Startup Thinking: Ideation, Prototyping and Testing

How do you develop your initial idea for your startup venture? How does the ideation process work? What do you need to do to get this idea off the ground? Where will the business be in 12 months time?

These are the big questions in the early stages of any startup journey. In my experience, a successful startup idea originates from a combination of a few things, and it’s not necessarily having one big idea. There’s always someone behind a successful startup with a passion. They see an opportunity. Perhaps they also see frustration. And then they build something to address it.

Uber’s a great example of this; they essentially created the platform model which now dominates so many industries. It solves the problem of poor customer experience when ordering taxis.

Compare that with a company like Apple; they’ve been very innovative creating products that identified an opportunity that other companies in their field hadn’t spotted. 

And of course AirBnB, taking the pain out of travel and creating unique experiences in the process. So people’s passion, ideas and frustrations drive ideation and that desire to do something different can create some highly successful and disruptive products and services.

Ideation is the easy part

The ideation is actually easy. Ideas are not hard to come by. They can pop into someone’s mind whilst making a cup of coffee or out walking the dog. It’s the getting started that’s difficult. Making those ideas happen is where a startup starts.

Sometimes people also have this idea that strategy is the be all and end all. But really, building a successful startup is all about execution and the doing. The thinking that takes place on the level of, What’s this thing now? What could it be? 

I always think my ideal startup partner would be Stephen Hawking. What a team we could have been! It’s about taking that great idea and making bets. Trying things, testing them and refining, and keeping going until you find out what works.

It’s about being agile, tinkering, and looking for opportunities as they present themselves. It’s about finding the right balance of staying true to your vision but also being able to pivot when needed. 

In episode two of tsf.tech’s weekly podcast, ‘From the Factory Floor’, myself and James talked about that initial ideation in more detail. Pour yourself a cup of coffee (or a tea in my case) and have a listen. Hopefully it will give you some valuable takeaways about what to think about even before a potential MVP comes into the picture (that’s Minimum Viable Product not Most Valuable Player, for all you U.S. sport fans).

Focus on the customer

To turn an idea into something tangible, one that will work in your target market, the first thing to remember is to always focus on the customer. Your customers are your source of learning in a startup and they should inform your strategy. 

So it’s wise to have a sense of direction and a vision about where you want to go, but until you’ve actually encountered those early users and customers, it’s all still pretty hazy and fuzzy, to be honest.

Focussing on your customers is the only way you will know for sure if the problem you are solving is as big as you think it is and in most cases, the first run never is. 

Building a startup is about having a mentality of build, measure, learn. So what do you need to get started? At an early stage, a startup is still confused about the product, its ideal customers and how to make money. 

So with an idea, a clear vision for a product and what your ideal customer looks like, and a burning desire to see it through, it can happen. A startup starts with you, your thinking, and the fire in your belly to do stuff.

Risk-taking and execution

Someone came to see me recently and was telling me about his strategic plan. I said, ‘You’ve got to be like a turtle. A turtle only makes progress when he sticks his neck out!” And I think that’s what makes a startup in its early stages. You’ve got to be brave, stick your neck out and make things happen.

I’ve also talked about making bets in business in this article. In a way it’s like playing poker.

You’re given a hand with scant resources, you’re not sure what the other players are about to do next. To play, you’re always going to have to either go for it and make a bet, or fold it (and occasionally bluff too). It’s the same for startups. It’s about weighing up the risk and the opportunity, but ultimately there is so much you don’t know and you will never know, unless you play your hand, often with not a lot more than a hunch.. 

Hunches and bets are the same thing. Product decisions are bets, sales negotiations, hiring. Be comfortable with uncertainty and remain open-minded. The key to startups is thinking about possibilities. As the Reid Hoffman quote goes: ‘If you aren’t embarrassed by the launch of your first product, you’ve launched too late’.

Thinking about short term tactics is great initially but there are times when you will have to think about where you want to eventually end up. Just try your best to develop a sense of direction; figure out where you’re heading. 

You’ve got to have a bigger vision in mind whilst at the same time making smaller moves to win. Being able to know your next few steps in advance will help give you a better sense of direction.

And of course, when things don’t go your way you need to be adaptable and change up your strategy.

The good news here is that, like poker, you can get better at playing. As you become more experienced, you can eliminate possibilities. You start to become much more aware if you are making winning moves, or if you need to pivot in another direction.

Be comfortable with uncertainty

A startup is about thinking of possibilities and probabilities, not necessarily outcomes. You have to be familiar and comfortable with uncertainty. 

Bankifi and Nivo are two startups we have built from the ground up with who have fully adopted this mindset. Both Mark Hartley (BankiFi) and Mike Common (Nivo), the respective founders, will freely admit they have probably changed about 25% of their initial strategy once they got into the market.

Remember the turtle; don’t be afraid to stick your neck out and get started. 

So if you’ve got an idea, test it as soon as possible. Use a build, measure and learn approach to ideation instead of writing up business plans and financial projections. And keep the general vision always in sight. 

If you can combine that with a burning passion and desire to make it happen, you’ve got a great shot at navigating the early part of your startup journey.

I hope this has been useful and if you have anything to add we’d love to hear from you; drop a comment in the box below. 

Alternatively, feel free to get in touch with me by emailing at ianb@thestartupfactory.tech

P.S I know a lot of what we discussed today is very much trial and error on your part. However, there are many tools out there to help you navigate these early stages a little easier. We discuss a lot more about this initial ideation phase in our podcast so feel free to click the link below and listen in.

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