Want to start a startup or working on your next idea? Many ideas fail and you don’t want yours to join this sad list. Even if you have created a successful product before, it doesn’t guarantee the success of the next one. Remember, the same company that sold 1 billion iPhones also launched Apple Watch and now they won’t disclose how many units have been sold, which can’t be a good sign. Google is so powerful that it became a verb but Google Glass users got the nickname Glassholes because people didn’t feel comfortable around them. If it can happen to these big guys, it can happen to anyone. They say that 90% of startups fail but here are some things you can do to increase your chance of success.
Understand people’s needs
Imagine you are asked to help an African village with no access to water. Every day, women in this village must walk two miles to bring water from a well. How can you help? You decide to build a well in the centre of the village and feel good about yourself. To your surprise few days later the well is vandalised. It turns out that for the women in this village, that two-mile walk was the best part of their day. This is when they had a chance to talk with each other without men bossing them around. Before you start creating anything, try to spend time observing people’s behaviour. Understanding what they perceive as annoying or fun is crucial before coming up with a solution. It’s a bit like buying a gift for someone you don’t know very well. You need to put in some effort to learn more about what will make them excited. Read more about understanding people’s needs here.
Get closer to the problem
How do people currently cope with the problem you are trying to solve? A good place to start is Shadowing. Inject yourself into a working environment and observe how people manoeuvre through their daily activities. You can ask them to show you certain things but you will get the best results when you see it as it happens. But would they be happy with your presence? Good ethnographers, manage to become friends with tribes without fully understand their language. In some situations, you will need a cover story that will explain why you need to be there because when people know that you are trying to solve a problem, it will affect their behaviour and might obstruct the findings. Try walking in someone else’s shoes and understand their process; analyse it and break it into small steps. For an example, even something as simple as washing one’s hands can be broken down into several steps. One extra magic ingredient you will need is empathy. It will help if you have patience and a desire to help people to live better even if they see the world differently to you. Did anyone else come up with a solution to the problem you are trying to solve? Use the internet to explore the competitive landscape. It can be really frustrating to discover, a few months in, that someone has already come up with a solution. But even if someone did, it doesn’t always mean you’ve reached a dead-end. Evaluate any existing solutions you discover. If you think that you can solve the problem in a better way, it might still be worth pursuing. Competitive analysis is a good method to compare existing competitors and expose opportunities to innovate. Uber and Airbnb were not first to offer a taxi or a place to sleep but both discovered an alternative solution that disrupted the market.
Don’t try to do too much
If you don’t evaluate the amount of effort required to execute your idea, you’ll end up putting too many things on your plate and have Scope Creep. The MoSCoW method can help you define what is absolutely critical for launch and what can wait for the next release. Define your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) by listing all the “must have” features required for the first release. Protect the size of the scope and if you add anything in, think what can be taken out. A few years ago, I had a funny idea; ‘what if socks could have personalities?’ I thought it would be funny to wear a character that you can wiggle with your toes. Together with my friend Humberto, we brought this idea to life with passion and commitment. We decided to launch our brand ChattyFeet with just 4 sock characters and that was a good decision. Sock factories prefer to produce large quantities so having 4 sock characters over two sizes was already a chunky amount for a startup. Our second collection of an additional 4 characters was funded by Kickstarter and today the collection includes 30 characters that are sold in 10 countries. You can see them in Tate Modern, The Science Museum and MoMA store in the USA. Keeping a reasonable scope helped us to limit our investment of both money and time while still having enough products to test.
Learn how to fail
There are two main types of failure: a recoverable failure and a dead-end failure. The dead-end failure is the one you want to avoid. It means that you invested too much in something that is now too big to change or fix. If you learn how to fail gracefully, it will help you to get back on your feet. Before you spend time and effort to build the actual thing, try prototyping it. Prototyping is a cost- efficient method to simulate what would it feel like to use your product or service.
Let’s say you are building a mobile app and want to try a technique called Paper Prototyping. Start by listing the main tasks that users will have to go through. Sketch the screens step by step, specifying just the critical elements required to complete the task. For example, having a button to continue to the next screen is essential but there is no need to specify the visual style of each element. When your paper prototype is ready, you will be able to test it with people and find out if it works.
Usability Testing is a great method that can saves tons of money and make products better. First, consider what you want to test. For example, if your app is about discovering new places, you can test a task which involves finding a restaurant near your location. Ask them to think aloud so you can not only see their interactions but also understand their motivation. The person you choose to test your prototype with should not be familiar with your app but might have used similar apps before. They should understand that you are testing the performance of the app and not their own skills. By the end of the session, you should have insights about what works and what can be improved. When we build things without testing them early, any problems are only discovered after the product launch. It’s much more expensive and time consuming to make changes at that point and too often it will become a dead-end failure. Test your product early (and often!) so you can recover from all the small failures on the way to success.
When you see a simple solution that works it’s easy to think that someone just came up with it in one go. Good products can take years to perfect. An iterative design process means that you never stop learning and keep on improving. Prototyping and testing are not activities to be done once and ticked off, they should be repeated whenever new functionality is added. We manage an e-commerce store to sell our product ChattyFeet. Each time we release a new page or functionality, we use Google Analytics to check how valuable it is for our customers and make changes if required. One of our latest addition is the sock finder, helping people find what they need quicker by categorising our products to themes. Another good example of iterative process is Wikipedia. The articles on Wikipedia are updated frequently by a community of people who are passionate about making them better. Following an iterative design process means you have more opportunities to make improvements. You will also feel more confident to release your product because you have tested different approaches and went forward with the one that worked the best.
Bringing your idea to life isn’t a piece of cake. This challenge will require your very best efforts. Try some of the approaches we have discussed and hopefully it will help your startup idea get into shape.
Gil is a designer who is passionate about helping people to have a more playful life. His background is User Experience Design which helps to create products that people love to use. He co-wrote a cookbook that sold more than 30,000 copies about food you can take to work.
In 2012 he co-founded ChattyFeet with Humberto De Sousa, a gift brand that brings a little fun into your day with quirky sock characters.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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