Solve the Right Problem
You should constantly move from idea to idea when you’re working on a new startup… until you get to something that is scalable. Then stop the ideation and focus on execution.
Rarely will the first idea be the one that should be scaled. My friend Scott Clark (BuzzMaven) talks a lot about adjacent possibilities as a way of exploring new ideas which I think applies here. You need to find a good solid idea to start the process and then riff on it. This takes time so you should make sure you have the runway to go through this process.
I’ve been “riffing” on my new startup Punndit for about a year and a half now. The original idea has matured and we now have a much more solid understanding of where we can create real value and build a business. That was unclear 18 months ago. We went from what would have been solving a local maximum to what we now think could be a global maximum. Not sure you can get there without going through that process.
Your original idea is rarely the best answer so being comfortable with an iterative design process is critical to solving the right problem.
Lessons from Arch School
August will mark 20 years since I graduated from the UK College of Architecture (now College of Design). I started at UK in 1985 as a freshman with a declared major in electrical engineering but changed direction and entered the architecture program my junior year. Best decision of my life. While I have not practiced architecture a day in my life I look back on the time in the arch program as a great investment. I often tell people in hindsight it might have been the last great liberal arts education.
I’ve carried two important lessons with me all these years that were at the heart of the architecture program at UK and became second nature in my thinking. These lessons have helped shape my approach to product development, business, and particularly tech startups; improving through Iterative Design and Critique. While they became second nature to me I quickly realized not everyone understands or appreciates their value in every creative endeavor.
The process of Iterative Design is analogous to the Customer Development / Lean Startup processes that have caught so much attention in the tech startup world and evangelized by the likes of Steve Blank (http://steveblank.com/) and Eric Ries (http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/). By engaging with others throughout the design process you learn very quickly that your project (and understanding) will improve with each external interaction. The more iterations the better. Great design results from a process, not an epiphany. The same is true in tech startups.
An important part of the Iterative Design process is learning to manage Critique. As you engage in the learning process of soliciting feedback from others you have to learn to digest the good and the bad. The “bad” may be the most important feedback you get. Not taking “negative” feedback personally and making it a natural part of the process is a skill that needs to be practiced. I try to make a distinction between critique and criticism. Critique should never be personal. I’ll admit it is difficult to not take things personally. Nobody likes to be told they have an ugly baby. But the understanding that comes from good critique may be the difference between success and failure; both in design and your startup.