My father is a rancher, so he speaks in “cowboy-isms”. He once told me, “You go to school to learn you’re ABCs, but you go to work to learn the rest of the alphabet.” He couldn’t have been more correct. Last year I left my corporate job to dive head-first into launching a startup. I was convinced that my idea was so good that it would take off once working on it full-time. Thus began what I call my three-month MBA education.
Turns out a good idea doesn’t mean squat. I don’t know how many cups of coffee I bought for community leaders to ask them, “think this is a good idea?” I collected a lot of junk data asking bad questions, and even worse, it gave me a bunch of false-positive signals that I was on the right path to a viable business. The big take away is to read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick immediately, so you, too, can stop asking bad questions.
I drank the startup Kool-Aid. To a degree I would say, “YES! It works!” I have learned how to identify make-or-break assumptions and structure cheap, quick tests for validating or disproving them.
I struggled, however, with translating these business concepts into my real-world business idea. It’s one thing to consume business education but another to apply it. In my search for structure, I discovered Strategyzer and their business model canvas. I learned how to use the business model canvas through a free course on “How to Build a Startup” from Udacity.
From there, I took what I learned and prepared a scope of work to learn more about my customer and test a prototype solution. I shared my scope of work with mentors for critical feedback and was surprised at how little constructive criticism they had.
That’s when I learned mentors are invaluable, but they don’t get in the trenches with you. I was finally able to fine-tune my approach and get to work after meeting a software developer. He had the technical skill sets I lacked, and he had experience helping others scale. What I most appreciated about having a peer in this process was the amount of time and money he saved me. He pushed back on me regularly, asked hard questions, provided direction, and even took notes for me during customer interviews.
For the solopreneurs out there, I highly recommend trying to find someone like this that can serve as a “temporary” co-founder. Pay them for their contributions, as it yields immeasurable savings in having to learn everything the hard way.
Only two weeks thereafter, we launched the first ‘minimally viable product’ to manually test if the solution was going to work. We had ten beta-customers. In deep-dive interviews with them, I started to see red flags. While the customers had many pain points, I was unconvinced their frustration was so severe that they would adopt a new solution and pay for it.
Around this time, I started to have violent and scary dreams. My conscious mind needed to accept that my idea was not revealing a viable business model. The most embarrassing realization was that I still couldn’t articulate the problem I wanted to solve! I was focusing on too many problems and never able to figure out which one was the root issue.
I was at a fork in the road. I decided to try a blend of pivoting and persevering, and unsurprisingly, that brought no relief. I was still expending precious brain power and that was preventing me from moving on to other pursuits.
Turns out I have more of an ego than I thought. It’s hard to let go of ideas that you have incubated for so long and that everyone knows about.
I now investigate ideas with real potential customers — not family and friends. This approach removes the pressure of answering, “What’s your business?” before one exists.
The great irony of this story is that parallel to launching my grand startup, I established a “side hustle” consulting business and it’s doing well. The side business started so I could accept contract work to pay for life’s expenses, but it has since grown to be much more.
I’ve learned, there’s no shame in consulting to bootstrap your business. I used to feel lame not working on something sexier, like I wasn’t a real entrepreneur. Thanks to this great post, however, I now understand that my service-based business empowers me to bootstrap my next venture and be my own best investor.
Entrepreneurship provides a humbling education, but I’m loving every bit of what it takes to “learn the rest of the alphabet”.
Meredith Noble is a 5th generation cattle rancher from Wyoming, loving life in Alaska. She founded SenecaWorks — a boutique project management consulting firm to be every bit the stereotypical millennial. Her lifestyle affords lots of time in the mountains and opportunities to help develop interesting community projects. Her most recent project is www.learngrantwriting.org — a series of online classes to teach others how to become talented grant writers. Follow her bike and ski adventures here.