first. Whether you start with the customer or the problem depends on where you have expertise and where you think the emphasis should be placed. Some problems have many potential customers while starting with the customer means you are exploring multiple potential problems to help solve for them.

With this simple tweak (along with providing a few great resources including books such as “The Mom Test” and “Talking to Humans“), first-time entrepreneurs benefit from avoiding the deathtrap of heading too far down the path of building something that no one needs or wants.