In the @TBInnovates start-up tech accelerator workshops, we discuss product discovery and validation in some form almost every week. As part of those discussions, I often refer to several helpful books, podcasts, and even movies that reinforce these lessons.
While I don’t expect those founders that are participating in the program to read all of them cover to cover, it is important to highlight some essential ideas that we drill down on in each cohort. If you are in a similar situation, starting your own tech start-up, you will likely need to explore these same concepts to understand and launch your business.
To help you get started, here are some simple summaries and key ideas that capture the essence of the books I discuss.
Crossing the Chasm – get to know the (early adopter) users who will support the first iteration of your product.
This is heralded by many as the bible for tech start-ups that are attempting to go from idea to product to sustainable market growth; I do not disagree. I have been a loyal follower of Geoffery Moore since volume 1 of this book and, over the years, have gifted copies to dozens of colleagues who were new to the journey. Far too many start-ups look beyond the early adopters focused instead on the promise of rock-star popularity and big revenue forecasts. Take the time to understand and embrace the early adopters early in your product and go-to-market strategy or be prepared to start over from scratch.
The Innovator’s Dilemma – customers hire your product to do a job, focus on delivering that impact / value.
Christensen’s assertion that people hire products to do a job can be a hard lesson for tech start-up founders. The notion that it is about something deeper than the technology or unique functionality can be a real hit to the ego, but if you develop empathy for your users and what they are trying to achieve, you will unlock a whole new dialog with your market.
The Four Steps to the Epiphany – an essential perspective on early-stage start-ups that focuses on the customer and not the product. By changing the discussion to focus on discovery and validation, founders can avoid the pitfalls of becoming too enamored with technology and “hot” markets.
No list would be complete without the wisdom of Steve Blank. The Four Steps breaks down the entrepreneurial journey and takes a deeper dive than Crossing the Chasm by identifying the milestones that founders need to consider when planning and testing a new product.
Inside the Tornado – build a complete product experience. Pay attention to every detail from purchase to the installation, ongoing satisfaction, and the HPRC referral.
A sequel to Moore’s Crossing the Chasm with many of the same insights plus the additional challenge that your offering needs more than the core functionality of the product, companies need to deliver based on the customer’s full spectrum of buying and usage behavior.
All Marketers are Liars – customers convince themselves they “need” your product. You can’t force or educate this behavior.
A quick read that helps non-marketers understand the core elements of marketing and helps seasoned marketers understand that it’s not about them.
Slicing the Pie – everyone (including founders and advisors) should earn their slice of equity over time based on contributions.
This adds a bit of sanity and guidance to the inevitable arguments about who deserves what share of your new start-up. I see this play out everywhere from Startup Weekends to 1 on 1’s with accelerator companies. Arguing about equity before anything has been built or sold seems silly, but it is also the opportunity to set the ground rules for contributions and the culture of accountability in your start-up.
Never Split the Difference – uncover true intentions / motivations by asking “no” questions. Hearing “yes” is meaningless without the following commitment to take action.
The essentials of user / market research depend on honest answers to sometimes vague questions. Every user interview should be approached as a hostage negotiation with the goal of getting the other side to reveal what they truly want as the outcome.
Start with Why – users have problems that drive their attention and behavior, understand this in great detail, and build empathy for their journey into your business.
Sinek’s book elevated the “Why” discussion into the mainstream of the business discussions. The world of product management has been living by this motto for a long time, but often it fell on deaf ears or, at best, got lip service. In the start-up world, building a why-driven culture helps prevent distractions based on bright shiny objects and the smoke and mirrors of tech for the sake of tech.
Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success – faking it till you make it doesn’t work—at least, not long enough to build a sustainable business.
I had the pleasure of working with the Horn Group a few years ago and appreciate the way they pushed us to have better go-to-market messaging and authentic connections with press and industry analysts. If that wasn’t enough, the forward by Geoffery Moore should be a good indicator that this is a must-have for your bookshelf. The book is not out yet, but I can’t wait to read it.
The eMyth – work on what matters. Are you trying to perfect your pizza recipe or get customers in the door to enjoy (& pay for) the pizza?
A lot of business coaches love to recommend this book as their #1 pick, not me. While it has a good underlying message, it drones on about a lot of repetitive advice that could have been reduced to a pamphlet.
Zero to One – understand what is truly unique vs. just an iteration on an idea. Stop using the word disruptive to describe every me-too product that spins out of a Startup Weekend or hack-a-thon.
The a16z Podcast – hosted by the team at Andreesen Horwitz, the a16z series of podcasts cover how technology is changing our world. You will find everything from analysis of emerging technologies to in-depth interviews with founders of companies that are creating our brave new world.
The Twenty Minute VC – candid and easily consumable, these short interviews with up and coming founders as well as industry icons from the venture capital community offer unique insights into the process of starting, surviving, and thriving in the world of tech startups.
Starting Greatness – hosted by Mike Maples Jr. of Floodgate Ventures, this short series of podcasts features candid interviews with many of the technology leaders who shaped the industry (and the Internet). Maples is an experienced startup operator and successful investor.
Y-Combinator Startup School – the art and science behind analyzing startup ideas and founders doesn’t get much better than the videos hosted by folks like Kevin Hale & Michale Seibel.
DreamIt – insight into evaluating new ideas and learning how to pitch them to an investor.
Movies (& TV Shows):
Over the past few years, there have been several movies and TV shows that celebrate the roller coaster ride of tech start-ups. Here is a (chronological) list of must-see shows that I have found both amusing and in many cases, painfully accurate depictions of start-up companies and culture.
Startup.com – 2001 – Traces the birth and failure of startup company govWorks.com.
The Social Network – 2010 – The story about the creators of the social networking site that would become known as Facebook.
Halt and Catch Fire – 2014 – Follows players in the 80s technological revolution that lead to the information society.
Silicon Valley – 2014 to 2019 – Follows the struggle of Richard Hendricks, a Silicon Valley engineer trying to build his own company called Pied Piper.
Silicon Cowboys – 2016 – Three friends dream up the Compaq portable computer at a Texas diner in 1981, and soon find themselves battling mighty IBM for PC supremacy. Their improbable journey altered the future of computing and shaped the world we now know.
General Magic – 2018 – The ideas that dominate the tech industry and our day-to-day lives were born at a secretive Silicon Valley start-up named ‘General Magic’, which spun out of Apple in 1990 to create the first handheld personal communicator (or “smartphone”).
Honorable mention list – Not tech startup stories, but these movies contain good lessons for start-up founders (and investors).
Big – 1988 – Why Big? Because product design isn’t going to come from top-down market studies and focus groups, start-up founders need to engage real users one-on-one who understand the benefits.
Glengarry Glen Ross – 1992 – The sales process / mentality is often a huge learning curve for technical start-up founders. Even though this movie is based on selling real estate, it gives a glimpse into the care and feeding of the sales process and people.
Moneyball – I have used the movie Moneyball mainly when taunting local politicians and leaders of economic development organizations that are easily distracted by big deals and bright shiny objects. But the key message of focusing on the right metrics and trusting the math is also core to startup success in tech. If all you focus on is landing the big fish, you and your company will starve.
The recent cohorts of the @TBInnovates accelerator program were conducted entirely virtual, and I have had several people ask if that was as effective as face-to-face workshops. From my perspective, online was as effective or better than an in-person program. Eliminating the weekly commute to a central location, handing out printed materials, providing driving and parking instructions for guest speakers that always seem to run late or get lost, accommodating those folks that also needed to virtual school their kids (including me), not having to manage the catering for lunch every day, etc.
I attribute a small part of this success to having a good office e setup (pictures to follow) and spending a little extra to create a comfortable work environment for the 6+ hour-long workshops, a good webcam to deliver the best visual impact and great audio for those that had to listen to me for hours and hours of discussion. If you and your team are in a similar situation, I urge you to invest in comfort and quality on both sides of your endless Zoom or Teams meetings. Below is a list of add-ons that made this situation work for me.
- Autonomous Standing Desk – I selected the bamboo top w/ black base
- Dell U2419 LED Monitor – x2 on an EleTab ELTGM06 dual arm stand
- Logitec C920e webcam on an On-Stage gooseneck mount
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface
- Heil Microphone – quality matters even for Zoom calls
- Pig-Hog 25′ XLR mic cables
- Lyfynlove 7 port USB powered hub
- Lamicall iPad holder – heavy non-slip base
- Yootech 15W premium fast wireless phone charger
- Neewer 18″ ring light w/ remote
- Neewer green screen 6′ x 9′ – makes Zoom calls more creative
- Adjustable footrest – your back will thank you
- IKEA – LENNART Drawers dark gray – fits under the standing desk
- Furhaven dog sofa – the most important accessory for officemates