A startup debate that has been weighing on me recently is building a solution for today vs. an idea for tomorrow. David Cummings recently wrote a post touching on this – “Funding Today’s Business or Tomorrow’s Idea”. We could be talking evolutionary vs. revolutionary. This could involve a high-degree of market education and long sales cycles.
I remember early on with Body Boss this very issue. My co-founder Darren Pottinger really started the company off an idea to bring heuristics and predictive modeling to exercise. The idea employed regression forecasting to recommend the weight an exerciser should do next.
Body Boss was originally intended for the Consumer market. However, we pivoted towards the B2B crowd of professional strength coaches – institutional teams and training programs. Where coaches thought the algorithms and forecasting were interesting, they wanted full control of what athletes should be doing. For example, they wanted the ability to prescribe the percentage of an athlete’s one-repetition maximum weight. Body Boss would just calculate the weight to be done from the percentage and the one-rep max via a “test assessment”.
As a startup with no real expertise in professional strength and conditioning or other exercise research, we did not have the credibility to recommend our algorithm vs. the coaches’ traditional methods. Though there was real potential in our algorithm – the Idea of Tomorrow – coaches wouldn’t buy Body Boss without the ability to build percentage-based workouts – the Business of Today. The opportunity of Body Boss, then, was the ability to collect and organize workouts and their results.
We saw prospects who were hesitant to buy early on convert to paid-customers once we implemented the percentage schemes.
Entrepreneurs will likely have their visions of grandeur for tomorrow. However, tomorrow may never come. Instead, build a base off of today’s business. Then, run research behind the scenes to validate the ideas of tomorrow. This isn’t much different from traditional research and development teams in large corporations today. But they all start from a position of a stable base.
Build the bridge to tomorrow on today. When you have the credibility and resources, you can influence tomorrow.
Why isn’t an idea already in the market and being successful? Maybe the key question is, “why isn’tthis idea working?”
A good way to tackle a new business idea is to think about the objections. That is, think about why problems exist today – what are their hurdles? Why hasn’t this idea been developed already? How is this problem being addressed today, and how did the market get here? How can these challenges be overcome?
Addressing these challenges (read: objections) is similar to approaches in brainstorming methods such as the Disney way and Six Thinking Hats.
When you ask these types of questions, you might find out macro trends are removing hurdles – maybe, then, it’s great timing for success. For Instagram, for example, anyone with a smartphone almost instantly became talented photographers. For Instagram, the technological evolution of cameras in smartphones lowered the barrier for general consumers to have “good” cameras. Instagram capitalized on this opportunity further by providing filters. These filters enabled everyday photographers to alter and beautify pictures, much like professional photographers could do before.  
Addressing how traditional models operate has made countless companies successful – finding ingenious ways to alleviate the shortcomings of today. They addressed and removed barriers that held back huge markets from capitalizing on huge potential.
In fact, an accelerator program here in town challenges its startup cohorts by pointing out the reasons why the startups will fail. It’s up to the startup, then, to address those challenges – removing the objections of why a buyer would not buy – turning objection discussions into must-haves.
Think about hurdles. Think about the objections – why do these hurdles exist today? How can entrepreneurs move them?
I met up with a friend recently who is noodling over an idea. What was interesting was how she was so deep into her idea, and didn’t use her life’s skills and work to help validate the idea.
Like me, she started her professional career in consulting. Like me, we both ignored our acquired consulting skills when building a startup (my example was Body Boss, as described in Postmortem of a Failed Startup).
It’s a funny and sad mistake I’ve seen a lot – starting with yours truly. There’s excitement in the initial idea that people put on the blinders. They (we) ignore experience in the previous “corporate” world. I attribute much of this to emotions running high. Emotions have ways of clouding our judgements and processes.
This happens especially in endeavors we get excited about but do not have explicit professional experience in. For myself and my Body Boss cofounders, that area was fitness. We loved fitness, but we came from outside the industry.
For example, what makes consulting so effective is the initial phase of any project – discovery. In startups, you throw in “customer” in front of the word, and you have a critical foundation of building a company – “customer discovery”. In this phase, consultants interview stakeholders, assess processes, gather surveys and analytics, etc. to formulate a plan. The same should happen in building a startup.
If you have an idea, be careful of being emotionally attached. Balance excitement with grounded thinking. This doesn’t mean shooting down ideas so early on. Instead, take a moment, and recognize how you can apply previous lessons to the opportunity in front of you. Sometimes, that means playing the role of pre-idea. Be the third-party.
Now that I’m on the W2 train (read: employed at a startup, not running my own), I’ve been having this internal battle about “not being an entrepreneur”. It’s a voice that keeps me grounded in my passions and my dreams. Though I’m not actively building out one of my own ideas, I realize the opportunities in my current role and how it’ll give me a greater platform to build my next startup.
However, one important aspect I’ve kept up with is meeting with entrepreneurs, startups, and wantrepreneurs. I still meet to expand my network and broaden my view of the startup world while helping others. 
I’m happy (with a massive sigh of relief) that I’ve been able to maintain my many connections while succeeding in my startup role. 
In fact, in my weekends upcoming, I have brainstorming sessions with several entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs to flesh out their ideas and potentially spark new ones. I’m very much looking forward to these sessions as they let me think outside the box, and work with individuals who are highly successful in their fields. I get to jump in and provide input as a product entrepreneur to help them paint clearer visions and create action plans — this is what I absolutely love.
As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, currently, I am focused a lot on the tactical responsibilities of sales and marketing. I’ve created some great new material, but I’ve had to get real deep into the weeds. Sessions like brainstorming give me a chance to exercise even more creativity in realms I’m not particularly familiar with. However, they’ll help me flex and strengthen my mental muscles that will, in turn, help my current role.
Even though I’m not really an entrepreneur today running my own startup, I’m still pursuing entrepreneurial activities that will complement my current role as a full-timer at a startup. But also just as importantly, I’ve been able to maintain the entrepreneurial activities that I truly enjoy, and those that will help me in my path of being a successful entrepreneur in the future.
What’s more motivating for you — learning how to fish or the fish itself? (Image Source: http://thelakemurraynews.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Fishing.jpg)
I was talking to an intellectual yesterday about an idea of his. He’s an entrepreneur in the marketing realm, and wants to get a technology idea off the ground. He’s also an author and PhD with a wide breadth of exciting experiences; hence the “intellectual”.
So we were talking about his idea, and it’s in the realm of politics. I know diddly squat about politics. I’m sitting there and understanding what he’s proposing conceptually, and at the end, he asked me to get back to him if I’m interested in taking on the project in some capacity, but also, if I’m not passionate about it or the subject at all, then no worries.
That little bit made me think about if I need to know or “care” about politics, or if there was another drive that would motivate me to take this on. It made me think of what I’m passionate about, what challenges I find rewarding, and to some extent, what am I scared of – the domain of an idea or building the idea.
Throughout our talk, I was leaning on my experience building startups in thinking about the venture as it relates to marketing, user experience, and largely, the technical mechanics of it. It’s not technically difficult to be honest, but I don’t know politics necessarily. So all this time, the hamster in my head is running furiously thinking about the building aspect of the idea, not really politics. That’s what drives me.
I’ve long called myself an opportunist. I mentioned in prior posts like “The Next Act for an Entrepreneur With Breadth, Not Depth – Am I A Product Manager?” that I don’t necessarily have a specific domain expertise, but look at what I’ve done, and you won’t necessarily find much commonalities in domains. Instead, you’d find the BUILDING part of my ventures as the common thread. It’s the thrill of the strategy formation, hypothesis testing, implementation, learning, and then the recycle.
Thinking about this “domain” vs. “build” concept, I suppose I can relate “build” to the “work”, “implementation”, or “delivery” of other occupations or even in the corporate job world. Or better yet, “domain” would be the “what” question and “build” would be the “how” question. For me, it doesn’t so much matter about what an occupation or idea is in. Instead, I’m interested in the “how”. What scares me when I’m building iOS apps right now, for instance, is how to mechanize an idea. How do I use the iPhone’s GPS, if I’ve never used it before?

Taking the old proverb, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. But perhaps the more relevant question is if the man even wants fish. What if he’s allergic?! So fishing, in this case, is the “HOW”. And the “fish” is actually the “WHAT”.

And of course, you have more questions that can and will motivate you as you choose a new job, a new venture, etc. including WHO, WHEN, WHERE, and my favorite… the WHY.
  • The Who question can address who you work with (want to work with your best friend?) or who you serve.
  • The When question can address if timing is right – if the market’s ready, if you’re ready, etc.
  • The WHERE question, similarly to WHEN, can address if the location’s right. 
  • The Why question is a tough one, and yet so easy… this can answer if you’re in sync with the purpose of a company. Is the company pursuing a mission you’re proud of and feel strongly about?

But with the Intellectual, the questions that raced into my mind that concerned me the most were that of the domain (the WHAT) and how mechanizing the idea would work (the HOW). At least with this opportunity, I wouldn’t be able to tell if BM would or would not be someone WHO I would want to work with. I will have to consider the WHEN question before I get back to him given my bandwidth now and in the foreseeable future. And as for the WHY, this opportunity would allow me to learn a lot from a brilliant, well-connected individual that would perhaps be a great stepping stone for something later I could be even more passionate about.
Of course, for me, I have to be wary of that the building process only lasts for so long before the product reaches maturity and stability. And thus, the challenge dissipates, but perhaps, the challenge actually transforms into another type of build… like building a company, or building new innovative ideas… but in a better case, the WHAT becomes just as appealing as the HOW.

What are your thoughts about what excites you about your job or a new opportunity – is it the domain or the build? How do you consider the other questions (who, when, why) as you evaluate options?