9 Lessons Learned from NEXT + Steve Blank + 24 Early Entrepreneurs
This startup game is a challenging one. Honestly it is challenging as hell. What many people forget about startups is that the successes (however you define it) are the results of hundreds of thousands of failures along the way. I get why there is some level of hero worship in startups; it's because anyone who has been through the gauntlet from idea to scaling something has made it through a Tough Mudder where they use real knives and bullets.
So I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but it's easy to forget that BIG gap that exists going from a decent idea to really having a business on your hands. It's f-ing hard and so those who have gone through it forget.
Three weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to go through one piece of that early (and super difficult) journey with 24 entrepreneurs here in DC. The program, called NEXT is powered by Steve Blank's customer discovery curriculum and the Startup Weekend team. It brings together very early entrepreneurs who have an idea they are passionate about, most likely have some team they are working with and may even have an early product or prototype. What most of these entrepreneurs haven't had yet is much of the harsh reality that is on the horizon.
And that's where we came in. A team of organizers, coaches, mentors and community leaders plus daily activities that involved talking to 50+ customers over three weeks designed to push people – and push them hard, with really honest feedback, a requirement you stop building anything and being forced to 'get out of the building' and talk to customers. Every. Day.
It's startup bootcamp. We essentially push teams for 3 weeks to unlearn bad habits, get out of the building and talk to (a lot of) customers, and be brutally honest about their business. It's no-nonsense. And it is just as awesome as it sounds.**
The results: Twenty-four individuals who got some pretty harsh feedback and survived – nope, they thrived. And that's why the last three weeks were so amazing for me as their “sherpa” through this shared customer discovery process. Will we have a Facebook or Fab or an Instagram on our hands? Who knows – but I'm confident we've now got more folks that won't buckle when their first product bombs, their co-founder leaves or customers aren't coming. And that's the best feeling ever.
Here's the nine things I learned from this experience of running NEXT here in Washington, DC:
Startups are NOT an individual sport. One of the members of our group in NEXTdc had been a business owner for a dozen plus years and was obviously very confident in our first class. He was a bit skeptical of the class (he'd done all the lectures online and wasn't a first-time entrepreneur), but to his credit he stuck with it. And on the final presentation day he made the point to the class that he'd realized the importance of being a part of this group and the broader startup community. He's right – you need people around you to not only push you, but pick you up when you need it. Find those people however you can, but going to war together weekly seems to really bind you in a unique way.
Early-stage entrepreneurs don't get enough honest feedback. For the entrepreneurs in the room, many of them had been in the echo-chamber – getting “overly-supportive” feedback from friends, family, boyfriends, girlfriends, college buddies, etc. (*“Oh, that's a terrific idea, honey, will you buy me a house when you make your millions!”*) – all of whom love you and are hoping you make it. That happy feedback makes you feel good, but getting real feedback early on is what entrepreneurs must seek out. If someone doesn't tell you your idea or execution has a flaw at least weekly, you aren't talking to the right people. And for guys like me, this made me realize the importance of giving that honest feedback. I'm as guilty as the next guy on this one. I'm busy and don't have time to be as honest as I should and really coach early stage entrepreneurs. As a result many have only been told how “cool” or “interesting” their idea is and left to fend for themselves. That's exactly the wrong thing we should be doing. I hated having to be the “bad guy” for some ideas and teams, but I'm also convinced that this will help make them better. It's why experienced entrepreneurs should do less “coffees” and more “regular mentoring/coaching sessions.” The first real feedback shouldn't be when customers don't buy your product. Then, it's too late. (If you are looking for a way to give honest feedback in a structured way, hit me up about being a local NEXT Instructor.)
Stop building MVPs; Start Talking to Customers. I love the whole Lean movement out there, but honestly if you are building an MVP based on your own opinion, you are way too late. Stop building things people – talk to customers and let them tell you what to build. We all want to have something tangible to show off to our mom or to TechCrunch or whatever. But don't. Just spend that time and money to instead really understand your customer. Like really understand. If they won't pre-buy what you are building after you spend an hour with them to truly learn about their problems, then why will they buy after you build it. Please wait to build an MVP until you've talked to 50 plus customers. You don't have to be technical to do customer discovery – it's just talking to potential customers. Turns out that is just as important is coding up an MVP… I'd say moreso especially at the start.
It takes a village to build a startup. One of the best parts of the NEXT program was the involvement of the community – coaches, startup founders, investors, accelerators and more. It's about building relationships and learning lessons so much earlier in the process. As one example (of many), Tony Cappaert, the cofounder of Contactually was setting up introductions for teams, and representatives from two leading DC Accelerators, Fortify.vc and Acceleprise, both attended multiple sessions and worked with the teams one-on-one. Unless people are willing to teach, coach, educate, mentor, lead, etc. early entrepreneurs, the tide won't rise for all. So thanks to everyone who spent Saturdays and evenings helping out – truly awesome.
You can teach a process, but you can't teach hustle. I'm a huge believer in the processes that Steve Blank (customer discovery/development) and Eric Ries (lean) offer. They are a great way to help the mind focus and keep you from going crazy on everything you don't know. However, what you can't teach, is hustle and determination. It's the guy who doesn't just do 10 customer interviews for that class, but goes ahead and does 40 that wins. I'll bet on that guy every day, even if this idea isn't it or this approach isn't going to work, I will bet on hustle and determination every damn day.
We've glorified startups – a lot. It's unfortunate to realize, but the hype cycle around startups and startup successes has made it seem like you build a good product, people magically use it and you make your millions. It's not to say that people are naive because that isn't it – but the knowledge gap/disconnect between a solid product and a successful company is wide. It's why this program was a good one for me as an observer and an entrepreneur because you realize that there really is no replacement for hard work, creative problem solving and effort. Despite all the articles, press and conference love out there, the determination required hasn't changed.
Online learning is great, but boy you can't replace in-person education. Several years ago, I wanted to “re-learn” Spanish before we headed to Peru. I bought a bunch of books, found some lessons online and even posted this goal on Facebook (that is supposed to add pressure right?) Yeah, three months later we landed in Peru and I'd watched one lesson and was lucky to remember bano from high school. I love that Steve Blank (and many many others) are making all this free video and educational content are available online. It's great and several of the people in our class had taken Steve's class online (funny enough, none had finished). If you are really interested in making your startup better, make an investment in something that involves social pressure, real-world interaction and people who care enough to push you. Yes, lectures are free, but man I am willing to bet that 100% of this class has gotten more out of actually applying those lessons in person than watching the lectures in isolation.
Cadence matters a lot in the early startup days. It's easy to get distracted by the big picture when you are in those early early days. And that's why I truly believe in the importance of cadence. That steady march of “we're going to interview 25 people this week”, “we are going to have our planning meeting on every Monday,” “we are going to ship a feature set every month,” etc. The most obvious cadence metric is building/shipping, but don't let that be the driver until you know what to build. Cadence is about process, repetition and focus, and it turns out that it makes a world of difference on progress. Three weeks of a very regular and regimented cadence led these 24 entrepreneurs to make huge strides in just three weeks. That's the power of cadence.
You aren't too busy to help make a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs. I'll be totally honest, I get hit up for a lot of coffee meetings with enthusiastic, but very early entrepreneurs. And 90% of the time I really dread those meetings because I feel like the old man in the movie Up talking to the overly-talkative and enthusiastic boy scout. No one wants to crush his dreams… but man, someone should give him a preview of reality. It's a harsh world and few people at this early stage really know that. So I wind up either glossing it over and cheerleading or being harsh and sounding like a dream crusher. But the last three weeks made me feel like I actually made a real difference in the lives of these early entrepreneurs. Yes, I started our harsh in my feedback and continued to push them throughout, but honestly I saw these guys really grow and improve. And it was because I (along with others) really invested in making these people up their games and prepare for the gauntlet ahead.
In the end, I am proud to call myself an educator; more specifically a NEXT Instructor. I truly believe the hours I invested into these 24 new friends and entrepreneur was incredibly well spent. I will teach again and every coffee request will be greeted with a “Listen, I'd love to meet – but come to NEXT and let me help in a more structured and useful way.”
If you are an entrepreneur who has gone through the gauntlet or an investor who knows what it takes to make it through, then join me in educating and pushing early entrepreneurs to up their game in your community. Yes, it's tiring and yes it was time away from my startup. But I will 100% say it was the best investment I've ever made into people in my community. If you are interested in learning how to teach this directly from amazing guys like Steve Blank, then get involved today.
It's the best way I've ever seen to give back. Wanna join me?