The Single Most Important Startup Lesson: How to Perform Inception on Your Customers

In a startup, just like with inception, you must begin with the most basic value your business creates

Selling a product is very much like an inception, or planting an idea in someone’s mind

I used to be a movie buff, but as a young dad, movies are a luxury I can no longer afford. Luckily my friend, Fayadh, recently got me to re-watch Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”. In the movie, an inception is the act of planting an idea into someone’s mind such that they believe it is their own. Starting a business is very much like inception, often times you must convince the customer that they chose to purchase your goods because they realized it’s good for them.

In a startup, just like with inception, you must start with the most basic value your business creates

But convincing people that what you are selling is great is a challenge. Lucky, Tom Hardy, offers the secret to planting an idea into someone’s mind (see video above): “You need the simplest version of the idea.. it’s a very subtle art… what you have to do is to start at the absolute basic [form of the idea]” In business, the absolute basic form of your idea is called a value proposition: what is the biggest pain your company solves and how?

In business, the absolute basic form of your idea is called a value proposition: what is the biggest pain your company solves and how?

At the heart of every sale is a simple and compelling value proposition. Yet, distilling months of hard work into a single idea that resonates with a lot of people is hard. In fact, value propositions are so hard to articulate that most startups swap it with a feature list: they list everything about the product hoping something sticks. The most common mistake startups make is assume that the value proposition is about their product. It is not, it’s about the customer and how you are going to make their lives better. As a general rule of thumb, your value proposition should never describe your product’s features. Instead, it should describe how your customer’s life is going to be awesome once they use your product. So if you are making a calendar app, don’t promote it as “The easiest calendar app”, instead say “Never go into a meeting without knowing everything about who you’re meeting with” or “You’ll never be late again”

The most common mistake startups make is assume that the value proposition is about their product. It is not. it’s about the customer and how you are going to make their lives better.

The picture below from User Onboarding demonstrate the concept beautifully. Say you want to sell Mario the Fire Flower that gives him the ability to shoot fireballs. Would you describe the flower’s physical features (color, size, etc.) or would you inform him how powerful he’ll be when he’s shooting fireballs? In order to sell your product you must help users visualize the better version of themselves once they use your product.

The difference between your value proposition and your features. User Onboarding suggests that you should never describe the properties of the your product (i.e the flower) instead describe how awesome your customer will be when they shoot fireballs thanks to your product. Source(

Now that we’ve established what a value proposition is, the hard work begins. You need to craft a powerful sentence that resonates with as many people as possible. The key is to be crystal clear about who your customer is. You might have multiple potential customers such as teenage boys and working mothers. In this case, you might need to craft one value proposition for each customer segment. The are two nuanced concepts to this advice: first, you can never know for sure who will pay for your product. Second, you never know what resonates with a large number of people.

The answer to these two questions is to test, test, test. The easiest test to see how many people sign-up to either use your service (if it’s ready) or sign-up to learn more about the service. Using a landing page, a Facebook page, and some guest blog posts you could easily (and cheaply) get in front of ~1000 people. Now you must analyze your value proposition and your audience.

Value proposition analysis

This is the first thing you should test, before even doing anything “business” related. Setup up a landing page with a nice background and your value proposition. The only text on your page should be the value proposition to ensure that there are no other confounding factors leading people to sign up. As you drive traffic to your site keep changing the messaging until you get ~40% conversion rate if you have a consumer internet startup.

Audience analysis

For each value proposition, you must identify the customer segment that converts the best. First, you need to list where do you think your target customer(s) hangs out on the web (e.g. mom blogs, dating sites, etc.) Then you’d want to drive as much traffic from the domains that have a high concentration of your potential customer. To analyze how each customer segment is doing, you need to setup an analytics package and track the source of each conversion. Figure out the best converting sources and try to interact with people from each source to confirm that indeed they are the same type of customer you had hypothesized.

Value proposition and audience validation

If all goes well, you’ll have a ~40% conversion rate and you are talking to your users and they have confirmed your hypotheses. Congratulations! However, most likely you will need to iterate through both your value proposition and your target customer. There are a few things you can do:

1- Learn from the users that don’t stick: put a survey on your website and ask questions about what the visitor was looking for and if (s)he found it on your site. Similarly, look at the people that unsubscribe from your email list and see if you could chat.

2- Let your users write your copy: once you have enough people that have shown interest, run a giveaway with a prize that is closely related to your product and ask your existing “users” to complete a sentence such as: “I use X because …” You’d be surprised how much insight your users will give you.

3- Ignore feature requests: When talking to users, don’t worry too much about the people that say: “I would use your product if it had ‘feature X’” During the early stages focus solely on the customer pain. It is very hard to tune out feature requests especially if dozens of people ask for the same feature. However, features by themselves aren’t why people adopt products it’s about how that product will make them “better”. What you have to be mindful of is that one person might suggest a different value proposition or pain-point and it might result in a multi-million dollar difference. Be flexible and playful. Think about what would happen if you went after this new pain. Also, ask to speak to people who share the same pain as the people you are interviewing.

Just like with an inception, starting a business requires some thinking and planning ahead — well before you write a single line of code or make a sales call. Taking the time to distill your business to its most fundamental concept — how it makes the lives of its customers better — will save you a lot of time, money, and agony down the line. Just ask Leo Dicaprio.

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Thank you to: Chris Bowman for editorial suggestions.