It is very hard to let go of an idea. It feels like turning your back on your child. Many times it’s the right thing to do. If you’ve ever pulled the plug on an idea you spent hard hours working on, I would love to hear your story.

Here’s mine :)

It all started about a year ago

November 11, 2015 to be exact. A close friend called me to tell me he had a great idea. I am an idea guy (ask my wife). I was all ears. He told me he was driving in his car when he had a thought. “I thought of a fun, new way to get people involved in their community.” He then began to give me the details of his idea. It is best described as a crowdfunding platform to get groups of people together to support a cause. The main difference would be that you could give more than money. You could give Time, Expertise, Ability and Money (TEAM, that is so clever!). We also wanted people involved in the giving process. Instead of funding something and saying, “good luck!” you could be present when the person received their gift. “Great idea!” I said. I almost put in my two week notice to my employer that moment. We spent the rest of the night talking about how cool the platform would. We made sure to note all the features and why it is so much better than That Other Option. We had the commercials and social media posts mapped out. It was AWESOME!!

We hit the ground running

We got all the “important” things out of the way first:

  1. A name
  2. A logo, designed by 99 Designs
  3. Business cards
  4. A website domain
  5. Every social media platform you could think of (except for MySpace)

I spent hundreds of hours developing a website (which I do enjoy) and showing friends and family. Their reaction was, “sounds cool, so what is it?” A sign the website needed help and honestly our idea did too. The website went through millions of changes which did not make it much better. Sometimes it was worse. This went on for a few months but we were enjoying the process. One day we met with a buddy to sell our idea. He owns a business that we were sure would be the perfect partner. He started asking questions and giving honest feedback.

“What is your value proposition?” he asked. “Who is your target market?” “Have you talked to people about the idea?” We were unaware of the lean startup approach at that time. We had no answer for any of his questions. It was obvious he wasn’t too convinced. No problem. He had a great point. We hadn’t talked to too many strangers about our idea. We made a plan to do that. My buddy mentioned a startup accelerator he had been to where he learned the steps to start a business. He also and referred us to some videos… I figured I’d watch them at some point. My “co-founder” and I both have our MBA’s, we knew a thing or two about starting a business. At least that’s what we thought.

SO we started talking to people

We devised a plan to get people to talk to us. We would buy people coffee at Starbucks in return for a few minutes to talk about our idea. It worked (people can’t turn down free coffee) and we talked to a couple of people. Boy did WE TALK! We told them everything we could about our idea.

“It can do this and that… It will make it fun to blah blah blah… Oh, and this part will be awesome!” Then we asked for their feedback, “What do you think?”

Of course most people said, “that sounds cool.” Alright great, we left feeling pretty good. People looOOOooved our idea!! So I did some more updates to the website and figured we’d be good to go. All we heard were crickets. Imagine that?

Then I remembered the videos

I thought about the videos my buddy pointed us to. Nothing else we did was working, so I decided to take a look. The videos were by a guy I’d never heard of, named Steve Blank. They talked about lean startup principles. Sounded interesting but not mind blowing. Then I remembered something else my buddy told us about. The startup accelerator he learned most of this stuff from. It was given by the local university where we received our MBA so my friend and I looked into it.

Next thing you know

We are accepted into the accelerator. This is where everything began to change. The purpose of the program was to give you a confident “go/no go” of your idea in 6 weeks. It used lean startup principles and we got to know the business model canvas very, very well. Every week we had to give a presentation (sometimes with VC’s present). The most important thing was that we had to go out and talk to at least 10 people a week. This time, we were better trained in how to approach the conversation. We learned the types of questions to ask. We learned what to listen for. We learned how to actually do customer discovery. As we did that, we began to pivot our idea. In the beginning, we were focused on getting people tied in to their community. We thought one way to start that is to connect groups with local non profit organizations. As we talked to non profits, we began to see a pattern in what their needs were. At least we thought we did. Before we knew it, we were offering social media help to local non-profit organizations. Time to update the website again!

With our new focus in mind, I dug deeeep into the world of social media. I studied the likes of Michael Stelzner, Kim Garst and Madalyn Sklar (social media buffs). I mastered Buffer and Hootsuite. I joined the chats, used the hashtags and segmented the mailing lists.

At the end of the startup class we gave an awesome pitch (even won a little $$). The future was looking bright. We managed to get a few non-paying customers (hmmm?). We also organized a couple of cool events for non profits.

Yet. At the end of the day

We failed to gain traction and have since fizzled out. So what happened?? We finally figured out that our customer segments weren’t well defined. Also, non profits were reluctant to pay for our services. This is not a knock on non profits. It shows that our value proposition was not meeting their deepest pain points.

So what did we learn?

1. An idea is an idea, not a business. It can be very fun to brainstorm and dream about what your idea will become. In fact, that the first part of the process I encourage people to go through. But, an idea is NOT a business. Which means hold off on the website and logo in the beginning. Those things will come as you begin to refine your idea and connect with your target market. The first steps should be to work toward validation, NOT to come up with a flashy business card.

2. Learn how to listen to people. Looking back on our early conversations with people, it’s pretty embarrassing. We’d talk about all the awesome things our platform could do. Then we’d ask people if that sounded interesting. Duh, yes… No one is going to burst your bubble right then and there. Understand that the purpose of the conversation is to better understand them. Not for them to hear all about your awesome idea. Customer discovery is very important. It is very important that you take the correct approach. Even once we learned more about how to interview, we were still terrible. It is easy to interpret what someone says to support our idea. Effective customer discovery takes practice.

3. Be flexible. Our pivot to non profit social media marketing wasn’t a total failure. In fact we ended up managing a couple accounts (for free, yikes). One of the main principles in the lean circle is to iterate often. This requires you to be flexible and listen to what people truly need. This doesn’t mean you start as a donut shop and end up as a sky diving company. Many times small tweaks to your business model can mean big successes.

4. Jump in! To be honest, the last year was a HUGE learning experience for me. I learned more about customer development and marketing and networking, than I had the previous 6 years of “higher” education. I would not have learned half as much if my friend and I wouldn’t have decided to pursue our dreams. Now I am more confident and prepared for the next opportunity to come around. I never know what ideas may pop up next time I answer my phone.

I suspect I am not alone. Do you have stories of an idea that did not turn out as you dreamed. What went right and what caused you to move on?

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