The good thing about building something on your own is also the bad thing – you don’t have to make sense to anybody else. If your thing is pie in the sky and you believe in it, or like it, you get to invest your energy with nobody to clip your wings.
If the ‘something’ is a product that other people are supposed to pay money for, incubating alone in your basement will invariably lead to a too-close-to-the-sun moment where you lose your wax. You’ll launch and you’ll realize that awesome thing you were working on was actually a macaroni painting. It’s embarrassing.
This will be true even if you started with a real need that’s costing you real money at your day job. You’ll end up with Edward Scissorhands, a creation that makes cool ice sculptures but is off-putting to consumers and ultimately not an effective barber.
Fresh thinking is a critical need in product development because nothing is made of just one idea, and your first take is seldom right. Product-minded founders will say that execution is more than just a good idea. Another version of this is that good products contain many good ideas, and integrating them seamlessly requires good process.
But brute-forcing iteration is counterproductive: more drafts with no new information from the outside can erode the single idea you started with. It’s the same with fiction – ‘fresh eyes’ is a critical resource that can’t be squandered and can’t be rushed.
There’s a perception that taste is a limiting reactant for invention and I think that’s right, but taste is based on information. It will lead you astray if you don’t immediately mix it with more information. Taste isn’t a lightning strike, it’s a process. I really like this line from my polish grandmother’s favorite pope:
Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.1
For me this gets to the heart of the iterative nature of flexible thinking. It makes odd sense that a leader who is doctrinally infallible would cultivate tools to open the mind.
How surveys helped me
I’ve built things that shouldn’t exist. It’s happened like four times now, and it’s forced me to get serious about market research. I’ve been spending much more of my time writing surveys – both to friends and family, and in the wild using tools like surveymonkey (google has one too but I have enough of those tentacles attached to me).
Surveys have turned out to be a one weird trick to break me out of crazytown thought-loops. Here’s what I think is going on. All of these things seem obvious in retrospect so forgive me if I’m the only one in the dark here.
They slow you down. The dream for a solo founder is to get rid of those pesky other people in the workplace who are preventing you from achieving your full potential. I’ve heard this feedback from everyone who goes through a ‘solo project period’. You start out and you’re like ‘I can work 10 hours a day and just crank’, and you end up bouncing off the walls.
Those pesky others at work were preventing you from working on things that aren’t ready to start yet. The gates they were putting up were guarding a cliff, or at least a rabbit-hole.
Surveys have a similar effect of forcing you to wait for spec and reality to align before you start building.
They’re interactive. These results flow in really quickly. Getting 10 results in under an hour is enough to understand broad trends, though it’s few enough that there will be an age / gender bias in the set. 1-hour turnaround means I can do three round-trips in a day and have time in between to work on other stuff.
That means you can afford to suck on the first one. Questions that don’t have a clear winner are often bad questions that don’t solve your problem, and unfold into new questions that give you more angles on the problem. Bad surveys, if you accept that they failed, will spawn good surveys as your gradually explore your space.
Write-ins are thoughtful and informative. Especially when you’re surveying friends and family, because you can follow up and ask what they mean. Write-ins have taught me more about the competitive space for my products than any other kind of research.
Write-ins also expose valuable trends that you can exploit – for example, cases where a majority are dissatisfied with a product, and a minority are supplementing it with another product, giving you an opportunity to build a hybrid product that solves the entire user need.
Plausibly viable MVPs. When you’re in a vacuum, you’ll make decisions based on what’s good for you, not as a user but as a developer. For me that’s ‘what do I think is cool’ + ‘what gets me to launch quickest’ + ‘what’s cheap’. To the untrained eye that’s a recipe for an MVP, but it prioritizes ‘minimum’ over ‘viable’.
After my first one of these my product / UX friend asked ‘what decisions will you make based on the answers’. Since then I’ve started to see my spec emerge from the surveys in defensible was.
Turn ideas or claims into questions. A ‘stroke of genius’ that comes to you all at once is great if you treat it as a direction for exploration, but if you treat it as a spec, it will bog you down. Don’t shoot the albatross, follow where it flies. Sure, benzene and the periodic table are from dreams, but those weren’t the first idea in the iterative process, they were the last – they were the solutions to problem statements constructed through hard labor.
Turning your idea into a question frees you to examine both sides and not think rigidly. It exposes you to raw reality asap (which is painful but a good thing), and it lets you define your goals separately from your implementation so the latter can follow the former as it changes.
Separating goals from how you get to them is one definition of strategy, and matters because it lets you drop bad plans when they no longer serve you. Good strategy is an argument. Surveys force you to construct these good arguments so you don’t suffer from JP2’s idolatry and false absolutes.
Easier to discuss than a pitch. Specs from your brain are like vacation photos – people will sit politely until they can escape. But surveys are work product, they’re juicy secrets, you can whisper them and people will lean in to hear. Survey results are a better conversation because you’re interpreting the answers together rather than fencing over the binary question of whether your one idea is right.
Better than ads early-on. Driving traffic to a landing page in theory lets you validate whether an idea is good, but surveys let you ask ‘why not’. Both have their place, and all experimentation is good probably, but surveys are 10x quicker to build and give you more information when the answer is ‘no’.
Creative writers love the ‘yes and’ from improv; surveys give you a ‘no but’ which is a tool for creative listening.
This could be my marketing naivete at work, but keyword ads to drive traffic to a prototype is something that hasn’t worked well for me. I talked to someone this week who said interest-based advertising works better for this because you’re targeting people rather than existing search traffic. This also might be a function of B2B vs consumer – I suspect I was using consumer marketing strategies to develop a B2B concept and was wasting my energy.
Good strategy lets you ask why
I read some strategy book that says ‘good strategy is simple’. I think good plans also let you query any part of the spec and get a simple answer for why it needs to be there.
For me this was a hard concept to accept. I have cultural baggage that is anti simple explanations that I’m working hard to unlearn. I think people who have worked at the bottom of large companies have trouble understanding this because they’re operating within a system of irreducible complexity2 where asking ‘why’ is considered politically hostile. Schools, or at least non-elite schools, also imprint anti-why behavior.
‘Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do and die’ is the crimean war cavalry version of this.
I haven’t spent much time in large organizations, but my small-org experience has taught me that solving problems and successfully advocating for change are separate skills, and the latter is rarer. This is why people often fix things at night or over the weekend – the forces of darkness resist this work during billable hours.
(People have been forwarding around this farnam street newsletter, excerpted here, about solving visible problems vs avoiding them, which is kind of on this topic).
In theory iterative, rational change is easier in a culture that’s used to everyone questioning things that don’t make sense. My Bridgewater friends claim that their culture of rationality in decision-making has real value. All I really know about Ray Dalio is his goop podcast interview, which struck me as nuts.
If you take nothing else from this post, trust me that while group decisions are 30% fresh, solo decisions are 0% fresh. If you’re a solo founder, you need an external source of truth to support your iterative creativity.