Secret #2: Don’t Fall In Love With Your Idea
As seen on LinkedIn
It’s a widely acknowledged meme that successful founders need to be passionate. In fact, there’s a whole word cloud of associated entrepreneurial attributes that spring to mind here: Relentless, Committed, Fearless, Obsessive, Driven, Willing-to-Run-Through-Walls, Hard-Freaking-Core.
While I’d certainly prefer working with that guy to the alternative (i.e., Nobody’s rushing to invest in Lazy Wafflers Terrified of Injury-By-Wall), I’ve come to realize that “Passion” et al. are sometimes code words for stubbornness.
Over the past year, my colleagues at Ringleader Ventures and I have talked to over 500 founders, and we’ve noticed that many of them are so infatuated with their particular idea that they’re unable or unwilling to accept constructive feedback, and thus unable to grow. They come across as “knowers” as opposed to “learners.” In their passionate development of their innovative (read: new and better) something, they inadvertently build up a resistance to externally generated ideas that might be even newer and better still.
As far as I can tell, these feedback antibodies develop for at least three distinct reasons.
Inertia: The blood, sweat and tears they’ve invested to date make it psychologically and emotionally difficult to pull out an existing approach. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a doozy because after all of the time and treasure you’ve put into your business, you convince yourself that you’ve gotten to a point of no return. A tendency to throw good money after bad is…not investor friendly.
In the Jar: Sometimes, your expertise actually gets in your way. Around here, we like to say, “You can’t read the label when you’re sitting inside the jar.” You become such a stud in your discipline that you’re unable to see past your own bulging best-practice biceps. The truth is, sometimes your business can really benefit from the objective, “civilian” perspective of an outsider. If you find yourself spending more time tearing apart alternate approaches than you spend selling folks on the merits of your own approach, you might be stuck “in the jar.” Remember: Successful entrepreneurs are makers, not critics.
Pride: This one is simple to describe but tricky to beat. Founders resist accepting feedback because they take pride in the sheer novelty and uniqueness of their personal idea. To most founders, the business is their “baby,” and no one likes it when you call their baby ugly. It takes real maturity and humility to objectively recognize that your idea/invention/business isn’t cutting it in the eyes of the market.
The Path Forward? Lead With Need.
Einstein supposedly said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. We couldn’t agree more. We talked last time about our preference for companies with clear, elevating missions. Well, we specifically favor startups that are passionate about addressing a clearly unmet customer need. If you’re passionate about a need, you’re free to try out lots of competing ideas in pursuit of addressing that need.
My advice to the early-stage entrepreneur? Spend less time thinking up new ideas and more time working to uncover your customers’ unmet needs. But be thoughtful about it: If you ask them directly, they may limit you to a hunt for “faster horses.” Don’t be afraid to put your anthropology hat on and do a little primary and secondary research to uncover the emerging, tacit needs that they themselves aren’t yet even articulating. Steve Jobs famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, but I’d bet my new iPhone 6 that Cupertino’s offerings have always been heavily informed by exhaustive amounts of customer insight research.
Bottom line: We prefer to invest in founders who are passionate, not about their product, but about meeting a customer’s unmet needs. Last time I checked, satisfied customers were still the primary ingredient to a profitable company.
Oh, and archive that old therapeutic cool_biz_ideas.txt file, and get cracking on 99_problems.txt
(I manage Ringleader Ventures [www.ringleaderventures.com], a seed-stage venture capital firm in Chicago, Illinois. My colleagues and I are constantly asked: “What do you folks look for in a company when you invest?” After talking to over 500 founders, and investing in a handful, I can say confidently that we’re on the prowl for 12 key elements. I plan to share these 12 secrets over the course of the next few months here, and at www.ringleaderventures.com.)