This is a great question because it highlights the common desire for product development to be a pure science when - more often than not - it’s an art. For every best practice I can share around developing and validating a strategy, there’s a successful startup we can point to that’s the exception to the “rule.”
So my first bit of advice is this: your mileage may vary. There could be a hundred serendipities that unlock insights for you that no framework would ever catch. Lean into the idea that startups are chaotic, progress is often not linear, and the goal should be to increase your decision-making skills and confidence over time.
Okay, with that said, let’s look at some ways to make things less chaotic and ambiguous!
Pre-launch startups are the ultimate test of System 1 v. System 2 thinking (Kahneman). That is, it’s very easy to let your automatic thinking brain go into action and just keep moving forward without much thought. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. Instead, you need slow down your brain and engage in effortful decision-making so that you then have an easier time downstream debugging which parts of your strategy are working or not.
This is easy, but not simple. Let’s walk through it.
As an early stage startup, you’re trying to assess many different interconnected things at once:
You can think of these as pieces to a puzzle that all need to fit together. If one piece doesn’t, the whole picture may not make sense together. And, like a puzzle, things may almost fit together, but not quite, and you need to go searching for the slightly-different piece that makes it come together.
This means you need to:
Once you’ve done these three things, you have your work cut out for you to piece them all together and debug the debunked hypotheses. If a single piece doesn’t fit, don’t just pretend that it does. Get honest with yourself about what you learned and then find a better puzzle piece fit. If distribution really matters to your business success but you haven’t gotten that flywheel right…it’s not time to scale it! If the audience isn’t responding and retaining well…don’t just assume another audience will! Slow down, pause, and get honest with yourself about whether all the pieces fit together well before you go on to build a company on shaky strategic foundation.
Pre-launch means a lot of different things.
You don’t want to try to bake the absolutely most perfect product before ever putting it out in the world and getting real market data back about its value. (Spoiler: oh crap, you’ve built the wrong thing!)
But you also don’t want to throw pasta at the wall and put somethings out there that isn’t back up by tested hypotheses and real insights. (Spoiler: oh crap, you’ve built the wrong thing!)
Without knowing where your specific startup is on that continuum, I’d encourage you to focus on decreasing latency between hypothesis, decision, and insight. You need to be building value for customers before anything else, and you do that by generating insights about what people need, why they need it, and how you can give it to them. Ensure you have solid insights for each component of your strategy.
Let’s walk through a brief example from my time building a new business line at Quizlet.
In 2018, the UGC platform expanded to offer paid content to students. Our strategy was to partner with well-loved and recognizable brands to bring their content to Quizlet (which already had huge distribution among students, thus being an attractive lead gen source for publishers). We recognized that the biggest risk was getting students to pay something when they were used to paying nothing, and we needed to evaluate how much additional value we had to bring to the platform to enable a transaction.
We were able to get to this insight quickly by focusing on debunking that hypothesis as quickly as possible (rather than waiting a year to ship a fancy new product experience only to realize that the value prop was off). We then went on to use this insight to build more value prop into the marketplace product because content brand alone wasn’t enough value for our existing audience.
In early stages, you should be focused on speed to get to these meaningful insights as efficiently as possible.
Sometimes it’s helpful to pause and diagnose if you’re on the right path, so let’s look at some common failure modes to see if any of these apply to your situation.
If any of these apply to you, remember to pause so you can structure your thinking as much as possible:
Good luck, and have fun!
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