Mastering checklists doesn’t make you a pilot

Photo by Leonel Fernandez on Unsplash

In our last article, my Quantap startup co-founder Connor described how we’re tackling the COVID-19 downturn. In short, we’re lucky to have enough resources to weather the storm by remaining lean and hyper-focused on customer exploration.

Today, we wanted to share our experiences and techniques for Customer Development which have helped us move past option paralysis and transition to a fast cadence of learning and pivots.

There is no shortage of startup advice on the internet. A quick search on Medium yields about 200,000 posts, many of which include “startup checklists” like this:

But what happens when your startup idea doesn’t pass?

How do you actually build a process around finding the real problem and corresponding solution and, ultimately, a viable business?

Checklists work well as an inspection tool and quality assurance but not as a creative process. When applied too quickly, checklists can become like a stumbling block for founders. That was our experience.

Killing an idea felt like a loss because we had committed time and energy to it

We read startup checklist posts on a daily basis and felt we were being systematic by incorporating those into our process.

We populated an idea funnel where we would write down ideas we wanted to explore. From there, we wanted to figure out how to qualify an idea so that it would progress from one stage to the next. We did this through user interviews and testing prototypes against the checklist criteria, but realized there were several flaws in our approach:

  • Moving from one idea to another was a heavy and expensive “pivot”. Killing an idea felt like a loss because we had committed time and energy to it.
  • We insisted on having a persona and problem attached to each idea. We’d ask ourselves “which problem are we trying to solve, and for whom?”, designing questionnaires and seeking interviewees based on how Connor and I answered this question. Ultimately, our research was corrupted by our own bias, preventing us from discovering real world problems being experienced by knowledge workers.
  • We used our network to validate our ideas. As we were actively seeking people with the problem we had identified, despite receiving a wide range of feedback, we found it hard to generalize and form actionable insights.

This left us feeling overwhelmed with the number directions we could go in and directionless at the same time.

There are infinite options in the space of business models. Only a few are viable.

We had used IDEO and Google’s brainstorming techniques in the past, but things finally clicked when we started using the FOCUS framework.

There are infinite options in the space for business models. Only a few are viable. To make this process manageable, the pursuit of a viable business model can be treated as a search where every variable is changed and tested.

Instead of having to jump from one end to the other, take a step back when a branch doesn’t yield what you wanted, and continue down another branch. The definition of a pivot is to keep one leg planted while moving the other, rather than jumping with both legs. So this backtrack is essentially a small pivot, where most parameters are well understood and one is changed in a systematic way.

Divergent and convergent exploration

When you allow yourself to be wrong, it is much easier to see things for what they really are.

Dump and sort, expand and contract… The process has many names. Essentially, enumerate options without critique — more is better. Then rank and pick the top-5 candidates. This allows us to stay creative and focused at the same time. The expansion and contraction is not only for ideas, but should be done for each variable of the business model: Who is the ideal customer? How can we get hold of them? What problems do they face?

Contraction follows the expansion by choosing what seems like the most viable option at the time, but remember to keep a record. When you allow yourself to be wrong, it is much easier to see things for what they really are. If you choose a wrong branch, jump back, adjust your rank order based on what you learned, and continue. The adjustment is important — when reality changes your idea of the landscape, you are in a better position to remain unbiased. With this new mindset, instead of seeking validation of hypotheses, we’re celebrating discovering true patterns.

We’re only at the very beginning of our journey, but this process is helping us to address most of the problems created by our former way of evaluating ideas to evolve our business model.

In the next post, we’ll talk about insights from one of our branches of exploration: what to do when your collaboration happens across many tools and you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Note As readers who are familiar with the FOCUS framework can tell, we were not only inspired by it, but are following the framework methodically. The fundamental patterns the framework lays out changed the way we think about building a startup, and we want to share our experience. Patrick and Ondrej from iterative.ly introduced us to the framework and we owe them for this.

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Niklas Quarfot Nielsen

Niklas Quarfot Nielsen

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A Dane, madly in love with science and engineering, and is a newly hatched entrepreneur