How to Start

A1 | Jan.3.22 | Today’s A1 is about starting things, which feels appropriate for the first Monday morning in January.

Ok, 2022. Let’s get started.

First, What’s A1?

For those not familiar, A1 is my standing weekly mentoring meeting to frame up and focus my week before it truly begins. Every week on Monday at 7 am, I meet with a mentor who has been building companies in Omaha for years, and is currently building out a fast growing e-commerce start-up. Every week, we select a topic that feels relevant to the week ahead in our work or personal lives and spend an hour on that topic.

Today’s Topic: How to Start

I chose the topic today, because I’m working on a new project. I haven’t yet mustered the courage to call it a company, so for now it’s a project. Yesterday, I met with our designer and talked through the next thirty days of roadmap and after 30 minutes, he stopped me and said:

“that’s a lot, and it all sounds important. Where are you going to start?”

It’s a damn good question. The great thing about starting a project of your own is that you get to create the thing from the ground up, laying the foundation and creating each piece, rather than inheriting the decisions someone else made. The challenging thing, of course, is that you’re building from scratch and have to decide what to build, when. And how. And also why. And where. okay then: where to start?

What We Figured Out Today

Our discussion today boiled down to three key learnings on how to get started. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Start with the foundation
  2. Build an informed theory
  3. Get to real customer data to test the theory, as fast as you can.

Let’s go!

1. Start with the Foundation

Aaron’s advice was this: you just can’t frame up the house while also pouring the foundation. Start with the foundation, and don’t try to do too many things at once. The startup world is littered with companies who tried to do too much, all at once, be it multiple products, markets, or acquisition strategies. And as a person who always tries to do too much (you should see my New Years Resolutions), not picking out the window coverings before the foundation is poured will be a challenge in anything I build.

2. Build an Informed Theory

So what’s the foundation made of? For an untested product or company, the foundation is nothing more than a theory — a set of assumptions you’re testing to see if what you think might be true about your product or customer is in fact correct.

For a SaaS company, those assumptions might be something like:

  1. I believe customers will purchase at an average price of $X
  2. I think for our first market, we’ll see Y customers every week sign up.
  3. I think it will cost us $Z to acquire a customer.

You’re building a product because you have at least some theory on who will buy it, how much it might cost, and why you think it’ll be successful. So we start with a few educated guesses about how the company’s economics might work. If we’re right, our product might just work in the market. If we’re wrong, we’ll have to change something, or it won’t be viable.

3. Focus on Gathering Customer Data Quickly

The last bit is about becoming steadfast in your focus on getting real customer data.

“It’s not important whether you’re right or wrong in those first assumptions. It’s important that you know if you’re right or wrong, so that you can confirm it or change course.”

Knowing the theory makes it easy to know where to start: You start with whatever activity needs to happen to start bringing in data from real customers. Real data from real customers informs real decisions for the business.

“The moment you can start grabbing data is the moment you can start proving your assumptions. Before that, you’re just making decisions without information.”

That might mean shipping an early version of your product before it’s built exactly right. It might mean that your initial cost of fulfillment is more expensive than it will be in the future with more lead times. Data wins — if it’s bringing in real customer experiences, it moves to the top of the list.

Where I’m Focused

The advice is great. Start with the foundation, build theories, get real data quickly.

For me, that pushes to the top of the list any activity that will help me get more customers in the door in the next 60 days. In practical terms, that means a focus on the website, some attention to the exact user experience of the buying/checkout process, and on the market-by-market plan for launching the product. What falls to the bottom of the list (still very important! Just not the first thing) is perfecting my pitch deck, talking through funding options, and building out the long-term content calendar.

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karenborchert

karenborchert

Founder and CEO of Alpaca. Goals Nerd, Spreadsheet Enthusiast, and Runner.