The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 8—The Deadly Sin of Emphasizing Execution

Emphasizing Execution is a deadly sin? Seriously? One of my favorite business books of all time is Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. Nevertheless, in Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manualthe authors assert that the 3rd deadly sin is “Emphasis on Execution Instead of Hypotheses, Testing, Learning, and Iteration” (11).

And there it is again—a startup is not a small version of a big company. In a big company, execution is (almost) everything. In a startup, you are trying to figure out what to execute, so you must develop hypotheses, test them, learn from your tests, and iterate or pivot based on what you’ve learned.

I have a friend who is starting a very promising business (I’ll tell you more about it soon). He’s got a great concept, and it looks like he is going to be able to help a lot of people. But what he has now is a hypothesis, which he is testing, and he is learning/growing as he goes. Instead of building a “go-to-market” solution before introducing it to the world, he is testing, talking to potential customers, finding out what they really want, what they really need, and what they would be willing to pay for. Based on the conversations he is having, the tests he is performing, he is tweaking his offering, dialing it in.

If you’re an entrepreneur, that’s your job. “If you build it, they will come,” makes an awesome movie but it’s a terrible startup strategy. Emphasizing execution in the real world usually looks like building a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field, then losing your farm.

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 7—The 3rd Deadly Sin

In Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manualthe authors warn fledgling entrepreneurs of the 3rd deadly sin: focusing on launch date.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Having a launch date in mind isn’t the problem, per se. The real problem is that when you focus on/commit to the launch date, you sometimes don’t allow adequate time to work through the Customer Development process, do the tests, prove or disprove the hypotheses, and improve your offering. Instead, you sacrifice what you are producing for the sake of the launch.

Sometimes that’s because there’s an event you want to release your product at to get buzz. Have you seen the 4K TV‘s announced at this year’s CES? Sometimes you want to launch in time for the Christmas rush. But what if your product isn’t ready? Should you still ship it then?

I know there’s a lot of pressure to launch. Founders want to launch, investors want to launch, and colleagues want to launch. The pressure to get out there and start selling something is immense, and the thought of being done with the prelaunch phase of your business may be so tempting that you lunch even when you know you’re not ready. So you rationalize: “Maybe you’re over-thinking this. Maybe the customers won’t notice that you upon it is crap. After all, Google releases bad products, Microsoft releases bad products. Even Apple released an iPhone with a crazy antenna problem. Why can’t I go ahead and launch, then work it out as I go along?

Unfortunately for you, it’s unlikely that you or your company have enough of the customers’ good will to make up for a bad blunder at launch. And stumbling out of the gates can be more than just an inconvenience to you and your customers. It can be fatal to your business.

What’s the answer? Trust the process. The customer development process is designed to help you launch when the time is right, and to lunch well when you do.

The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 7—Assuming Is Also the 2nd Deadly Sin

The first deadly sin of the new product introduction model is “Assuming ‘I Know What the Customer Wants.'” And, according to Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, the second is like it: “The ‘I Know What Features to Build’ Flaw.”

If you “know” what the customer wants, you will naturally (and often erroneously) assume you know what features to build into your product or service. The truth is, however, that “without direct and continuous customer contact, it’s unknown whether the features appeal to the customers” (9).

Fixing things after the fact is expensive and can feel like an annoyance or soul-death, depending on how much you have invested in building the features.

One of my favorite restaurants, Seven Mile Cafe, doesn’t have WiFi (or at least it didn’t the last time I asked). It’s a little inconvenience to me, but it’s a decision they made about what features they wanted to provide for their customers. It’s a small place without a lot of tables, and it would be unfortunate to have tables occupied for hours on end by the sort of people that do that. To accommodate that sort of person, they eventually opened Seven Mile Coffee next door.  But even then, they were selective about the features they chose—the coffee, the tables, and the chairs—based at least in part on conversations with customers.

Coffe Shop

Image courtesy of Pong /

I was with a colleague of mine once when he asked the director of an assisted living facility about an adjunct service that my home health agency offers and whether it might be helpful to her residents. To me, the obvious answer was “YES!” What she said surprised me, though. She said, “I hate that service. I had a terrible experience with it one time, and I will never try it again!” I wanted to tell her that she hadn’t received that service from us, that we were better. We were better, but she wouldn’t have considered it. So I dropped it. If we had continued to build that feature for her, it would have been hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars down the drain. She liked who we were and what we had to offer, but she hated what I thought was going to be one of our main selling features.

What features are you building into your product or service? Do your customers want them? Are they willing to pay for them? Here’s my challenge for you: ask your customers what they want. Will they always know? Of course not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Your customers will feel valued and heard, and you might just learn something.

One last thing: Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking if you talk about your product/service features with your customers, someone is going to steal your idea. Good ideas are everywhere. Business failure is almost always the result of lack of execution, and lack of execution frequently means not following the Customer Development process outlined in Blank and Dorf’s book.

Next, the 3rd Deadly Sin.

The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 6—Assuming is the 1st Deadly Sin

According to Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, the first deadly sin of the new product introduction model is “Assuming ‘I Know What the Customer Wants.'”

Ford Edsel

Ford Edsel

It’s so easy to assume you know. Of course you know. You’re the expert. You wouldn’t be thinking about starting a business if you didn’t think you knew. And yet, what if you don’t? Or at least don’t know well enough?

The very insightful Danny Iny of Firepole Marketing confesses in his podcast about the fact that, early in the life of his company, he (and his business partner at that time) thought they knew what the customer wanted. They invested 2000 hours to build a marketing training system without establishing that the customer actually wanted it. This is not what he teaches people to do now, of course, and he encourages listeners to learn from his experience.

When I was an undergrad at The University of Texas at Austin, I took a marketing class from one of those superstar professors that came from corporate America. Our class mantra was “Find a Hole and Fill It!” We never asked if anyone wanted the hole filled, if they wanted us to fill the hole, or if they were willing to pay us to fill it.

So how can we know what the customer wants? We ask. But how do we ask?

We’ll talk about how to do that in a future post.

The Startup Owner’s Manual—Part 5—The Big Mistake

In Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, they discuss the traditional new-product introduction model, and share the diagram below:



They assert this is a reasonable way to introduce a product if:

  • Customers are known
  • Product features are known
  • The market is well-defined
  • The basis of competition is understood

But think about the average start up. Let’s say I want to create an app that helps connect people.

Do I know who my customers are? I think I might have a guess, but I don’t know with any certainty. One of the worst shocks of my life was discovering that not everyone thinks like me. How could they not? I’m so reasonable. If I like something, of course everyone else will. It sounds silly saying it out loud, but how many of us have tried to build a company on this silly thought?

Do I know what product features are necessary? If I want to connect people, should my app interface with Facebook? LinkedIn? Twitter? Instagram? It’s common practice to build more features into a product than most people will ever use. Unfortunately, that drains a business of cash and can kill the business before it has a chance to figure out what features the customers really want.

Do I have a well-defined market? It depends on what product or service is being offered, but the long-tail world we live in makes it increasingly difficult to define.

Do I understand the basis of competition? How will my app compete with other technology that connects people? How will people decide whether to use my product or one that is similar? Or no product at all, as “none of the above” is often the easiest decision.

Tomorrow we’ll start talking about the 9 deadly sins of the new product introduction model. They are thought-provoking and will change the way you think about starting your business.

If you have any questions or need anything, email me.

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