What a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle taught me about my startup.

The 1,000 piece startup

The Challenge

Over the past two weeks my daughter and I have been plugging away at a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. A lovely summer activity for the two of us and, appropriately enough, the puzzle was a painting of Vancouver by Eric Dowdle — so we got to learn about our new hometown while we were at it.

Surprisingly to me, as we were working our way through it, a couple of analogies started to jump out at me.

The first was how a puzzle of this size serves as a great illustration of some principles of startup success that can be hard to internalize through reading (or videos) alone. Below are the top three things that, I think, apply equally to jigsaw puzzles and your new business.

The second is irrelevant to this piece but was related to Wheeler’s quote that knowledge is like an island where the sea represents what we don’t know: the more your knowledge grows, the more your ‘ignorance’ grows with it. The insight from the puzzle was that while that is true, great advances can happen when you suddenly realize that what you perceived as a bit of ‘sea’ was actually the shoreline of another bit of knowledge.

1. You Must Do

Among the many reasons why an MVP (minimum viable product) is so important is that there are some things that you just cannot figure out through planning, design, surveys or ideation.

When you’re trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle, you can divide the pieces according to any number of features: size, shape, color. It’s a question of style and approach and it really doesn’t matter. However, you will not figure out where everything goes until you start trying to put things together.

Once you Do, things either work or they don’t. Pieces either fit, or they don’t. Looking at a piece and looking at where you think it might go will not help — just see if they fit. It’s not a game show where you only get one shot at the goal.

Trying to fit them together and failing is not a waste of time, it’s the only way to make progress!!

The same is true of your product, and your MVP. Stop talking and theorising about why it’s going to work in this market or the other and just put it out there, and see what happens. If it doesn’t fit, try something else, get back to the drawing board and then try again.

2. Zoom In, Zoom Out. Repeat.

When I was working on one of the bridge sections of the puzzle I was constantly scanning the larger piles of unused pieces for likely bridge components. Every now and then I’d make the mistake of looking at a piece, realizing it wasn’t a bridge piece and then trying to figure out where it was actually from. When you’re dealing with a 1,000 piece puzzle, you can’t get distracted like that: focus on the section that you’re working on now.

At a startup, when you’re working on, say, your pitch deck, it might seem like the wheels start coming off everything else. So it’s easy to get distracted as you try to keep all the plates spinning.

Don’t! Put the plates down! You need to ignore 99% of that stuff and just focus on what you’re doing now.

But… on the other hand, back in jigsaw puzzle-land, there are loads of pieces that you miss because you’re too focused. Let’s say I was looking for a specific piece: one with a large bit of blue bridge going through it and some green tree on the right hand side. I’m scanning for blue and green but in reality the green tree part is not visible on the single piece (it’s only apparent when the pieces are put together) and the large bit of blue bridge is actually a white stripe and a blue stripe when seen in isolation.

So yes, you need to be zoomed in and focused. You also need to understand that what you’re looking for probably won’t look like what you think it will look like. (And therefore, You Must Do!)

Your mind, when looking at the whole picture, distorts the image. It can change colors or impose perspective in a way that is simply not helpful in solving the problem of finishing the puzzle.

The picture in your mind of the finished puzzle (or, in your startup, your finished product) helps to inspire you, but it doesn’t help solve the specific problem you’re working on now. You need to get into the weeds, work with the pieces you have in front of you. Try stuff. Then step back, see how what you just did actually fits into the larger picture: what changed as a result? Adjust your trajectory accordingly… and then do it all over again.

3. Don’t get distracted, DO get distracted

As you get closer to the end of the puzzle, there are lots of times when you’ll pick up a piece for the section you’re working on now and immediately recognize it as the piece you were looking for last night for a different section.

In other words, experience matters. It turns out that you’ve been learning all along.

This is why, as you’re working on your product, you need to remain sufficiently open, and step back at a sufficient frequency, to see where there might be unexpected discoveries. You might actually have a critical insight into your value proposition, revenue strategy or market while you’re preparing that pitch deck. In which case, stop! Make those changes.

In puzzles, the piece we’re looking for is often right next to us. Sometimes sitting there for days twiddling its thumbs while we overlook it, time after time. And just like you must try and fit the pieces together that you think might be meant for each other, sometimes you must try pieces that you think do NOT fit together, would never fit together…

Don’t forget your why

Motivation is everything. At times of frustration it’s important to remember why you are doing what you are doing — this isn’t just focusing on the problem, or the solution, it’s going back to the vision that you have of the world once your vision has been realised.

In the case of something as silly as a puzzle this was still important. I have fond memories of doing puzzles with my family as a kid. So while I would stay up after my daughter had gone to bed I had to resist the temptation to finish the whole thing. My ‘why’ was to bond with her over solving this problem together — so I would finish the boring bits and put pieces aside for her to find and fit the next day.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from doing these physical puzzles. At the moment we’ve put the jigsaw puzzle away and my daughter and I are working on a 4x4 version of the Rubik’s Cube. It’s much harder than I expected.

Good luck!