How To Run A Successful Startup Sprint

In our last blog, we had Aleska, the Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester tech startups, elegantly take you through how to set your roadmap and tech vision so today, we are going to focus on how to turn this thinking into doing. 

Personally, I am a big proponent of Jake Knapp’s book, “The Design Sprint”. It really captured my imagination, and for anyone who hasn’t read it or seen it, I’d recommend you do. 

What I like about it is it captures strategy, innovation, behavioural science and design thinking, and it packages them into a five-day programme where you can road-test your thinking.

It gives you the process and discipline, but also that flare that you need to get stuff done. So what we’ve done at TSF.tech is taken that idea and adapted it to suit the startup sprint.

Let’s go through the five days now.

The five-day Startup Sprint

Monday morning, you’re mapping out the problem and picking out the important points to focus on. For example, things like your audience, who your key user is, and creating the personas for that person or group. Those things allow you to really narrow in on who you’re trying to help. 

Then on Tuesday, you start sketching out your vision. I think this kind of visualisation, getting post-it notes or just sketching it out, brings it to life. Not being much of a visual thinker myself, I find it to be surprisingly helpful. 

And if sketching isn’t your thing, there are loads of tools out there to help you. Recently I’ve been impressed with the tools that come out of people wanting to build these quick prototypes. With tools like Adalo, for example, you can build something quite realistic very quickly without much skill, and it almost works, too!

Wednesday is where you make those difficult decisions on what to take from the idea into the testable hypothesis. Then, go have a night out and knock back a few beers, you’ve earned it. The five-day design sprint is intense.

Thursday is about developing that high fidelity prototype, then it all lands on the Friday where you test it. Friday is always a fun day. I remember the sprints we’ve done where you get some really good insights from early adopters and users about what the product should and shouldn’t have. 

I like Jake Knapps phrase, “You test it with real, live humans”. For some reason it always makes me smile.

Overall, it’s an intense week, but an excellent process for any startup founder. It’s emotionally draining for everyone, and I wasn’t joking about the Wednesday night beers either, you need a break to recharge. But the intensity really helps create focus and discipline.

How does it become a business?

Design sprints move your thinking into doing. They develop the vision, give you a sense of direction, and help you with experimenting. They allow you to ask, “What if?” and from a product ownership perspective, it is a great process to stay focused on the key elements of your prototype or MVP.

However, it’s important that you are also adding other elements to your startup sprint. I know for us, we have modified it and combined it with a few other things that are crucial to a tech startup.

For instance, the design sprint is a great place to start but mainly focuses on the product. Just because you have created a good product, it doesn’t mean that people will pay for it. And even if they will pay for it, how does that idea become a business? We’ve still got to turn an idea into a product and that product into a business by building a sustainable, scalable business model. 

Solution thinking from the customer’s perspective

We all fall in love with our own ideas. We have founders coming in who believe that their product is the best thing since sliced bread, but you’ve got to shape your problem-solution thinking from the customer’s perspective, not your own.

Some founders have this Field Of Dreams ethos of, “Build it, they will come”. Now it’s true that if you make a great product, people will use it. But if your target market is too niche or your pricing model doesn’t quite fit, there’s probably a better model that is more beneficial for you and your customers. 

So having a product-based design sprint with the business side added on will help. It’s also worth considering the tech strategy on top of that. The vision of what stack you should use, why you should use it, and what bleeding-edge technologies you will include to attract customers, will really fill out the product piece and give you a glimpse into what your business could look like in the future.

The main thing is to be bold. Don’t be afraid to just get the first cut out there. Every startup is a journey; you go down some cul-de-sacs, dead ends and sometimes even tumble off the edge of the cliff, too!

Apollo 11 and design sprints

The best story about entrepreneurship, which I think fits into this whole design sprint approach, is putting a man on the moon (that’s right, it’s not a hoax!).

When Kennedy stood up in 1961 and said, “We’re going to put a man on the moon”, that was the vision. No one had any idea how this was achievable, or if it was even possible, least of all by the end of the decade. But if you look through the Apollo programme, how they iterated, how they learned, they did it in small steps which if course accumulated into a giant step for mankind!

I think if founders look at the learning, the pace, the risk and the experimentation of Apollo 11, there’s a great parallel to be drawn with starting a tech business. With a startup, there is so much unknown it can at times be like a moon landing. It’s really important, therefore, to have some methodology that can guide you, stretch your thinking and give you discipline. Otherwise you’ll never get stuff done. 

You want a clear line of sight

I like the phrase “pivotal perseverance”. You need to be adaptable to change but also keep moving forward, even if it’s not perfect. The development of the iPhone is a really good case study on how you start with something that’s got that minimum set of features, and you iterate, you experiment, you get in the hands of the users, and you develop your go-to-market strategy. 

Like I said earlier, it’s about the customer and creating a design sprint around how to find, win and keep customers. That should always be at the back of your mind when starting. At the end of the day, you want to be able to have a clear line of sight to launch a successful, sustainable business so the design sprint shouldn’t just be about the product.

But some people overthink this and focus on detailed financial spreadsheets too soon. Don’t get too hung up on the financial model and revenue. Revenue is a function of the number of customers and number of products you sell, so really it’s the market appetite which is the driver. 

Coming from an accounting background myself, I’ve had to put that to one side and realise the financial spreadsheet comes at the end. If you get your product in the hands of the customers, you will be able to assess the market appetite, and the revenue will come.

There is always that balance between building a business, innovation and the timing, but I guess that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about – understanding the risks, and being comfortable with the fuzziness.

The design sprint just tries to reduce the risk and give you that improved focus on your vision. At the end of the day, it’s still a bit of a bet. 

So have that big, bold ambition, use the intensity of the five-day design sprint to help you focus your vision, and just keep going.

Also, approach it with a sense of humour, it’s more important than you think. I’ll end on this brilliant Von Braun quote, (because I’m an Apollo 11 nerd):

“We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

I hope you have found this useful. If you have any questions or would like to hear more about roadmapping, check out episode five of our podcast, “From the Factory Floor” where myself and James go into more detail. Alternatively feel free to email me at ianb@thestartupfactory.tech 

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