You didn’t go to business school. You don’t have an MBA. You don’t run a tech startup. The only “C” in front of your title stands for “cook” or “cleaner.”
You’re an artist. You may not use paint or stone or metal. You may not sing or dance or write. But your work is an art and your passion changes people. And you, my friend, have taken this art and turned it into a business.
What could your business – one that’s based on soul stirring, passion inducing work – learn from the science of creating corporations? Turns out, a whole helluva lot.
Your business is here to prove something.
- that great writing changes lives & leads to more sales.
- that elegant jewelry boosts your self-confidence and takes the pain out of the morning routine.
- that quality materials & craftsmanship really are worth the big bucks.
- that creative expression saves lives.
- that great design tells a story that words & pictures alone cannot.
- that a well-decorated home keeps a marriage happy & healthy.
- that a New Economy can be built around artist-business owners.
Yes, indeed. Your passion comes from your undying determination that part of your worldview is a Truth for many others. Your productivity comes from the resolve to share that with as many people as possible.
But, like any hypothesis, it’s not simply enough to state it. To deem it so.
Your business hypothesis must stand up to scrutiny, experimentation, analysis, and… dun dun dun… customer feedback.
Your hypothesis isn’t an excuse to put on your dreamer hat and sit in the corner while the MBAs play at profit. Your hypothesis is what gets you into the trenches and compels you to do business.
People don’t by WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
— Simon Sinek, Start With Why
In starting businesses, we are most often concerned with what product we’re going to sell or what service we’re going to offer. It’s easier to understand the transaction when you know what’s changing hands. But it’s not the particular service or product that creates crowds of loyal fans. It’s not the product or service that spurs us to innovation & creative thinking.
It’s stepping outside the this-for-that exchange and stepping into something bigger & more powerful: our vision for the world.
Startups also have a true north, a destination in mind: creating a thriving and world-changing business. I call that a startup’s vision.
— Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Business starts with a vision. The vision inspires a strategy. The strategy ends with the product or service being sold.
You can’t know what you’re selling until you know what you’re trying to prove.
To prove your hypothesis, you must experiment with a plan. Build, measure, learn.
Eric Ries, author of the brand-new book The Lean Startup, explains this process in depth. It’s a constant cycle of innovation & iteration that has at its goal creating a product/service that works to prove your hypothesis and achieve your vision while serving your customers.
This is true startup productivity: not just making more stuff, but systematically figuring out the right things to build.
— Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
How do you test the hypothesis? How do you figure out the right things to build?
Eric suggests the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. That’s a fancy (or not so!) way of saying: do it, discover what happens, and figure out what it means.
Sadly, the first step is where so many get stuck. Without a clear hypothesis, it’s hard to know what to build. Of course, “knowing what to build” is truly overrated.
The first few times through this loop, it’s not your job to know what to build. It’s your job to learn what to build. So we start somewhere.
Back when I started growing my business in earnest, the first product I created was 52 Weeks of Blogging Your Passion. It’s an ebook with 52 blogging prompts. Not fancy. Not overly sophisticated. Just a response to what I perceived as a need.
I didn’t stress about making the most comprehensive product or making the snazziest design. I built a product it and I shipped it. That’s when the real work started.
While you’re “building” consider:
- Am I wasting time on details that don’t enhance the benefits of the final product?
- Am I wasting energy on making the product more comprehensive than is necessary to test my hypothesis?
- Am I wasting attention on tangential pain points that are unrelated to the product I’m currently building?
In the tech startup world where The Lean Startup was first developed, there are loads of customized metrics and formal experiments that can be run with the data from the first (and subsequent) product builds.
I would argue these sophisticated methods of measure are a distraction to the microbusiness owner.
Forget the percentages, click thrus, and dollars, and focus on what your customers actually tell you about the product. Consider not only the specific feedback but the tone of their words, the setting of their usage, and the community of users.
After releasing my 52 Weeks of Blogging, I got customer feedback. It was good. But it’s not enough to just revel in good feedback. Ask WHY? I probed deeper to find out how people were actually using the book and what questions remained for them. That process then lead to several other books and a course.
Measure the effectiveness of your product by considering:
- How is the customer using my product?
- What results is she achieving?
- Is she closer to believing in my greater hypothesis?
- What themes are emerging about the product I’ve built?
Learning is all about figuring out what you’ll do differently next time. If you thought building your product was the end of the production phase and the beginning of the promotion & PR phase, boy, were you wrong!
Production is constant. Learning helps you know what to produce next. What tweak to focus on. What features to improve. What about-face to make.
Each time I build a new product, I learn so much about the people who purchase it. I learn things from the metrics, of course, but I also learn from their reviews. Their frustrations. And their questions. I build those questions & frustrations into subsequent products, blog posts, and emails.
I engage buyers via social media and create conversation around these areas. I build a bigger & bigger picture from my learning so that I can act & produce based on what I’ve learned.
Learn about your product or service by taking the feedback you’ve gathered & measured, comparing it to your initial hypothesis. Contrast your actual customers’ reaction with the way you thought they would react. Compare their concerns with what you feel to be true.
And then build again.
While in the learning phase, consider:
- What assumptions did I make that proved false?
- What surprised me about the customer feedback?
- What could be eliminated from the initial product?
- What needs to be added to the product?
Just as scientific experimentation is informed by theory, startup experimentation is guided by the startup’s vision. The goal of every startup experiment is to discover how to build a sustainable business around that vision.
— Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Bottom line: to effectively change and grow, your business needs to be plugged in to your vision for the world and the hypotheses you hold true.
Forget discovering what to sell and who to sell it to until you’ve got those details ironed out.