What comes first — cart or horse? Well, it depends!
Fact is, avoiding the temptation to love your solution more than the customer’s problem pays a great deal eventually
For once, I did not want to ramble about “cart before the horse” issue that exists widely in the technology-based solution industry today. It is too painful to keep saying it without seeing a change in the uptake of the morale of the idiom.
However, wait, isn’t the IoT and AI-based solutions are much of a torch-bearers of this phenomenon? Indeed, they are! Even Google wants to be AI-first company rather than being customer first, and others follow.
I was speaking at an event a few weeks ago when this incident happened. I was on my way back to the airport, where I met a cofounder from a stealth-mode startup. The chat over the next hour with him made me touch this topic again, and hence this.
In talks with a stealth mode founder
I booked a shared cab to the airport soon after the event ended. When I reached the taxi, my co-passenger was already there. He was an attendee for the same event where I spoke.
As the journey started, he, with great enthusiasm, introduced himself and said that he is working on an IoT product with a unique (?) offering.
Naturally, I started probing further, and soon, I realised that his unique product offering is not at all uncommon. In the morning, the same day, I met another founder. His company was already delivering the same product to the same market and was in existence for the last five years.
Therefore, I asked this (stealth) founder, “How long you have been working on this?”. He said, “It will be two years next month.” I was not only shocked to hear that but also felt sad. I met two people in one day; one already in the market, selling the same product and making money. The other one, still in stealth mode and burning it!
He mentioned several things that many startup founders do, and we term them as rookie mistakes. Unfortunately, this fellow and his cofounders lacked severe guidance. They had several motivators like friends and family, but not sane and sensible guides or advisors, who could have suggested timely course corrections.
I tried to help him with some word of advice, hoping that it would help. I found, he and his team were so much in love with the solution, they nearly lost the sight as to why they started the venture in the first place. He was quite adamant in perfecting the technology before validating his assumptions. When I told him about my other meeting with another company founder in the same domain, he was a bit shaken but still kept justifying his stance. I could see in his eyes; his love for the solution was powerful!
Some of the critical mistakes this (stealth) founder and his team made were:
- Spending too much time in perfecting the technology, without validating assumptions.
- Ignoring the competition & their moves/progress.
- Not going out to the market sooner and making their name visible. However small it could have been, just being there could have helped.
- Trying to build everything in-house and not utilising what is already available or could be slightly modified to test the market.
- Not knowing when to stop and re-assess the situation.
In talks with another founder on the same day
When I met another founder (morning of the same day), his company was already making positive cash and had captured notable market share.
His approach and answer to my fundamental questions were quite different. He mentioned that he started selling from day one. Before the product was ready & available or establishing a team, he was pitching to his potential customers. Due to this approach, they had (paid) trial orders early on, well before they started burning the cash on design and development.
The same product offering, but different thinking! This contrast has put him and his company in a cash-positive position, and he had sufficient legroom to innovate and iterate. In fact, to this date, he was working on the improved version of his product to be launched next year. However, the good thing was, he did not wait for everything to be perfect; he kept the momentum and validated several assumptions early on.
These two (hour-long) chats on the same day helped to uncover a few more learnings.
So, what comes first — cart or horse?
A rhetorical question indeed but let us chew it for some more time.
Quite often, people quote Henry Ford in support of their thought processes or justifying their cart first approach. There exist many start-ups with significant pivots to their original plan, mainly due to the cart first approach.
I believe this is entirely situational and depends on the kind of product or service you are building. For a core service business (e.g. banking or insurance or similar) or the business where the service component is larger than the product component (e.g. water meter), the approach would be different and more often horse first.
Whereas, for a substantial product offering, cart first might still be justified, especially when the product is innovative (e.g. motor cars in the era of horses).
What comes first — cart or horse? Well, it depends!
Regardless of what comes first, a few key learnings would be:
It is a much better idea to pitch in the reverse direction — brochures, i.e. the sales pitch for customers, then pitch for employees to join the team, then for partners to collaborate with your startup, and then finally the pitch for investors; all in a given order here.
It is a much better idea to prepare and pitch in the right order: first to customers, then to potential employees, then partners, and finally investors!
It is better to take an objective decision and decide whether to make or buy the product (or offering) at the outset, at least when you are validating your business model, product idea, and other working models. You will be able to move faster and also save on sunk costs.
It is a good idea to decide to make or buy the core product/offering at the outset and minimize sunk costs. Keep an eye on the prize and validate assumptions!
There is no point in waiting for all signals to turn green. Iterations are inevitable, whether it is a product or the business model. No matter how careful and meticulous you are in the initial stages, they always change. Moreover, if that is the case, why not move on and improvise as you go?
There is no point in waiting for all signals to turn green, iterations are inevitable. Move on and improvise as you go!
Avoiding the temptation to love your solution more than the customer’s problems pays a great deal eventually!
About the Author: I am many things packed inside one person: a serial entrepreneur, an award-winning published author, a prolific keynote speaker, a savvy business advisor, and an intense spiritual seeker. I write boldly, talk deeply, and mentor startups, empathetically.