Proven Need

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How to pick the right path up the biggest mountain

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

Don't start building yet! Understanding your users is the most valuable thing you can do in the early stages of your startup.

Key takeaways:

  • It isn't wise to build product before you understand your audience;
  • Building too soon can hurt you – it makes it harder to change course.

I meet a lot of founders who are looking for funding, and you know they're on the wrong path when they proudly show you how much product they have built. In the early stages of your startup journey, building software is often the least valuable thing that you can do. Often, it can hurt you. When you ask them about engagement numbers, they often show that users aren't responding well to what they've built. It's very tempting to jump into writing code with only a cursory piece of user research. However, your idea is full of assumptions. The best thing you can do is to cheaply test them. What surprises me is that most of the founders who are guilty of this have read the Lean Startup. I think they misinterpret the book's philosophy and jump straight into building, skipping the measuring and learning and totally forgetting the customer development parts. They are too eager to start creating rather than searching for the right path.

Writing code makes it harder to change direction

Code (even with current technology) makes it harder to make big changes in the direction of the company. It gets even worse when you've outsourced your dev work to an offshore company or agency (please don't do this). I liken this to picking the wrong mountain to climb. Enthusiasm and momentum may get you to the top of a peak, but when you reach the summit you may find another bigger mountain in the distance – and it's a long way down the mountain of code you have written to start again. Only a few companies manage to make these last gasp pivots and become successful. Most don’t, and you never hear of them again.

Decide whether this is the right mountain to climb before you climb it.

Before you build, try to feel the pains that you want to solve. Talk to users, partners, competitors and other people that have tried this before. Try to walk in your customers' shoes. Take some quality time to understand the market you want to enter. I believe the first phases of your startup should be to Empathise and Satisfy:

  • You need empathy with your potential users and customers. The best and most successful services connect with users at a much deeper emotional level.
  • If you can then find a way to satisfy this need with a prototype or unscalable service you will have more confidence of going in the right direction.

Sometimes you will need to write code to do this, and that's fine. But you should do everything you can do increase empathy and satisfy needs without creating lots of code. You should also do some maths to work out how many people you can reach. Do this for your early adopters and for your end-game. It isn't hard and will tell you how big the mountain is and how easy it will be to start. These two exercises put together will help you find a big mountain and a good feeling for which path to take.

Useful links

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

Dharmesh is Product Partner at Forward Partners and helps founders the've backed go from ideas to a great products and businesses. He has a passion for User Research, Lean UX and using data to inform decision making. Dharmesh has a background in artificial intelligence and has been doing product for over 12 years in his own or other high profile startups.

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