This piece was first published on Forbes Business Council.
A friend shared a memory-triggering video with me last month featuring the young Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, Napster’s co-founders. The year is 2000, and Parker is telling the reporter why he believes people will pay to download music even though, at that time, they were getting it for free (before iTunes and Spotify arrived). You can hear the reporter question the statement, and you can see Parker repeat his words with no hesitation whatsoever.
It’s easy to start with an example from an entrepreneur who “made it;” Parker is well-known for the ballsy moves that led him to fame, fortune and Justin Timberlake playing him on the big screen. I’m sure many of us have a dozen opposing stories where things didn’t go as planned. After all, not everyone can be a visionary who can materialize their dream and change lives. But like the Henry Ford quote that springs to mind says, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” You need a vision and dream to guide the way.
Searching for the Next Must-Have
Let me take you further down our path here at Storemaven to connect my thoughts. For the last few years, we’ve been building a new product. During this agonizing process, one of my skilled managers had been conducting her part of our productizing mission. She worked hard and put in a lot of effort — extended research, getting in touch with top industry experts and sitting with them for hours. She listened to their thoughts, interests and, more importantly, their concerns, pains and needs.
In one of our meetings, she explained her disappointment. “I’m exhausted,” she said, pointing out that though she had been given interesting insights and useful feedback, “all these industry experts I sat with weren’t aligned on why we were embarking on this product in the first place.”
What was my response? “That’s great to hear.” We were in the place where innovation grows.
My response might seem careless, maybe even cocky. But after more than a decade as an entrepreneur — leading a thriving company in my present and one hasty exit plan in my past — I learned that it’s dangerous for a business to constantly try to reach product-market fit and minimum viable product (MVP) and super risky if you read them wrong.
What Can Go Wrong?
When my co-founders and I started our first company in 2009, it had nothing to do with MVPs and product-market fit — to the point where we almost took pride in that. There was no demand for what we wanted to offer (a virtual, real-time platform thingy I’ll probably write more about in the future), but after a few meetings with industry savvies and investors, we started to question ourselves.
It was around that time that I read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I loved it. But I also completely misread it, taking it to the extreme in the worst way possible. It was all about testing, incrementality and taking an analytical approach (i.e., being data-driven). “Move forward only if you discover the need. If there isn’t one, go back. Only build the technology if you spot demand,” and so on. You see, this is a very addictive approach. I constantly asked myself what the MVP was and whether there was a product-market fit. And I felt like I was doing the right thing.
But we were concentrating too much on that side of the business and forgetting to consider the unnamed spice, the hunch, the cockiness of “It might not make sense now, there’s no real need for it and people don’t understand it, but I know what I’m doing. Trust me.” I’m not sure the outcome of that endeavor would have been different, but we might end up being more risk-seeking on the product innovation side.
Another Brick in the Wall
In my mind, you’re not measured by the end result but how high your dreams can reach. Think about it — no one needed Facebook or TikTok. No one dreamed of a large, heavy cell phone with no keypad or about cars. People just wanted faster horses.
In order for your idea to reach unimaginable heights, you need to balance the things you can prove with the things you feel. I like to think of it as a ladder, a staircase, a wall. Beyond the final step lies your product. The technology you built, the market you’re in, business validity — these are all your initial steps and building blocks. But they can only reach so high. For this ladder to reach new heights — heights that you’re afraid to fall from — you must add the “transparent” bricks. While they’re not solid, they’re there. These bricks represent your leap. You can’t test them. You can’t MVP them. But you have to feel comfortable using them to build on. You have to feel comfortable with this type of uncertainty.
Talking to your customers about their pains will lead you to interesting solutions and innovations that serve as a compass to avoid losing track or wasting money. And it should be a never-ending process of refining answers to get to the very bottom of what makes their business tick. But this alone won’t get you to where true innovation lies. Your customers may know what their struggles are and how your product will fill an empty hole, but they often don’t know what will change their industry, their habits, their lives.