I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.
This post is inspired by Startup Edition, in response to the question, “How do you discover what people really want?”
“Why am I talking so fast?” I thought as I sat across the table from Martin, an owner of a restaurant in my neighborhood. I cold emailed the guy to get a meeting to chat about his business. I was hoping I’d discover a problem I could create a new product around.
If you’ve read any of the dozens of books about running a Lean Startup (I’ve read them all), you’d probably call this “getting out of the building”.
I got my nerves to calm down, and I sat with Martin for quite awhile listening to how he runs his business. I asked all the advised questions, “If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about what you do, what would it be?”
And I shut up. I listened attentively. And still, I walked away with zero insight into helping him.
Over and over I’ve done interviews just like this. I’ve gotten introductions. I’ve cold emailed and called people. I’ve met with small businesses and big businesses. Employees and bosses. And the outcome was all the same. I walked out with nothing. No ideas that stood out as something I could actually fix.
It took a long time to get out of this rut. But I’m now doing things very differently with Draft, my latest project to help people write better. Instead of looking for all this external validation to create the project, I decided to “stay in the building”. You might call this dogfooding, solving my own problems, or scratching my own itch.
And I’ve espoused its virtues before, yet I continued to make the mistake over and over again of creating projects that were only fueled with external validation. So, here are three reasons you may want to start by “staying in the building” instead.
Break Out of Indecision
This weekend I was in front of a TV and people were watching Randy To The Rescue. Randy, the host, tries to rescue a bride from the struggle of picking a dress for her wedding. I can understand the pain. A wedding dress is often expensive, and has to be perfect on a momentous day.
In this episode, a bride named Brittnee picked a dress she loved. Then she went down her row of friends and each voted with a sign, “Yes.” But when she came to her mom, “Well. If you love it, I love it.” Her mom wasn’t a fan. Which threw Brittnee into turmoil about her dress decision. Brittnee on the verge of tears, “I need them to tell me that they love it, to kind of reassure me that I love it.”
Brittnee is caught in a trap of doing something important to her, while still trying to satisfy everyone else. Randy’s advice? “Brittnee needs to pick Brittnee’s dress.”
Inspiration from an unusual place. But good advice nonetheless.
Brittnee isn’t all that different from a startup founder. You might have an interest in an idea. But instead of making it something you need, you get stuck in a feedback loop trying to satisfy all these external entities. Instead of making decisions quickly and getting momentum on a project, you freeze up in indecision. Everything you want to do gets stuck, because you need to get all these votes to move on.
Everyday I see on forums like Reddit or Hacker News someone posting an idea to get external validation, “Whaddya think?” Even if it’s something they themselves wanted, they take this step until they get enough votes to decide it’s worth their time to even get started. And I know how these projects turn out. Most never do get started.
Pull Through the Trough of Sorrow
There’s at least one inevitable low point in all of our businesses. Paul Graham, an investor in my companies and chief partner at Y Combinator, calls it the “trough of sorrow”. It’s that period where the novelty of an idea wears off and momentum has dissipated.
I’ve been in that trough. A lot.
It’s awful. And when you’re building products solely for other people, it’s really awful. Because now just to make any progress, you can’t rely on just yourself. You need more meetings and customer interviews and data to pull you out. And those customers are tough to find.
Getting through that trough is 100 times easier when you’re working on something you need, regardless of everyone else.
There was a point where no one needed Draft. No one was using it. No one was writing about it. No one fucking cared. Except me. I loved it. It fixed problems I had. I didn’t need external validation or people on Reddit to tell me they also had this problem. I didn’t need to tally some score to see if this was a big enough problem to solve.
I knew it was a big enough problem to solve, because I was pissed off with how I was already trying to solve it.
And so I’ve already been able to see Draft through chunks of time where no one else cared.
Become a Better Innovator
If you want to create something that truly makes a dent in the universe, you need to have a thorough understanding of a problem. When you’re building stuff only for other people, that’s tough to accomplish. Innovations like the Swiffer take Proctor and Gamble deep and lengthy periods of research where they hire teams of ethnographers to study their customers. You think you really understand someone’s business after 30 minutes over coffee? I didn’t.
But you know who you can research with much greater depth 24 hours a day? Yourself. And you have plenty of problems.
Want a good place for inspiration? Look at your credit card statement. Each one of those line items, represents some job or problem that’s important enough you coughed up money for it. That’s a great list of tasks you have in life. Analyze them and the steps involved. Which one can you make simpler?
Looking at my credit card statement, in the last 12 months, I’ve bought 3 tools to help with writing. And I still had pain. It’s not surprising then I’d pay money for a product like Draft.
If you still struggle to find problems to fix in your own life, then you’re not doing enough. Join something. Pick up a hobby. Build more things and try to sell them. Very quickly you’ll realize how many steps it takes to accomplish some of the most basic things.
With Draft, my entire goal has been to go for broke on starting with something I need. The core of Draft was made to fix specific problems I had writing: saving multiple versions, getting professional feedback, merging in changes my wife had, etc. And now, running Draft feels so much better than previous projects, because I don’t need the external validation to show up every day.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE hearing from customers. I still have dozens of conversations every day with Draft’s users. But the Zen of it all is because Draft started with a core of my own problems, those conversations and interviews with my customers are so much more rewarding due to our shared understanding.
I’m not the expert on running a business, especially YOUR business. But that’s the point. More of us should take a better look at ourselves before starting something we’re hopefully going to be building for at least the next 10 years.
So, how do you discover what people really want? Stay in the building. Look inside yourself. Be your first customer.
And if you can’t convince yourself to start something because it would solve enough pain in your own life, move on. Find something that bugs you personally enough that you get up and get the pen.
P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter: here.
Or read other perspectives on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs at Startup Edition.