Kill Your Ideas, Save Your Startup

Kill Your Ideas, Save Your Startup

There’s a certain air of mystery around startup success, the idea that somewhere, somebody is coming up with the next Uber or Airbnb by pure luck, and that all you can do is keep throwing ideas into the market and wait for one to stick. There’s a general feeling that by having ideas and creating products, you’re playing the unicorn lottery, and you have the same shot as every other founder out there to hit it big.

But that’s not how it works. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, and more than that, it’s smart work. And what’s more: We think your ideas are your least valuable currency as a potential founder. In fact, it’s possible your ideas are hurting you; that they’re poison and they’re killing your business.

Founders who fail agree: they were coming at success the wrong way. It’s not just an odds game. Most of your ideas are never going to stick, not because you’re unlucky, but because most of your ideas are not as great as you think they are.

The single greatest factor that separates a great idea from an idea that will succeed is this: the idea is rooted in a clear user problem.

Fortune reported the top reason 90% of startups fail is “They make products no one wants.” But how do so many startups try to build an entire business around something nobody wants?

The problem lies in this cult of ideas, the headlines glorifying the next celebrity founder’s Great Idea. So that’s what we aim for: an idea that will launch us to the top. An idea nobody has ever thought of before.

But the fact is, for every Facebook, every big shiny billion-dollar Great Idea, there are countless products that never get off the ground. Every one of those failed products began life as somebody’s Great Idea.

So how do you avoid that trap?

Don’t start with solutions. Start with the problem.

Most startups fail before they even start, because they started with an idea, not a problem. In fact, the same study of failed startup founders cited in the Fortune article above found that 42% of them identified the “lack of a market need for their product” as the chief reason for their failure. This was by far the largest percentage who agreed on any one reason (the next highest was 29%, who cited “running out of money.” We’d argue that if the market truly needs your product, the money will find you).

The lack of a need. Your market does not need your product. They don’t want it, and they have no reason to buy it from you. No matter how great an idea it was, no matter how lucky you may have gotten, it was never going to sell.

You can do your business a great favor by killing your ideas.

Instead of solutions, start with problems.
Instead of answers, begin with questions.

Now you can come up with some ideas—not because you think they’re good, but because they genuinely solve a problem. Take the time necessary to study those ideas and your solutions. Talk to people, study your market, study your competition, and determine whether you’ve really found a new solution to an existing problem. Back up your assumptions with data. Make every effort to fully understand your market and all aspects of the problem you’re solving. If you don’t take the time to do this work, you cannot build the right product.

When we work with founders at FounderTherapy, these are the first two questions we ask:

  • Is the problem you are solving really a problem the market cares about?
  • Is your solution to the problem really better than the user’s current solution?

We ask those questions because those are the questions you should be asking yourself. Kill your Great Ideas, stop trying to solve problems that don’t exist, and your business will thank you for it.

Photo credit: Fernando Arconada via / CC BY-NC-ND

This post was written by Alyssa Mazzina based on ideas by Cody Musser.

I help early stage companies bring their software products to market through holistic product development, sales operations development and optimization, and user acquisition strategy and development. Previously I was the Product Development Lead at Axial, where I managed their transition from a financial advisory consulting company into a product-driven technology startup with an online private network of over 10,000 financial professionals taking thousands of private companies to market for late-stage financing. Prior to Axial, I launched and built profitable outsourced Sales and Customer Service Operations for a number of technology and software companies, including HP, Intuit, Polycom and ADP.