The Best Advice to Entrepreneurs – Don’t Build a Dumb Idea

With all the advice for the TechCrunch50 floating around, here’s something entrepreneurs need to hear – don’t build something dumb.

I understand that founders put their blood, sweat, and tears into their companies so, I’m not trying to be cruel. In fact, I’m being kind by hopefully preventing them from wasting lots of time, effort, and money on an idea that will go nowhere.

The harsh reality is that some of the smartest entrepreneurs with the most innovative ideas fail for one reason or another (e.g., poor timing). Now, consider those chances for success when your foundation is a dumb idea.

You are wondering, “Am I building a dumb idea?” I am tempted to write a series of “You might be building a dumb idea if…,” but I think Jeff Foxworthy has that bit covered. So, here are some ways to prevent you from building dumb ideas:

Note: There’s a difference between dumb ideas and inane, gimmicky, childish, or immature ones that are well-executed. Consider some recent examples on the iPhone including *iFart or most of Smule’s apps, which I’m sure have made boatloads of cash. Also, while “dumb” may be subjective, there are plenty of ideas where we collectively were left scratching our heads.*

Build What You Know

An easy way to not build a dumb idea is to focus on a marketplace you know. While it is not absolutely required, industry expertise will ensure your product or service includes the “no brainers” while also smartly addressing complexities, details, and edge cases.

If you have an idea that is outside a particular area of knowledge, try to surround yourself or consult with those that are subject matter experts. For consumer-focused applications, that could be as easy as working with those who are using similar products or services.

Market Research and Filling a Gap

You can lessen the chance of building a dumb idea if you know your market and your (prospective) customers’ mindsets better than anyone else. That means not only knowing all the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors but also understanding complementary and alternative services or products. This approach is different than the first in that it might not be an industry that you have hands-on experience or intimate familiarity.

As I pointed to in my how to build a non-$0.99 iPhone app post, I’m a big fan of the blue ocean strategy. If you’ve never read the book, go buy a copy. The authors present a number of tools to help companies get out of the red waters of competition and into the blue oceans of new market space, including the strategy canvas and the four actions framework.

A key point of the blue ocean strategy is to look at competitors and non-competitors and customers and non-customers. This perspective allows the proper defining of the “factors of competition” for the strategy canvas and subsequently which factors need to be eliminated, reduced, created, or raised to plot the new value curve.

Consiglieri and Junto

While you can look to “insiders” to help validate your idea, don’t underestimate the importance of insights from consiglieri or members of your Junto.

You might remember the word “consigliere” from The Godfather, which means “counselor” or “advisor.” Having people you trust, and trust in the sense that they will give you sound, objective, non-ego stroking advice is critical to ensuring you don’t veer into the lands of dumb ideas. Your consiglieri (that’s the plural form) should likely not be your peers and preferably should consist of mentors, seasoned business execs, or startup veterans.

Benjamin Franklin initially created the *Leather Apron Club, *also called “Junto,” as a way to facilitate discussion among similar-spirited individuals about improving Philadelphia. It later evolved as a way for its members to to improve themselves and their community. A key element to the Junto was that the members had diverse professional backgrounds. Hopefully, you have a group of colleagues and friends — your “Junto” — that are outside your professional bubble, who can keep you grounded, in touch with reality, and provide alternate yet informed viewpoints. These people should be another sounding board for avoiding building a dumb idea.

Minimum Viable Product 

According to Eric Ries, the goal of the minimum viable product (MVP) is to build a, “product which has just those features and no more that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see and, at least some of whom resonate with, pay you money for, and start to gave you feedback on.”

Like how Tim Ferriss came up with the name of his bestseller The Four Hour Work Week, Eric describes how a landing page and a pay-per-click campaign can be used as a quick, barebones (and super cheap!) way to discover what products or product features customers are willing to purchase.

Customer Development Model

The Minimum Viable Product and the “lean startup” philosophy are based off of Steven Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Professor Blank is in the midst of his series on the customer development manifesto, where he provides the background on why the traditional product development approach fails and what the customer development model is about (my emphasis):

The greatest risk in startups —and hence the greatest cause of failure—is not the technology risk of developing a product but in the risk of developing customers and markets. Startups don’t fail because they lack a product; they fail because they lack customers and a profitable business model. This alone should be a pretty good clue about what’s wrong with using the product development diagram as the sole guide to what a startup needs to be doing. Look at the Product Development model and you might wonder, “Where are the customers?”

The reality for most startups today is that the product development model focuses all their attention on activities that go on inside a company’s own building. While customer input may be a checkpoint or “gate” in the process, it doesn’t drive it.

Concluding Thoughts

These are just a handful of ways to check yourself before you wreck yourself. Do they ensure success and a huge exit? No. Will they absolutely prevent you from joining the dead pool? No. But they will work to prevent that by putting you on the path to success.