Simon Sinek's work on leadership, best popularized by his theory of the Golden Circle, is becoming a common reference in the startup world to the point that I've seen it presented at a Lean Startup Weekend as step number one in the startup's journey.
If you're not familiar with it take a look at his TED Talk:
The discourse however is often centered around value proposition (this is a great framework to express one btw) and I think it ought to be extended further out, or rather, further in.
Why are you doing a startup?
This question seems a no brainer right? I wanted to be my own boss and/or I wanted to change the world. That's what I said and that's what I heard over and over when I asked first time entrepreneurs.
The thing is we were/are all daydreaming. And that's fine, in part it's where the energy to face the many obstacles comes from. However it's not very smart to build a startup on an illusion because there will be plenty problems and they will be very real.
If when it comes to communicate your company's vision it's critical to lead with the why, then it should be as important for founders do the same with themselves.
So why are you doing this?
The solution trap
If you are like me what likely happened is that one day you figured out some cool to solve a problem you had and thought to yourself: this is great, I bet lots of people are experiencing the same, I can turn this into a product and it'll be a success.
You started with the solution, sidestepping the problem and assuming that everybody else felt the same as you did.
By doing that you bought yourself a one-way ticket to what land. From there on you won't be able to stop pitching and building until you hit a wall and run out of money.
And you will likely never ask why until it's too late.
The problem trap
But wait you say, "I'm smart and lean and knew about this so I did validate the problem!". That's great, however that's still a step ahead of the why, what-land suburbs let's say (and it's not a nice residential area).
Why are you solving that problem? what interests you about it?
Our landing pages product was a trap
A few months ago when Alessandro and I started working together on this new version of Spikelab I was fed-up with wordpress and wanted something simpler. And when I say simpler I really meant it, I'm talking static html pages here.
We started looking around and eventually stumbled into site generators. Ale started working on one and in a few days we had something up. A few days later he had integrated Google Analytics and Mailchimp. Another week goes by and Parse is in the mix too.
It was really cool.
I'm working on an ebook on idea generation (yes the one from the project section, I'll get it out soon, I promise) and I wanted to test interest so we thought we could reuse the same codebase to spin up a new site.
It took us literally 5 minutes to have a spiffy twitter bootstrap based landing page, clean code no horrible generated html you get with those site builders, and the generator we use does a bunch of magic to make the site super speedy.
This might be a product!
It was doubly cool. We thought there might actually be a market for this thing, techies that cared about code and didn't want to use nasty web editors to drag and drop boxes around, but that also didn't want to spend weeks just to get a landing page out.
We kept bouncing the idea around and had some discussions on how to go about doing some customer development and which channels to use. I had a couple conversations with folks and the response was pretty good so we planned to go ahead and put a landing page out built with the tool itself as a demo.
Before people call me out since I always rant against landing pages and stress the importance of thorough customer interviews, you should always bear in mind the ROI of testing. In this case everything had already been developed and it costed us 5 minutes to put up something to get leads for more interviews (landing pages early on are ok if you do them to find candidates to interview).
Doing a bit of planning
Like we always do we moved the conversation to Trello and started adding some things we needed to do before we could push it out.
We ended up with a relatively small list of 10 tasks, 3 days worth of work at max to record a screencast and write some decent copy and other bits and pieces.
It all seemed to go right and we finished the day getting ready to enter the weekend during which we hoped to bang it all out. We went to sleep and dreamt of success and being the next Unbounce, but for geeks.
Two weeks later
That weekend we ended up working on a bunch of other stuff and on Monday I really needed to focus on writing some how-tos I had been putting off.
A week passed without any progress on our landing page web app.
During that week there were however some interesting developments with Spikelab and so we planned a bunch more experiments for which we had to write new code.
Once again a week passed without progress on our landing page web app.
That weekend it happened to be the time we usually have a longer chat to review progress and of course we ended up talking about the lack of progress on our new idea.
Cool doesn't make it worth it
Now that two weeks had passed without touching that project our feelings about it had come down and there was enough space to ask the magical question: why are we doing this?
We virtually stared each for a bit and then shrugged: I guess it sounded cool on the spot and we had the code, but do you actually care?
Neither of us did (or does, but if you are happy to pass on what we have and even mentor you). We didn't care much for web apps or landing pages or, more importantly, to serve an audience of geeks.
So we moved on.
The ultimate why test
According to the report published by Startup Genome, it takes on average about two years for a startup to get anywhere.
Let me repeat that: it takes on average about two years for a startup to get anywhere.
That's quite a chunk of your life to spend on something that's just cool.
So in a way, to avoid falling in the cool solution trap, all you need to do is to ask yourself the following question: am I ready to invest two years of my life to see this through?
If you can't answer yes then it's definitely worth probing deeper, it doesn't mean the project isn't worthwhile or that you can't pick it up later, all you want is to wake yourself up from the dream and ask the hard question.
Also, from the story I shared, I wholeheartedly suggest you put whatever idea you had down for a week or two and see how you feel about it when you pick it up again: did you miss it? did you think about it all the time?
Having found what I want work on (more on this in the weeks to come) I can definitely say that once you figure it out you can definitely feel it and the prospect of spending only two years on it feels almost shallow.
What drives you?
If you're an entrepreneur and are working hard at something you don't mind spending the next two years on I'd love to hear from you. What drives you?