Drop the Vision: Your Startup Needs to be Customer-driven

A lot of management theory focuses around the power of vision, however for many startups, this is a false promise. It could end up costing you the success you’d been working towards.

I’ll concede upfront that if you are Thomas Edison in 1877, and you asked your customers what they would like to see as the latest innovation in lighting products, they would probably have suggested bigger candles. That’s why this phase of the startup is called the “vision” phase. You’re seeking disruption, and if you’re developing game-changing electricity powered lighting, with a quest to obsolete candles, visioning is the right thing to do.

However, once the vision is proven, and you have a working prototype that delivers value, it’s time to shift gears and focus on product/market fit. Expanding the vision at this point can be a fatal mistake, and can bleed your firm of cash resources, without gaining you the ability to attain solid traction on the slippery slope of the market-place.

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. ― Jonathan Swift

The problem with being vision-driven is that you can end up chasing fantasies and building sand-castles in the air. This research and development costs real money, time, and effort, all of which are in a short supply in startups.

You can boil down the lessons of the entire lean movement into two words, it would be to “get real.” What I mean by get real is to essentially validate that your startup idea works great for the customer, and provide you a real path to a profitable business model. Nothing provides more validation than customers who are willing to change their workflow or lifestyle to incorporate your solution, and who value your contribution enough to pay for it.

For technology-driven startups, a time comes when the switch from a product vision to satisfying customer’s needs to be made. This frequently marks the point where the startup ratchets up from the prototype/validation stage to growth stage.

After four years of development, and pouring all our resources into the development of artificial intelligence and data processing research to advance our media monitoring solution, we’ve made this shift recently at Gnowit. I credit the excellent mentors at the C100UK event which I had the fortune of attending recently, including Matt Switzer of HootSuite, Marty Ellis of Ebay, and John Henderson of White Star Capital.

And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. ― Niccolo Machiavelli

This shift has already started paying off for us, and I can personally guarantee that it will have the same impact on any other startup out there that is tech-intensive, and has a feature-complete product. We’re fully energized as the focus of the firm has crystallized. The fog from the mirror has completely lifted, revealing our strengths, weaknesses and the key opportunities and threats. Clarity of purpose can do wonders for you and your team’s energy levels in the morning.

The alternative to making this transformation is to eventually flame out, as we’ve witnessed with one of Canada’s most famous tech adventures, the Avro Arrow project. This (as well as our own earlier experiences) demonstrates how seductive unfocused tech-research is, as you’re fighting demons, trying to squeeze the maximum results out of innovative machines that never quite reach perfection (and are always 90% there).

Like a stab at a demon, your efforts at execution will never truly reach fruition, as you’re trying to attain perfection, which is always illusionary, as the more you learn about the domain, the further you can see, and your vision grows into a seductive, higher-level boss monster to slay. However, this “game” has real-life implications for employees, customers, and investors—so it needs to change.

When making this switch from vision to customer-focus, it’s important to put resources into enhancing the workflow rather than the underlying technology: make the job that the solution helps with easier, to cite Clayton Christensen. For that, you need to be customer-driven. Don’t opt to over-engineer the product, as that will be costly, and you’ll end up with a solution that is outside the budget of the customer. Once the business case and the ROI are harder to attain, your market traction will suffer.

At Gnowit, we’ve dropped a dozen science projects to the backburner and upped our customer engagement and the provision of customer value to the top of the priority stack. It’s made a world of difference for us, and it’ll make a difference for you as well.

This article was originally posted in Techvibes on October 11, 2013. You can access the article here.