What to build

Ben Lindsay
April 4, 2021

How did I get here?

For the last year and a half I’ve been working with a good friend on an idea we had for a business; STAND. We wanted to make smart jewellery for safety; letting people discreetly share their location or contact someone if they found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. This might be a good idea, and it might not, but I do know that it wasn’t the right idea for me. There are many reasons I say this. It could be that the similarities between the market we were targeting and me were next to nil or the fact I didn’t have any domain expertise in creating safety devices. But at the end of the the day, what is normally referred to as ‘Founder Market Fit’ (FMF) wasn’t there.

There were also other complications and many things we did that I would change or do differently, but the long and short of it is, we killed it.

So what now?

One way to look at this is that I have failed and wasted the last 516 days+ of my life. Maybe I have, but I’m a terrible optimist -> to my detriment. From today, I am extremely fortunate that I can survive for about four months until I have to surrender myself to the world of the working subordinate. Four months of time and a year and a half of falling over myself to learn from.

I still want to build a business, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. Not really sure why, but that’s a journey for another post. I want to build something, but not just anything, something that is right for me, that matches my ambitions for my life or career. An idea is not everything. In fact, I think execution is probably much more important, but you can execute selling armbands to professional swimmers all you want, it ain’t gunna happen.

In a similar way, it’s very hard to sell a business that you aren’t the right fit for; me as a young man selling safety jewellery for young women just doesn’t make sense. This matters a lot, more than I first realised, to customers, investors, and anyone else that’s going to interact with your company.

Knowing this now (or at least thinking that I do), I really want to give myself the best chance possible for round two of building a business. A great idea (for me) and some....better execution than the last time around, learning from the mistakes.

How am I going to choose?

So what are the criteria for picking a great idea for me? FMF is something that is talked about a lot in startup communities and I now think it’s essential. You probably can build a business without it, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier if you have it.

You also have to be solving a problem, and not just any problem, a really very painful problem that can’t be ignored! With STAND, although plenty of people told us it was a great idea and that they’d totally use it, we found that the only people actually buying from us either had issues with severe anxiety, or experienced seizures. They didn’t just want our devices, they needed it to deal with something very real that they experienced every day!

Beyond this, I think it gets a bit more personal. The size of the available market or whether you will require venture funding, or eve if you want to bootstrap will depend much more on what you want out of building a business. Personally I love the idea of building something disgustingly enormous (maybe I have a hole in me that I can’t fill), and I want to be able to get to profitability without any outside funding or skills.

Bearing the above in mind and to make it easier for myself to kill ideas quickly, my ideas are going to have to tick a few boxes and get ranked by the below;

  1. FMF - Do I have founder market fit?
  2. Bootstrapability - Can I get it to start making money without funding?
  3. Buildability - Can I build it myself with no/low-code tools?
  4. Defensibility - Can I stop, or at least hold back, copycats with network effects or other?
  5. Routes to market - How clear is the path to finding customers?
  6. Market size - Is the serviceable market big enough to make it disgustingly enormous?
  7. Competition - How crowded is the space, can I compete?
  8. Trending - Is the market growing quickly?

Most of this is highly personal to me and by no means best practice for anyone, it will also probably change when I get back to writing this, but I think building a criteria for what you want to chase is a pretty decent idea. It narrows your thinking and allows you to avoid wasting time of things that really probably aren’t right for you in the long run.

Problems and markets, where to start?

Now that I know the bounds, I’ve got to run some ideas through to see what is good and what is bad, problem is I don’t have any ideas yet.

Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t necessarily see this as an issue. In an ideal world I would have an epiphany and naturally fall upon a game changing idea that perfectly suits me and my little list of demands, but that seems unlikely.

The traditional advice is to look for a painful problem and solve it. I think this is flawed, and that we should be starting with a market category, hear me out!

For one, trying to conjure up a list of problems is hard; because it’s so broad. I remember years ago being involved in some sort of design thinkingy type workshop where we were given an exercise. We were split into two groups and given 5 minutes to make a list of all of the things you would find in a kitchen. However, one group was told only to list things you would find in a kitchen that are white. Believe it or not the list of white kitchen items was almost twice as long as the more general list. So why come up with a list of problems when you can come up with a better list of problems that dog walkers experience? or swimmers experience? Or whatever particular group you are connected to will or do experience?

Then there is FMF. If you start searching for problems, the likelihood is that maybe 10% (I made this up) of them will have some semblance of FMF for you. Whereas, if you start with a market that you know you have FMF for, your yield can only get better.

I’ll probably change my mind on all of this in a week so take what you will from it, but for now, I’m going to start with some market categories. I’ve stolen a framework from this post which I feel is a nice starting point for narrowing my thinking in a positive way. Time to go and create a list of markets and ideas, and carry on from there!

To be continued...

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