3 things rapid prototyping taught me about entrepreneurship

Originally published at backstage.thedetermined.co

Ship.png

Last year I quit my startup job as a head of product / UX designer and became a fellow at Factory X, an experimental venture foundry headed by Tom Chi from Google X. I worked with Tom and the Academy team (now Prototype Thinking Labs), learning the Prototype Thinking methodology and coaching early stage entrepreneurs and their teams through the process.

I walked away with a new love for facilitation, user testing, and the mindset for rapid prototyping. I’ve since taken those tools and combined them into the Remix process we use at the consulting agency I’ve co-founded, The Determined.

Co-founding this company has also given me the opportunity to apply the process to my own work, which has helped me gain a new appreciation for the mental state required to be successful as an entrepreneur embracing rapid prototyping.

Here are a few ideas for you to consider when starting a venture of your own:

1. You are the captain of a ship sailing a sea of uncertainty. You don’t know what you don’t know. You never know as much as you think you know. So basically it’s dark, foggy, your compass doesn’t work, and your maps might not even be to scale. Navigating this sea of uncertainty is your job.

One team I worked with discovered after two days of testing that the startup idea they sold to their investors wasn’t going to fly.

Imagine knowing with absolute certainty that the concept someone just gave you millions of dollars to build will fail.

The founders were confused, head in their hands, moaning about what they’re going to tell their investors. Thank goodness it only took them two days to figure that out!

What do you do now? Well, you pivot. You use the feedback you’ve gathered so far to figure out what will work. You have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty while you put out more experiments to see if something hits.

2. You are building your ship as you’re steering it. If building the perfect ship is your goal, you will drown before you’ve even started. You need to get comfortable with putting your work out into the world before it’s “done”, or before it feels good enough to show. Way before.

This requires you to perform a juggling act between your future vision and your present experiment. You need to simultaneously hold onto that big moonshot idea of yours, but get there with teeny tiny tactical baby steps.

The startup I mentioned earlier envisioned a really cool platform that would enable people to coach each other through difficult times. But how to get people talking and sharing meaningful information with strangers?

They realized the vision they had wouldn’t work the way they were about to design it. Nobody would engage. So they started figuring out what might work.

One theory — artificially intelligent chatbots. Sure, that’ll probably be cool someday. But let’s start maybe with some manually programmed bot scripts backed by a few professional coaches to get the conversations rolling? Now we’re talking.

If you try to go big right out of the gate, you’ll miss. This doesn’t mean selling yourself short, or letting go of your big idea. You have to hold the vision, trust the process.

Vision.png

That process involves putting work out there based on whatever data you have at the present moment. As you create the work, you gather more data, and things change. And once you put work out into the world or in front of testers, you learn what you need to know to make your next move. So learn quickly and move often if you want to go far.

3. Fear is a terrible co-captain. As you navigate the turbulent sea of uncertainty, learn to ignore or disable the blinking dashboard light that says “uncertain waters ahead” — it’s just going to keep flashing, nothing new to see here.

We love to say “trust your gut” these days, but when your gut is twisted up from fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of looking like a fool, what you need to trust is data.

You notice you’re uncertain about what to do next? You design an experiment, build a quick prototype, test it, collect some data. You just earned some certainty you can use to plan your next move.

In my time working with early stage founders, here’s a list I’ve gathered of some of the common fears when it comes time to prototype and test rapidly:

  1. Fear of competition — this is the impulse to keep your startup in “stealth mode” for months. What we find is startups fail for many many reasons other than competition, and those reasons could have easily been found out by being open about what you’re building and testing it early and often.
  2. Fear of what people will think — we all have an inner critic telling us before we launch something that people will hate it, reject your ideas, laugh at you, call you a fool, yadda yadda yadda. It keeps us in refinement mode, or worse, it keeps us from testing something at all. We’ve got to get comfortable with #1 above and put work into the world before we think it’s ready, so we can learn what we need to do to make it better.
  3. Fear of being seen — many founders I’ve worked with are so passionate about what they’re doing, it becomes part of their identity. Then when it comes time to put it out into the world, any criticism of what they’ve built becomes a personal critique of them. This can keep them hiding, always working away at being busy instead of putting their ideas out there where the real work happens.
  4. Fear of failure — this one’s obvious, we’re all afraid of putting our heart and soul into something and having it fail. But we can’t let that stop us from testing our ideas at all. Sometimes things fail. The sooner we learn what didn’t work, the sooner we can figure out how to fix it to build something that works.
  5. Fear of being successful — right alongside fear of failure comes fear of being successful. Some founders get so heads down, so used to the grind of working on their idea, that when the time finally comes where they can see they’re onto something that could really be something, the idea of how their life will change comes crashing into them. Press interviews, speaking at conferences, getting funded, moving into a big office, managing a team — it can be a huge change for some founders, and the shock of the idea can freeze people in their tracks. You’ll never feel ready for it, so don’t try to wait until a time when you do.
  6. Fear of looking uncertain — especially as leaders of a team, founders feel they need to be on top of everything, calling the shots, knowing the next move, or they’ll lose respect and lose control of their team. I’ve spent a good amount of this article convincing you to embrace uncertainty — now’s the time to embrace vulnerability, too. Your team will appreciate when you admit that you don’t know what comes next, and that you’re all making a collaborative effort to figure it out together.

If you can’t ignore your fear entirely, learn to use it as a sign that it’s time to collect more data by showing what you’ve got so far to people in your target market. When you have certainty and know what to do next, your gut feels calm, settled. Once your gut starts twisting up again from fear, you can use that as a guide that you’ve sailed back into uncertainty and need to run more tests.

When you’ve embraced uncertainty and learned to navigate the choppy seas by pivoting based on what you’ve learned from experiments, you start riding the waves smoothly, and you realize it was your desire for certainty that was causing most of the friction to begin with.

When you get comfortable with starting ugly and putting your work out there while it’s still being developed, you maximize your rate of learning and can make informed decisions faster.

And when you are able to show up, be vulnerable, and ignore your fear, or use it to help you know when it’s time to get more data, you will earn the respect of your team, you’ll be able to gain insights and work collaboratively, and the whole vessel will be smooth sailing as you make your way through those uncharted waters.

Now that you understand the mindset it takes to successfully use rapid prototyping to your advantage, download this quick guide on how to implement prototype thinking on your own.