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Step 1: Build Nothing

Why the first thing to do when you’ve got a new idea is to build nothing: three practical steps to validate ideas and start strong

Every month or so, I have a great idea for a new startup. I’m going to change the world. I’m going to build the best networking/entertainment company, I’ve got the next subscription-box blockbuster, and I’m going to bring catering and personal chefs into the digital age. (A sampling of my 2019 ideas.)

When I have these ideas, my first instinct (still, even though I know better) is to brainstorm domain names and buy a URL. Then I want to design a logo or even sketch out some designs. I think about a go-to-market plan, how cool it would be if I could partner with influencers who could give my new brand a lift, and more than anything — if I’m honest with myself — I envision busting through the bullshit to increase the number of female founder/CEOs of tech companies.

Sound familiar? What’s missing here? Oh yes, the problem.

An idea without a problem is a shovel without a treasure map. You’ve got the solution, but you have no idea where the problem is.

All of these great ideas came from frustrations in my daily life, but my life is not enough of a proof point to assume I have an idea worth pursuing.

The giddiness of a new idea is so intoxicating, though, that most of us fall into this trap. Rather than ask the hard questions, such as does this solve a meaningful problem for anyone, or how is this better than what’s already available, we stick to the fun stuff, such as naming our new company or product. I’ve seen junior PMs all the way up to CEOs dive into design before we know whom we’re designing for (or what device they’ll be using).

But first, build nothing

JZ Zhang teaches students at Stanford not to think about their idea until the middle of the quarter: “If you don’t loosen your grip on a proposed solution, you won’t be able to take in valuable feedback about the problem.”

Zhang is the latest, but not the first, to promote this idea. Marty Cagan’s product management process, which I have used in multiple companies, starts with an opportunity assessment to validate the problem space … not the design or scope of the solution. He advocates for a stage gate before design even begins, when the leadership team evaluates and approves a problem to be moved forward into discovery.

Even if it sounds good, and you’re on board with taking a step back, it still requires effort and one of the most overlooked secret weapons every good product manager has.

The PM’s secret weapon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about discipline, and particularly the balance between discipline and a startup’s need to adjust, as it learns more about its space and its customers. They aren’t incompatible, as long as you don’t mistake rigidity for discipline. In fact, discipline can be a startup’s secret weapon.

We don’t talk a lot about discipline being a core PM skill. In the many articles about what differentiates a good PM from a great PM, you’ll get answers such as:

  • Work collaboratively across organizations.
  • Make good decisions with imperfect data.
  • Focus on impact, not on shipping things.
  • Balance strategy and tactics.
  • Be data-driven, but have a holistic perspective.
  • Be a visionary.

Never once have I seen discipline called out as a critical skill for exceptional PMs. We don’t typically screen for it in hiring loops. Yet the success of every product begins with an ability to set aside the excitement of a new idea for the rigor of building the business case.

Three steps to reality

What do you do when your next great idea strikes? I have a three-step process to staying disciplined and grounding my excitement in reality:

1. Talk to people

The first step in validating your great idea is to ignore it. Ignore the idea, but not the people you’re building it for. In fact, talking to people is the very first thing to do. With the networking/entertainment idea I had this year, I initially wouldn’t move forward with any research, because I couldn’t think of a good name for it. When I stepped away from the excitement, I admitted I could make plenty of progress without a name.

I created a survey to gauge interest in a new kind of professional network. It took me 30 minutes to create a survey and post it to various professional Slack and Facebook groups. I got 35 responses in a few hours that validated some ideas, and more importantly, poked holes in what I considered the cornerstone of my new idea. Remember, just because you want to build it doesn’t mean anyone wants to buy it. Let them tell you what’s not working with their current solutions, before you tell them about your great new product.

2 . Evaluate the market

If you’ve talked to people, and they validate (without you leading them) that the problem you’re aiming to solve is a real one, take a deep breath, and don’t build anything.

Stumbling on a problem doesn’t mean it’s worth solving.

Though, as an industry, we have largely moved away this definition, Marc Andreessen’s initial definition of product/market fit focused a lot more on the size and health of the market than the product itself. When you look at the market, you’re looking at the size of the industry, how much it’s been growing, and what technology and societal factors affect the health of the industry. You’re considering who holds the purse strings for the customer you’re targeting and whether their budgets are growing or shrinking. You’re looking a lot further out than just your product and your users to decide if something is worth pursuing.

With respect to the catering/personal chef idea, I did some searching to see what exists in the market already. There’s one very well-funded major player and a graveyard of failed startups very similar to what I was thinking. I believe the market conditions are different now than they were when these startups failed, but it’s a cautionary tale showing me that if I pursued this product, I would need to have a rock-solid idea of what makes the market more hospitable to my solution than it was a few years ago.

3 . Think operationally

A good idea, on its own, is worthless. I’ve run into people before who believe so much in the power of an idea that they wouldn’t share their startup plan for fear someone would steal it. But without operational excellence, a good idea is just that — an idea.

Usually, what differentiates two companies with similar value propositions is their ability to execute on the idea.

For me, this rang true with the kids’ subscription box. I had no doubt I could effectively market it, and I could build a differentiated offering that combined technology and physical goods, but when I dug into it, the “physical goods” part of it took off some of the luster. I have never manufactured anything, so in addition to gathering feedback and gauging interest, I needed to look into how I would produce what I was selling. If the operational realities cool off your excitement, like it did mine, perhaps it’s not yet time to quit your day job.

No joke — it’s hard

Think this is easy? Even when it’s your job to evaluate product opportunities, it’s still remarkably easy to get swept away in the excitement of the new and shiny. To keep yourself grounded, learn your users, learn your market, and figure out the logistics before committing design or engineering time to bring it to life.

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Ashley Wali

Ashley Wali

Product leader Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about gender equality, travel, & weekends at home.

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