Most founders following a lean startup approach understand the importance of documenting and validating assumptions. My team and I have been doing it since day one.
But recently I began to realize that validating assumptions can also be a waste of time. In a startup your most precious resource is time and focus. If you waste too much time on things that don’t directly impact your ability to succeed, you will almost certainly fail. And if you do succeed, it will be based mostly on luck.
Prioritization is Everything in a Startup
The best way to avoid wasting time is by prioritizing how it is used. Since so much of the focus in an early stage startup should be spent validating assumptions, an essential task is to prioritize the assumptions that need to be validated. While more information about your market is always helpful, certain market assumptions probably aren’t that critical to your success. As with any data, “actionable” is a key word here. If validating or disproving an assumption is not going to change your actions, then it may be interesting, but isn’t actionable.
Crystallize Your Vision of The Successful Business
So how do you determine critical, actionable assumptions in your business? You should start by crystallizing your vision. This is an important part of success anyway. In fact a classic book that studied many of the most successful entrepreneurs in history highlights this exercise as the single most important thing they did.
Visualize every detail of your business when it’s successful. You should be able to answer questions like:
- How will customers discover us?
- What will be their first experience?
- When will they realize they’ve found something great (what specifically will they be doing)?
- Why will they think it’s great/important?
- Why will they think it’s better than the old way?
- How will they describe us to other people?
- How will their experience evolve with our business?
- When and how will we generate revenue?
- How will we reinvest that money to accelerate the business?
- Why will the whole model be repeatable and scalable?
Document every detail you can possibly imagine that describes your successful business. The more you visualize it, the more you will really begin to believe it. This will help you generate the authentic passion needed to raise money, attract talent and partners… It will help you connect to the emotions that are so critical to getting people to take a leap of faith on your vision.
Time for a Reality Check
Now stop drinking your own cool aid! Document everything that will need to go right for this vision to be a reality. What are the core assumptions that if proven wrong will make it completely non-viable? These are the assumptions that will be critical to validate. These are the things that will cause you to need to course correct. The earlier you can see the realities that affect your assumptions, the sooner you can get on the right track.
Of course broader market assumptions will also be important over time. They can help you develop a strategy to pursue bigger market opportunities. However, startups are too resource constrained to spend time on these assumption until fully vetting the base assumptions that support your original business premise.
Expect some debate about the order in which assumptions need to be validated. It won’t always be clear which assumptions are critical to success and which are just nice to know. But some level of prioritization will ensure that you maximize time spent validating the most important assumptions.
Thanks for taking the time to post this Sean. As founders we get away from focusing on these essentials a lot of times. I love the list of “gut-check” questions. We’ll make it a point to write down the answers to these and keep revisiting.
Here’s a great link highlighting how someone followed through with their vision using this method -http://www.iheartchaos.com/post/3910915086/bruce-lees-definite-chief-aim-or-steps-to
What to test next is almost always a tough question.
A lot of people also find Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas helps here. It asks a lot of those hard questions about your vision, helping you expose some gaps in your thinking. Then, you can scan your business model canvas and ask yourself which contain the most critical assumptions to test.
You can find the canvas at http://businessmodelgeneration.com/downloads.php
I did a 1-hour workshop on this at the London Lean Startup Group a few months ago – I’ll find the video and post it on my site if anyone’s interested. Please let me know – @SaintSal
Sean, I think that this is great advice on implementing the Customer Development/Lean Startup framework *wisely*.
This really resonates with me at a time when we are raising a little F&F seed and beginning to design and build our product after about 4 months of intense customer development and multiple conceptual course corrections/pivots.
When I contemplate with myself on whether we know enough to move forward, I think of the old Tom and Jerry cartoon with the Angel Tom and the Devil Tom (sitting on Tom’s shoulders) arguing on whether to eat Jerry who is within Tom’s tight grasp. After a few rounds of arguing, Jerry finds a way to slip away from Tom… The angel won but Tom remained hungry (but I guess also continued to have fun chasing Jerry…).
[I know that it’s a silly metaphor but one that those of us who were kids in the 70s and 80s and who today have our own kids (who watch Dora and Thomas the Train) might appreciate nonetheless…]
Along these lines, I was at a talk that Steve Blank gave a few weeks ago and Steve also made the point that the Customer Development/ Lean Startup framework is a means to making smart business decisions and not an end in itself. I think that this is something that some of us who have bought into the framework might tend to lose sight of at times…
Anyway, thanks for this excellent post, Sean!
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I’ve put up a business 5 years ago and my only instinct was how to generate income to support all the cost of setting up the business. I was a very simple thought that I’ve always consider it and basically you are right…
The validation thingy can provide valuable information no doubt about that…but I need to consider the time spend doing it…thanks for putting it this way…