A simple, almost magical formula for getting any startup or product to work

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A couple of years before Pinterest came out, I created Pinterest. Or rather, I created a really crappy proto-Pinterest.

My website allowed you to paste in a URL from the Internet, and it would grab the photo and description. Then you could put whatever it was in one of three collections: Things You Have, Things You Want, Things You Like.

Tragically — even though I built it earlier — I didn’t release it until after Pinterest. 2010 happened, Pinterest dropped, and I panicked. I hurriedly released my site and got a few tech blogs to write about it, and…crickets. People signed up for my site and never came back. They didn’t really want what I offered; at least not the way I’d set it up. And I’d agonized over those features for years!

And Pinterest, well, it’s Pinterest now.

A few things happened here that taught me one of my most enduring lessons in building startups and products. Analyzing what I did wrong led to a pretty simple framework — a sort of startup magic formula I’ve been using ever since. And it works!

Here’s a quick summary of mistakes I made that time around:

  • I kept stalling the launch of my product, deciding that it wouldn’t work without X, Y, or Z new feature, which I would then have to build.
  • I was hesitant to show my baby to people until it was perfect. I didn’t want to blow my shot at impressing everyone. Of course my friends were all praise and encouragement, but friends are friends.
  • I came into the business with a whole laundry list of assumptions: about what people wanted; about what I needed to do to get people using my product; about what was important for the success of my startup. But experience repeatedly taught me that what I’d assumed at the outset simply wasn’t true.
  • In general, I held on to my early ideas about what the thing needed to be like for…way too long. Then I was out of money and out of steam.

Over the years, I’ve seen other entrepreneurs make these same mistakes time and again. Whenever friends or acquaintances come to me with startup ideas, asking for advice, I always tell them this same thing:

When creating a startup or product, your job is to make a list of assumptions that must be true for it to work, and then…

ELIMINATE THEM! The quicker the better. Anything else is a waste of time and money.

Say you’re launching a lemonade stand. You might be assuming any number of things: a) that people like lemonade; b) that people like YOUR lemonade; c) that people are willing to pay actual U.S. dollars for your lemonade; d) that you can make people aware of the fact that your lemonade even exists; e) that there will be enough of these clued-in citronophiles (CICs) out there to make it worth your while; f) that you can get your lemonade into the hands of said CICs before it goes rancid… And so on, and so on.

Neophytes (like I was) will launch their lemonade stand on a dream and a prayer. Squeeze some lemons. Mix it according to our own individual preference. Set up shop. Wait for Whole Foods to come knocking.

Then we wonder why we’ve got a fifty-gallon drum of rancid lemonade sitting in the garage.

And this is where we often mix up our assumptions. Maybe we conclude that assumption b) was buggy: people don’t actually like our particular lemonade; it’s back to the cutting board. But while we waste time and money tweaking the recipe, we’re totally unaware that assumption d) was the culprit all along: no one knows we even exist.

Candidly, you have better odds of picking a Powerball jackpot than you do of launching a startup with 100% correct assumptions. So your ongoing task is to prove that entire laundry list right or wrong, and, when wrong, to find a different way.

Now for the framework. It’s simple:

  1. Have an idea? Great! Make that list of assumptions. Everything that has to be true to get your baby off the ground.
  2. Go into excruciating detail. Force yourself to think through everything. Even the obvious (e.g., people have to be alive in order to buy your lemonade).
  3. Divide your assumptions into two groups:
    – Things other people have figured out; and
    – Novel things. Yeah, maybe all your competitors accept bitcoin. But you’re the only person in the world who knows how to make lemonade that tastes 10X better than Snapple.
  4. Now, rank those assumptions in order of the most crucial to least crucial. What does everything really hinge on?
  5. Eliminate! Go down the list and figure out how to kill each assumption as quickly as possible. Non-novel items? No sweat. It’s okay to use someone else’s solution in the beginning so long as you can cross off the assumption. Later on your’ll make a better way. And finally:
  6. 6. Rinse and repeat. The product will evolve, but the framework still applies.

Okay, okay — I’ll admit it: I’m not the first person to try something like this. Socrates beat me to it by 24 centuries. My magic framework is a lot like the scientific method we learned in elementary school: isolate a hypothesis, make an experiment to try to disproveit, repeat. Simple? Yes.

Also terrifying! We don’t like to be proven wrong, not even by ourselves. We’re all susceptible to bias. We start with the conclusion we want to be true (“I’m gonna be bigger than Snapple”), and then we work backward, only considering the evidence that supports our conclusion (“My mom said it was pretty good lemonade”). Like the ghosts in a certain Shyamalan movie, we see what we want to see.

The most useful thing about the Assumption/Elimination framework is simply this: it takes my ego out of the equation. My ego isn’t bruised if an assumption I made turns out to be wrong — that was the goal all along! The game is to go down the checklist and eliminate, not to try to be right every time.

It would have been nice to have started Pinterest. (No shade on Ben, Paul and Evan; they earned it.) It would have been really, really nice not to have wasted three years almost starting Pinterest. But Pinterest didn’t get there in one go and neither will you nor I next time. Which is okay.

Because for nerds like us, testing that water rocket is way more fun than the lame ol’ Science Fair anyway.

WANT TO WORK SMARTER?

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This article first appeared on Medium