Where To Start With A Startup

For an entrepreneur starting a business seems like the equivalent of an artist having a blank canvas. You’ve probably got a great idea and a range of tools to make it happen, but don’t know where to begin. I’ve never started my own business so I wouldn’t know, but I‘ve worked with a few people who have and been with them at the beginning of their journey. The key at this stage is how to get the best out of an idea as well as put the foundations and structure in place for its best chance of long-term success.

The biggest difference between me and the entrepreneurs I work with is usually that they have committed their entire professional and personal lives to this blank canvas. They have invested totally in the belief that their idea has a significant place in the market, and they have the means (or know people who do) to turn a concept into a reality.

So, where to start?

As a designer, I have to counter every inherent urge to start defining the finished product right away. As soon as I have a general overriding concept, my mind starts going wild with what it could be and how it could look in my hands and in front of my eyes. The problem is that the images rushing through my head are all based on preconceptions from the past — things that have already been, based on a plethora of different facts and pieces that all come together to tell a different story. Someone else’s story.

Recently I helped run a three-day workshop with 3 entrepreneurs who have bravely launched themselves into the unknown and started exploring an idea with a ton of potential and very little baggage. This is a key point as with baggage comes limitations, constraints, and tensions, therefore inevitable preconceptions that we’ve established aren’t helpful at this stage.

The purpose of running a short time-restricted workshop is to define the core business proposition and quickly root out and make decisions around fundamental items the idea needs to get to market and gain small numbers of influential customers (known as early adopters). These few customers will help drive and define the shape of the proposition for the foreseeable future and as the customer base grows and the proposition matures so too will the business. But always with the customer at the heart*.

*Your customers are your business, and your business is to provide a service to your customers and satisfy their existing and (as yet) unmet needs. This is a widely accepted concept in the world of business, especially so in the current vacuum of the startup world — but what does it actually mean when it comes down to how a business operates and behaves?

I believe it is placing the customer at the centre of everything you do, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a great idea without deeply ingrained processes, technology stack and financial systems etc already in place then you can do this with immediate effect:

  1. Conduct market research to validate existing assumptions and discover unmet needs (both desktop, 1–2–1 [selective] interviews and community-based surveys)
  2. Define a core set of ‘power users’ (early adopters) that you feel widely represent your intended customer base. They will stress, challenge and help define the product as it evolves over time.
  3. Continue to rely on this (evolving) group of people to validate your hypotheses and future product enhancements as well as evangelise your business to family, friends, and the wider community.

Going back to my original question, where to start?

To borrow a mantra from business leader Simon Sinek, Start With Why. If you want people to buy into your idea then they have to believe what you believe only then do you need to let them know that you have the capability to help make it a reality. The question for our founders is — What were the defining moments that conjured this idea in the first place and the subsequent moments that made you realise you needed to start this business? This description would be the backbone to the next three days and drive many of the (sometimes extremely tough) decisions that would have to be made.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe” ― Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Once this backbone was in place we could start analysing the factors that will affect the idea and it’s success such as competitors, technology, trends, geographies, partners etc.

After the initial Proposition Canvas had been laid we thought about where we might want to position the business and the attributes that will eventually build our personality. We tried to think of the business we were building as a human-being and the character we pulled together is a representative of the company as a whole. As businesses are (more often than not) made up of lots of different people with a mix of personalities and characteristics we needed to align on a set of values early on that will represent the business, and there’s no better opportunity to do this while we have the founders together.

Our values and what we believe are what makes us human. We are differentiated by our personalities which are made up of inherent traits and unique life experiences that are reflected in our actions. The same goes for the businesses we build, and our company values are the words or phrases that best define who we are as a business and what we stand for.

We needed to articulate these values in a clear and meaningful way so they drive each and every decision the business makes on it’s journey. If we were to talk what would we say? How would we greet you? What attributes make us different? We’ve all seen company values from the likes of Facebook and Airbnb so it’s hard to avoid just reproducing our values from already successful businesses — therefore, we needed to be more matter-of-fact about the attributes that make us, us. For our founders we used the core business idea, what we do, who we are, what we believe and what we [will] have to offer as drivers for our values. These values will provide stability and support as a point of reference not only for the founders but the employees to come.

Our values are what we want people to understand the business to be, what it stands for and represents — but that takes time and you only get people’s time when you deliver a great service over and over again. So we have two dimensions at play here; 1. great service, and 2. company values. The challenge is the make these two key ingredients sing to the same tune and drive towards a mutual goal of satisfied customers that love the service and buy in to the brand*.

*The brand is evolving throughout this process and will continue to evolve over the coming weeks and months, but I try not to focus too much on the word itself. It has a tendency to make people (like me) jump to the aforementioned preconceptions of what we want the brand to be without first addressing the paramount issues and ensuing tasks. The business should be value and service driven while keeping the key brand elements such as tone of voice, logo, messaging, colour palette, imagery etc in mind as the idea evolves.

Company values allow for a lot of interpretation (i.e. misinterpretation), therefore, need to become more actionable and preferably quantifiable — especially for people who weren’t involved in their creation. To do this we then asked ourselves what these values would look like to a consumer on a day-to-day basis. If the values are what we want people to know us for, what are the daily experiences we want them to have that will reinforce this message and build loyalty and eventually, trust.

For instance; If we want our customers to think of us as Honest we should tell them where our sources come from and validate our offering.

We call these Experience Principles. When we start developing the idea into a product or service we will use these principles to guide our decisions and keep us true to our values. There will be a limitless number of decisions that need to be made over the lifetime of the business and at times it will be hard to decide between conflicting benefits to the business or the consumer. This is when we call upon our Experience Principles to guide us in the right direction and make sure we’re making our decisions based on the original purpose and core beliefs of the business. This set of principles can easily act as a checklist for future product development and allow a business to grow into several departments whilst aligning to an overarching desired customer experience.

In parallel to our Experience Principles we also spend time mapping out the major touch-points and situations we consider to be influential in our intended customers lives. Of course depending on the idea this could be anything from an hourly to annual basis, regardless, it is broken down to the key moments we feel the ‘idea’ might have a part to play. An integral part of the exercise to to identify all potential scenarios so we leave no stone unturned and do our best to see that no opportunity is missed, which may well prompt some inappropriate ideas or misplaced suggestions but its all welcome at this stage. Its much better to take time to explore all potential opportunities and find an undiscovered gem than to save time not considering them because we think we don’t have a part to play.

The resulting Experience Maps would then act as a template for us to flex our creative minds and ideate over where we think the business could support, accelerate or even remove our customers from the process entirely. We highlight the pain points in our personas’ lives and where we can solve their problems. Again the remit is to go as far and wide as our minds will take us, as this will stretch the idea and stress how much we actually want the business to be responsible for. For example; if your idea is a health and fitness platform which centres around a device that track your steps, heart rate, calories, distance etc, why not offer an additional service that recommends subsequent dietary, nutritional and medical advice based on your general state of wellbeing? Now, there could be plenty of reasons why not and my top-line advice would be to know your capabilities as founders, do one thing, and do it better than anyone else — and this is still very true even when we’re mapping out the desired experience but the focus and limitations will come later. At this stage we know we have an idea and largely a market we want to target but we haven’t yet considered all the possible variables that your idea might touch, and you never know where that hidden gem that helps differentiate you might be.

(this particular map is a collection of doodles to represent the concept, and makes absolutely no sense)

Of course there is another side to our Experience Map which will have an equal effect on the success of our idea; the business itself. We must understand that although we need to think ‘customer first’ in everything we do, that does not mean the business doesn’t get a look in. The needs of our customers must drive the objectives and ambitions of the business but not at its own expense. How can our founders serve their customers in a way they’ve never experienced before if they’re not in a position to do so. The needs of the business must be aligned to the needs of the customer so they can deliver each other mutual value. This might seem obvious but with the advent of freemium services such as Uber, Spotify, Instagram, Facebook, Dropbox, Airbnb and other companies considered to be the highest-valued startups in the world who are glorified for their customer-first approach, we can be easily forgiven for thinking “what’s best for the customer is best for the business”.

“First, a false sense of euphoria takes hold as a consumer solution is identified. Cries of ‘Consumers love my idea!’ and ‘We’ve solved it’ ring down the halls. But in truth, it’s at best half-solved.
The needs of the consumer have been addressed, but the needs of the business and the people who run it, and who ultimately decide what gets to market, have not.” — 
Mark Payne, Founder, Farenheit 212

To help solve this we split our Experience Map into two channels to help us understand both sides of the coin. On the top; the customer experience (this often splits into multiple user types), and on the bottom; the business experience. This helps us map the actions of the business with the actions of our customers and evaluate where our idea has strong commercial value (simple solutions with high margins) and where the idea might have lower commercial value (low impact with high cost implications) and require significant investment form the business. It’s not a case of one being right or wrong but assessing where the founders want to focus their time and money against their wider business goals.

It also allows us to see where there might be crossover in solving multiple problems (across touch-points) with a single solution on the business side. This kind of discovery could save huge amounts of investment, reduce cost and maximise profits. It could also change the entire shape of the organisation and infrastructure. An example of this might be help and support — which is widely applicable to any business idea. Before our experience map we may have assumed that there will be a support network requiring large numbers of human resource. But after we consider an exhaustive set of potential customer journeys, we found that there is an opportunity to allow our customers to support each other and supply a self generating and renewable source of support, thus considerably reducing overhead. In this instance the business investment would shift from hiring technical support to man phones lines or chat rooms, to hiring designers and developers to create a user friendly user generated community.

Now comes the bit that gets me a little over excited. Mood boards. After we’ve aired and defined some crucial aspects of the idea such as the market expectations, value proposition, core values and customer touch-points, we’re in a position to get conceptual and theoretical. How might we evoke the sentiments of our findings into how the company could look and feel? We separate this into clear categories where, again we go far and wide. Key categories include imagery, typography, colour and tone of voice. I’ve found the best way to extract value out of this session is to come into the workshop prepared with a wide set of examples broadly focussed on the industry and subject at hand, then gather input from our founders as to where their feelings lean towards. Using our Core Values and Experience Principles as a guide, we can then extract the general words, feelings and mood that our founders (and the rest of the group) think the business wants to portray.

One of the exercises I’ve found to be helpful is brand positioning and perception mapping. This can take many forms but in this case — while we’re in the primitive stages and still not 100% sure which sector the idea actually sits — we wanted to segment by four separate verticals and select the players we think are leading both from an experience and commercial point of view. We use this as a barometer to evaluate our proposition and audience against and try to understand what it is about these companies that makes them attractive and compelling to their audience. We quickly found our (intended) place in this map, which gives our visual designer(s) what they need to start applying the visual bones to what will eventually be the brand skeleton on which to work from. This is by no means the finished article and of course we can take as many pivots as we feel necessary as the proposition develops and more crucially, as we learn what our customers respond and relate to.

Finding a name can be a daunting task. I have personally spent a disproportionate number of hours thinking about what I would call my (future/fictional) company — to no avail. Again, with naming it’s so often a case of just knowing where to start as the options are limitless therefore can seem overwhelming.

For our founders, we first think about our long term goal. We ask questions like; will we want to tag-on products in the future, or will it stand alone? Will we need an emotional connection to distinguish ourselves? Will our market need us to be specific about the product offering? Do we want to be seen as a bold brand willing to take a risk and be at the cutting edge of our industry, or is it important that we portray responsibility and safety? Once we considered these (and there are plenty of other) questions we separated our incoming naming options into four categories:

  1. Descriptive: Does what it says on the tin (e.g. Travelodge)
  2. Suggestive: That suggest the benefits (e.g. Twitter)
  3. Metaphorical: That have connotations (e.g. Shell)
  4. Arbitrary: (e.g. Apple)

Once these pillars were in-place, we let everyone spend a short but focussed amount of time (10–20 minutes) jotting down as many names as we can. We aim for about 30–40 names each. We then go through the names everyone has written down without anyone commenting (ok, you might get the occasional yelp of approval or grunt of disdain) to get them all out in the air. We consolidate these into a digital copy, removing any duplication and leave them to simmer until the next day where we can refine them down to a select few we think are on the right track. In our three-day workshop we are not intending on defining everything right here and now, and this is another item that will get us moving in the right direction and extract maximum value from the short timeframe.

As you can see we’re starting to make real inroads into various aspects of the idea. As we start creating a clear mental picture of what it will take to get something of real value to market, we can now begin ideating and conceptualising the product itself.

We conduct breakout sessions where our Customer Experience and Visual Designers work closely together — away from the rest of the group — and come up with low fidelity ideas that will (hopefully) range form the obvious to the absurd. As with the rest of the exercises there is no limit to how far our ideas can go. The breakout can range from anywhere between 2–4hrs (depending on the how complex the idea is) and will involve continuous collaboration between the people involved. Based on a 2 hour breakout, I have found the best way to break this down is to spend 30 minutes in ‘post-it mode’ with each designer coming up with as many ideas as possible in the simplest possible format. Then spend the next 30 minutes narrowing down on what we feel are ideas worth pursuing. Then as the Experience Designers elaborate on the chosen concepts the Visual Designers can mock up a higher fidelity version so our founders can easily imagine the concept in a more realistic scenario. Its important that those continuing to stress out the detail of the concepts work closely with those visualising them as conclusions and decisions made along the way may affect the overall design dramatically. The purpose of this session is to replay the outcome to the wider team and present the founders with concepts that will get them excited and hopefully give the whole team a sense of something more tangible. Most importantly we want to gather feedback (often from the designers themselves as they will have noticed shortcomings or improvements they could have made with more time) that will input into the next iteration of these concepts. But first we need to let the concepts breathe a bit and mentally percolate, so the next iteration has a fresh and reflective perspective.

The next day we can take the feedback from the previous session and spend a further 2 hours refining the concepts both from an experience detail and visual perspective. When we show the ideas back to the team we should be on the right track to creating an actual prototype.

You may have noticed that 4 hours have drifted by without our founders involvement. During the concept phase we conduct two sessions in parallel namely the high-level technology solution* and the business model canvas. We’d love to have everybody included in all sessions but to maximise our time and output we feel these are two sessions our designers can be working on what they do best.

I’ve often found that it can actually be conducive to good design for the visual and experience designers to not be involved in the high-level tech session. Of course it’s essential that people designing the product experience understand the technology that will drive it — and it’s paramount they consume the output of this session so they do — but the idea should be driven first and foremost by the best possible experience for the customer and technology should be leveraged to deliver the solution, not the other way round. As with the business vs customer consideration mentioned earlier, the balance between technology and experience design should dance in tandem.

After we’ve replayed the 2nd iteration of our concepts to the group and collectively feel we have narrowed down on a lot of the detail, we can start prototyping the solution. This can take many forms, from physical to digital, hardware to software, device to application or even a structure or process. The main thing is that we get to something ‘real’ as quickly as possible. We have several tools that can help us get there such as 3D printing, InVision, Flinto, Adobe Xd, Keynote and many more. Depending on the problem we’re trying to solve we all have the tools and capabilities to execute an almost replica product that can be tested in a multitude of ways with our founders, partners and customers. This gives us a great opportunity (after the workshop) to gather some feedback with people in the real world (outside of our workshop bubble) and gain insight into the needs and desires of our audience.

But for now, our idea is just getting started and within three days we have a prototype we can test, supported by our founders who have been integral and heavily involved in its creation.

The final piece to our three-day workshop is to define what we want to include in our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and the subsequent wider Business Roadmap.

Our MVP should have some clear inputs by now and the whole team should feel they have a firm grip on the features that will make our business idea into a fully fledged product. Now we need to define the bare minimum required to get it to market and test our assumptions and hypotheses. This session will undoubtably generate some discussion around what those features are. And it should. It’s very healthy to have conflict over the contents of our MVP as it’s the face of the business and what our founders will be seen for and judged on by investors, peers and themselves.

As I mentioned at the beginning; the reason we have a time-restricted workshop is so that we can focus on each facet of the business and the MVP planning should not be taken lightly.

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a key lean startup concept. The basic idea is to maximize validated learning for the least amount of effort. After all, why waste effort building out a product without first testing if it’s worth it. — Ash Maura

The output of this session will be an MVP backlog we will later prioritise and break into product design and development Sprints.

Another key action we need to consider in our three days is financial planning and how we will attract investors and funding. This often involves an investors presentation which will include the high-level topics we’ve discussed during our workshop, i.e. what is the problem they’re trying to solve, proposed solution, opportunity and market validation, revenue model and growth strategy, current financials as well as the team we’re asking the investors to buy into. So much of the success will depend on this last aspect as investors are heavily driven by the people they’re investing in and whether they believe they are the type of people that are going to make this product and business a success.

In just three days we have turned a great idea into a clear and categorised collection of deliverables that will serve as the structure and foundations from which to build a successful business. We finish by reinforcing to our founders that this is not a one off exercise but a template for the future. We have started a process of iterative validated learning based on a ‘customer first’ approach (but in-line with business goals) that will keep the business lean and flexible no matter what the market may bring.


Originally published at medium.com on April 13, 2016.