THE BLOG
06/17/2016 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why The Best Entrepreneurs Get It Wrong in Small Doses

I know, rejection hurts.

Every time you show another person something you've created as an entrepreneur, you make yourself vulnerable. And when it turns out you've made something of little value, you will feel the pain of getting it wrong.

And yet, successful entrepreneurs understand this as a healthy part of the process. Because if you want to come up with products and services people want, you must first kill off all the mediocre ideas they don't want.

And if you don't? You can end up like Webvan -- a dotcom-era flop which blindly burned through $1.2B in cash. They took an unvalidated idea, hit the accelerator as hard as they could...and slammed straight into a concrete wall, all because they failed to get it wrong in small doses.

Good news though -- you don't need to fall into this same trap.

In fact, you're about to learn a better way to build your own business from an expert who knows first hand.

Meet Jim Hornthal. Successful entrepreneur, investor in thriving companies such as Zignal Labs, entrepreneurship faculty at UC Berkeley, and cofounder of a company called LaunchPad Central.

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Here's the thing: LaunchPad helps thousands of entrepreneurial teams to come up with viable ideas.

Immersed in so much data, they discovered secrets of entrepreneurship. Insights on how to gain traction, faster and cheaper.

And, it all starts with customers.

You know nothing for sure -- only your customers do

How do the LaunchPad teams discover good ideas? Hornthal summarized the process:

"The key ingredient: get out of the building with customer discovery. Listen to what people want, hear what they don't want, and try to build something so you can reach product-market fit. You get out of the building, use the Business Model Canvas to keep score, and have a minimum viable product -- a rapid prototype, or something else to show people."

Whoa -- slow down. Need to break this down. Because if you miss this, you miss everything.

Hornthal tells you this: don't isolate yourself with product development, building things in a cave with zero outside input. You need to go talk to the people you want to serve. Potential customers. Use an industry standard tool like Alexander Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas to keep track of the ideas you've already dismissed, and more importantly the ideas which hold some promise.

And along the way, you look for quick ways to show your customers your ideas in rough form. Prototypes. Proof of concept. Minimum viable products. Things you can mock up quickly to show what you mean.

Hard work, right? Why go to all this trouble?

Hornthal says, "As you go through these week-by-week pivots and iterations, you demonstrate it's blue and not black, it's round, not square. So understand the minimum viable product as a way to get a signal of whether or not the idea you have in its evolving form is worth pursuing."

And look -- you cannot skip this process. It is a vital, every-week part of your journey as an entrepreneur. Add it to your DNA, because very few things strengthen your grip on the market as powerfully as conversations with potential customers.

Scary stuff, I know. Talk to complete strangers? Ask tough questions? Risk rejection at every turn? Makes my skin crawl.

But I do it anyway, and so should you. Because the alternative should scare you more: spending countless months (or years) to make your product or service just right in your mind, only to throw it on the market and discover nobody cares.

Ouch. Better to uncover this calamity in Week 1.

You might think -- this never happens, right? You can't have a bright idea, talk to potential customers, and then find out you got everything about your idea wrong?

Oh yes, you can.

Never underestimate how wrong you can be

Hornthal describes a team in LaunchPad which went through this ordeal.

"In Week 1, the team just had a bunch of ideas. In the weekend between Weeks 3 and 4, there was a conference in LA. They flew down, because everybody in the ecosystem was there. They did something like 40 interviews over the weekend."

"They came back and realized, everything was wrong. Everything. They did a complete restart in an industry that had nothing to do with where they were. But by the tenth week, they had some really cool stuff. And they found a different, unrelated business that actually showed great promise."

Great news for this team. Think of it: had they just gone ahead to build their first idea, you could still look up today and see the plumes of smoke from all the cash and time they burned. All to reach the same realization: every single idea they had in the beginning must go.

Okay -- but what if you're trained in seeing through the noise and you excel at problem solving? Can you then just skip ahead and be right the first time?

Again, no.

Even exceptionally capable people get it wrong

Hornthal shares another example from the LaunchPad teams. This time, all drawn from the National Science Foundation -- an organization of some of America's most gifted scientists and engineers with some of the best ideas on the planet.

As Hornthal explains, "We had twenty-four teams of 62 people who did 2436 customer interviews. And they invalidated 285 hypotheses (ideas)."

"These are really smart men and women. These are not stupid ideas -- they just weren't right. And in fact, they validated very few."

"And most of these ideas won't be viewed as something to go forward on and build a great business out of. But that's okay. They're doing it in 10 weeks, not 10 years, and for very little money, versus lots of money."

Listen -- the best entrepreneurs get it wrong in small doses. All the time.

Take any big idea of yours. Can you find a way to test it in a small way?

Better yet, will you go further and run small experiments every week?

Make it happen and you will get results in weeks, instead of years.