Behind the Grind: Lessons from a Product Leader, Episode 2 – How the Best Startups Really Operate
February 24, 2022
Like a good mystery or spy novel, in Episode One, I left you on a cliffhanger; or at least, tried to:
…the work of Founders in a Startup to find Product-Market Fit is actually based on a well-defined methodology that one can learn over time instead of some magical innate quality…
So, what is this mysterious methodology, and how can you use it to build the next disruptive product or company?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not all that mysterious. In fact, chances are you already know it.
It’s called the Scientific Method.
That’s right: the same Scientific Method you learned in 3rd grade when you ran an experiment to see if your house plant would grow faster if exposed to a constant barrage of classical music or rock music.
From building early-stage teams and investing in early-stage startups, my experience has taught me that while every Founder is different, the successful ones share a similar and consistent approach (think back to our definition in Episode 1: a Founder is defined as someone striving to find Product-Market Fit). Based on the principles of the Scientific Method, the most effective Founders operate a repeatable testing process, but within the highly constrained conditions of a Startup (find my definition of Startup here). Mastery of this process of designing and running experiments, gleaning unique and targeted insights and then following them with a healthy blend of extreme objectivity, strong conviction, unparalleled speed, and boundless creativity is, in my humble opinion, the formula to success.
I definitely don’t deserve all the credit here. Far from the first, or last, to claim the Scientific Method is an interesting lens to consider the journey of an early-stage startup, you can see similar takes by the head of YCombinator, in the Harvard Business Review, and from the source of all long-form content on the Internet, Medium.
These provide a decent starting analysis, but to me, they’re incomplete. A critical element is overlooked by stopping at the water’s edge, and that’s that performing work within the gruelling constraints of an early-stage startup is BRUTAL. And as a Founder, you’ll find yourself in a constant state of juxtaposition, simultaneously being both objective and subjective; the proverbial “Good Cop and Bad Cop.”
You need to be objective about what the data from every one of your experiments are telling you and subjective in that you have to have unwavering and persistent conviction about the potential of what you’re building. And this constantly fluctuating state of hyperarousal is how it will remain, all the way up until the point that you decide to pivot into a different direction. At this point, you begin the wavering process all over again with a new hypothesis driving your work. You have to be like light: both a particle and a wave simultaneously.
You also must learn to conduct testing cycles very quickly because of the limited gas in any Startup’s tank on the road to Product-Market Fit. To accomplish that clock speed, you have to be truly agile (and not the buzzword version of agile, but legitimately flexible and responsive to conditions changing on a daily basis).
You need to be creative and constantly innovate from outside the box because we’re talking about trying to build a brand new box while operating from within a currently existing, likely subpar one.
It paints a scary picture, and rightfully so. This “pressure cooker with the walls closing in” environment is often a leading cause of why startups fail.
So why do we keep subjecting ourselves to it?
Because it’s also the only truly fertile ground for generating wildly unproportionate returns on the investment that goes into them.
As the famous saying goes, “a diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.”
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a guarantee for success. None exists. Instead, take it as an affirmation that if you design a ruthless experimentation process and operate accordingly, you’re increasing the likelihood of eventual success in building something compelling enough for a set of users somewhere in the world to use, adopt, and incorporate into their lives.
This is a major milestone for any Startup on the journey to Product-Market Fit, but we’ll get more into that in a future Episode.
So, to recap, the best Founders don’t always have the best initial ideas or possess some innate ability to see around metaphorical corners. Although many have arguably done legendary work, they aren’t the stuff of legends. What they are, are methodologists, plain and simple.
Masters of experimentation, the best Founders build robust testing systems with clearly defined inputs and outputs. Inputting an idea, a way to test that idea, and eliciting results as quickly and efficiently as possible; the outputs are learnings, insights, and unique data about the problem trying to be solved that only experimentation could acquire.
Sure, Founders can increase their odds of success if they’re naturally able to understand people better than the average entrepreneur or have strong, intuitive product sense, but I would classify those as secondary. What’s important is mastering the ability to test ideas systematically and adhering to the attributes described earlier.
Clearly, I find the above exciting, and no doubt others will, but this is just the beginning. We haven’t cracked the code, and even though what I’m describing is relatively easy to understand, it’s incredibly complicated to pull off at scale. But, we’ll save that for a future post or discussion.
If there is one takeaway from this episode, it’s that you need to keep learning. Keep learning about your users, keep testing your ideas, and eventually, you’ll build something they want. And if you can get on board with that foundational building block, we can start building the house that belongs on top of it.
Episode 3 Preview
So, now that we have some basic terms defined from Episode One and we’ve proposed a framework for operating in Episode Two, the next question is, “How do we build a team to make it all happen and take a high-quality swing at a new product concept or vision?” Team dynamics are the secret ingredient in early-stage work, and in Episode Three, we’ll cover how to think about early-stage team construction
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