Preamble: This is the first in a series of posts on exploring and validating startups and side projects. They’re not intended to be exhaustive or ‘how to’ guides, but open meditations and provocations on topics that can’t be easily answered with a 5-point listicle or a pot of cash.
Recently I’ve been validating a couple of new project ideas, doing my best to follow the core principles of Design Thinking and Lean Startup as well as elements of other well-established frameworks.
One of these core principles is customer development, and specifically customer discovery and validation, i.e. speaking with prospective customers to ensure a problem exists and then getting feedback from them that the resulting initial solution is on the right path.
I’ve been through this process quite a few times now, either developing my own projects, working with clients, or training groups of people in workshops.
There’s a question that seems to sit just under the surface both in my direct experience and from observing the startup / side project community more broadly. However, it doesn’t seem many people are openly considering this question or the possible answers.
What happens when the customer development process takes you somewhere you don’t want to go?
I don’t mean where you didn’t expect to go, but somewhere you’re really unsure about going to. Where your interest in the space starts to stretch and strain as the problem and/or the solution appear to be in a place where you question if your passion is as strong and bright.
Or to use an analogy; when the customer development tide sweeps you away into a different current, what do you do? To my mind there are 3 main options:
- Keep paddling, go with the current and see where you end up
- Try and break out of the current and carve your own path
- Swim back to shore so you can try the next beach (or just head home for a cup of tea and a quieter life)
Most people in startup world rally around Paul Graham’s call to ‘build something people want’. I agree with this, but what if people want something that you don’t want to build?
Do you build it for them, feeling confident you can validate the problem and your solution?
Do you keep with your vision and build something you want regardless?
Do cut your losses and move on to a different place?
Unless you have a passion for building the thing people want it’s going to be hard to succeed.
You may be able to persuade them to want the same thing you do, but you’ll be going against a lot of the principles successful businesses are built on.
If you cut your losses it’ll be frustrating with a sense of ‘what if?’.
None of these are particularly enticing options.
In the end it boils down to doing what you want vs doing what they want.
We assume most projects and startups naturally find themselves at the utopian balance or intersection of these two points, but in reality there’s often a trade off.
How willing are you to build what they want, even if you’re not sure you want it? I’d love to know — feel free to share or add a comment below.