Startup idea: are you building a Cathedral?

case study - slideshare

What business idea is your startup working on?

Is it a world changing idea?  Will it have a huge impact on some part of the world?

Startups founders, particularly first time founders, do have this urge,  an urge to change the world. The way their business ideas are analyzed by investors too, at times, puts an emphasis on this aspect of a business idea.

A world changing idea sounds like a big opportunity. It has an added advantage – it gives a great sense of purpose too.  A sense of purpose does play a role in motivating you in an uncertain, at times worrisome environment when you build your startup.

Drive : The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us , a book written by Daniel H. Pink, delves  into the role of  “purpose” in motivation.  Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does – and how that affects every aspect of our lives.  In DRIVE, he reveals the three elements of true motivation: AUTONOMY – the desire to direct our own lives; MASTERY – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; PURPOSE – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

We all have read the story – “I am building a Cathedral”. Bill von Achen, in his blog “I’m Building a Cathedral!”–The Role of Purpose in Motivation illustrates the importance of purpose in motivation using this story.

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

With startling clarity, this simple story illustrates that purpose has the power to transform not only our attitude about the work that we do but the quality of our work as well.

So, do the startup founders need start building cathedrals?

Well, there are lots of people who say NO.

In The Big Idea Myth, Geoff McDonald asks us, why you need a big idea. Most people talk about a big idea as something that changes the world.  Some ideas are big at their conception because they have profound implications.  And, some ideas are merely big because of their popularity. Instead, of trying to change THE world, start with an idea that simply changes your world. If it doesn’t change your world, then it’s not that significant and you probably won’t do anything with it anyway. This is the starting point.  The Myth of the Big Idea is that it has to change THE entire world.

In The Myth of Good Ideas, Jonathan Courtney, Co-Founder of AJ&Smart, a Digital Product Design agency states that being a creative genius is not the only way to have world-changing ideas.  Ideas can be generated and in huge quantities. Good ideas simply come from having lots of ideas. The famous inventor Thomas Edison said that his “real measure of success” was “the number of experiments” he could crowd into one day.  Rather than focus on coming up with the “perfect idea” or invention, he produced and produced. Failed and iterated. Failure was baked into his process.  Waiting for inspiration can be the death of a projects’ momentum. Start with quantity, then curate.

The Myth of ‘The Visionary Founder’ by  Seyi Fabode doesn’t support the belief that you need a huge world-changing vision before you can start your business.   He gives two examples to support his views. The first one is from Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter,  according to which Twitter came out of the remnants of a podcasting platform called Odeo.  Twitter was not  born from some grand vision about how they could change the world and fuel revolutions.  In another story from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, he decided to travel the world with his buddy and ended up finding his calling. Phil Knight did not even sell his own shoes for the first few years of running the Blue Ribbon Company, a company that would later become Nike. For the first 10 or so years of Nike, the company was tethering on the edge. Phil Knight was always hopeful but, this was less about a grand vision during the daily grind and more about just his force of will and cunning to keep the company alive.

According to a blog How to uncover a world-changing idea by Dinushi Dias; Sam Altman, from his work as the President of Y Combinator, has an advise for the start-up founders, “You will never uncover a world-changing idea unless you start working on something now.”

Walker & Co’s founder and CEO, Tristan Walker has another take on the world-changing Idea, from his own personal experience. In a video chat about World-Changing Idea, he explains his journey before starting to build a health and beauty products company that makes health and beauty simple for people of color.  After his stint in Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur- in- residence, he says, “I was like, man, I got to make these guys proud. I want to build the most ambitious thing that I can build. First seven months, I spent some time thinking about how I was going to fix childhood obesity in this country.  I spent some time thinking about whether or not I should build a bank. I think I spent four months working on an idea to fix freight and trucking in this country.  Only to think, shit, what do I know about freight and trucking? And I felt like if I was going to dedicate the next 20 plus years of my life to anything, I wanted to fundamentally feel like I was the best person in the world to solve that problem. Fortunately, seven months later, I figured that out. And Walker and Company was born”.

In What makes for a great entrepreneur?,     Andy Rachleff, Founder of Weslthfront, discusses a question about what separates the exceptional entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack. He explains great entrepreneurs’ greatness comes from the quality of their insights – in other words, their ability to recognize how an inflection point in technology can solve an important problem. That insight emerges from as authenticity to a particular problem. The great entrepreneurs have a deep command of the problem they are trying to solve. They achieve that deep command, in turn, by following their passions.

In an article How do you generate innovation?,  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, says the secret to innovation isn’t to have a great idea. It’s about moving quickly–and trying everything. According to Catherine Clifford,    Mark Zuckerberg’s best advice to young people during the commencement address at Harvard’s 366th commencement exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts was ‘Finding your purpose isn’t enough’.   He said, “I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam or get a million people involved in anything. But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook.”

All these views resonate with lean startup building.

Lean startup building believes, start-up is a stage in the process of turning a business idea into an established real company and a ‘start-up’ is a company that is confused about – what its product is? Who its customers are? How to make money?  We start with assumptions about everything, to begin with. More early you start to get a sense for theories against reality, the safer you are. Unlike in earlier times, today’s founders start small and make smart micro-experiments, besides customer interviews to test the assumptions.

The whole concept that a business idea has to be absolutely unique and world changing is quite irrelevant. And questions like ‘what is your competitive advantage and where will you be in 5 years?’ don’t have any meaning, because, in the early days, there is very little certainty about where a startup is going.

While we shouldn’t focus on the grand vision (or lack of) in the daily existential crises of the early days of a startup, what we need to focus on is what we as founders go ahead and put our hands to the grind towards building their businesses. Time and time again, what is clear is that one does not get anywhere without doing the very next thing in front of you as a founder.

Hopefully, some of us will get an opportunity to build a Cathedral, along the way.

Do share your stories, If you started with a business idea that was not a world-changing one and yet, it led you to an opportunity to build a Cathedral.


Why surveys are not good for customer discovery?

case study - slideshare.jpg

Customer discovery is not a research.

Some time ago (and many a times even now), when a new business idea is worked on, founders would quickly do some research, based on some primary set of information and some secondary.  Based on these initial findings, a product development would happen, and when the product is launched in the market, the founders might be in for a rude shock, to find there are no buyers for the product.   The whole efforts of making the new product go waste.


Because, there had been a huge gap between the time when some data was collected and time product is launched. There was no dialogue with prospects that continued through and contributed to the product building phase.

This is one of the core principles of lean startups.

In lean starup building, you continue a dialogue with the prospects and their ongoing feedbacks goes actively into new product building. The whole process is like small experiments, rather than getting the full product out, done rapidly, that seek active feedback from prospects by way of either discussions or an action or both.

We all know now, lean startup methodology does have a value. In this, there is a greater chance that we don’t end up putting in wasteful efforts, there is a greater chance that we will know much early what works and what doesn’t.  And, more importantly, there is a greater chance that we will build a product that customers want to buy.

Despites all this, how many of us do customer discovery in real sense?

Many founders feel organizing and conducting one-on-one interviews is  unproductive.  They feel, the whole process is time consuming and it takes focus away from product development, design and sales.

They instead settle for easy choices – “surveys” and “focussed group”.

Gathering a list of what features customers want by talking to them, surveying them, or running focus groups seem to be an easy option.  Surveys are good only when you know what questions to ask and what answers to suggest.  They’re great at validating a direction between a limited set of options (A vs. B) or at collecting factual information on a target population (age, gender, job income, etc).

Surveys have a limitation, when It comes to customer discovery.  Prospective customers are not good at expressing their needs, problems and opinions out of context. And, surveys don’t create context.  They aren’t very good for follow-through with prospects. You cant build a relationship with potential customers. In surveys, you are missing the opportunity for dialogue and relationship building. Surveys restrict you to a fixed set of questions. Interviews allow you to explore a potential customer’s answers and gain far greater insight.

Focussed group too have limitations. When you’re getting prospects give you feedback on their situation or your products, you should be talking with just one prospect at a time.  This helps you avoid “group think” and enables you to probe more deeply into the particular experiences of one client.  You cant derive actionable information from focus groups and the marginal return for every additional group interview decreases as you approach 10 groups vs. 10 participants.

Focus groups and surveys are often used to ask people what they might do in the future. In customer discovery, focus is on current preferences.

Interviews let you explore.  They help you understand a person individually and explore alternatives. With interviews, the depth of the understanding of the person and his/ her situation is more important.

Customer interviewing is the critical part of customer development process.

It will not only tell you if you’re going in the right direction, it will give you a map if you’re not.


Why is customer discovery in B2B harder?

1. Introduction

B2B customer discovery appears to be even harder and some of the reasons for this include :

  • Complex products – Typically, in B2B markets products are more complicated. Customers have higher expectations in terms of customization, integration, security, etc. from the products. In an enterprise, there are a lot of things that must be put in place just so you can be considered a valid vendor by your prospect.
  • More people to deal with – Invariably, the B2B buying process in a single enterprise involves more than one decision-makers – researchers, users, influencers, decision makers, gatekeepers. Unless you know what is important to the prospect at an enterprise level and also at the individual levels for all the relevant individuals in the buying process; there is a far lesser chance that you would be let in.
  • Personal relations – Personal relationships are more important In B2B markets. It’s crucial to learn how to build relationships. In B2B, clients will feel they have a relationship with you only when they believe that you understand their needs, their situation, their aspirations, their limitations, their goals, both at company and personal levels.
  • Decision making – B2B markets have a more complex decision making process. B2B customers have their own resources, agenda, culture and approval processes. It is critical that you demonstrates a high level of expertise in all of its interactions with the target audience.
  • Less numbers – There is a limited number of prospects for a B2B business and an even smaller number of early adopters. If you don’t establish real mutually beneficial relationships with prospects, you run the risk of losing customers and reputation. And, if you don’t satisfy their expectation, someone else will!
  • Reaching out to prospects – If you are not a part of industry that your target audience belong to;  reaching out to prospects is tough. You might need to find someone to point you to the places where your potential customers are hanging out.
  • Return of investment – B2B buyers are more “rational“ A typical B2C buyer buys what he/ she wants, not what is needed. However, an individual involved in a B2B buying process for his or her company will not risk his or her livelihood or reputation buying an unreliable product and service. This makes emotional issues such as trust and security
  • Long sales cycles – In B2B markets, sales cycles are longer. The bigger the ticket size, the longer will be the sales cycle. Founders who are not used to B2B sales cycle, just need to find ways to reduce the perception of length of your sales cycle.
  • Industry context – If you don’t know how companies do business, what matters to them in their own business, what they fear, how they perceive themselves, what their road map looks like, who their competition is, what priorities do they have, what technology platforms they use; you could face trouble.
  • Invisible problems – In B2B, problems worth solving are typically invisible from the outside. Your task will be to get inside the enterprise, understand how the company thinks and find the real problems.
  • Be in clients team – To succeed in B2B, you have to don a hat of a consultant. It is the customers who drive the process of product development and you just need to focus on their business needs. You need to be in the team of client team working on solving problem before making the product.

If you use the right techniques for B2B customer development, you can avoid common challenges faced by founders in speeding up product-market validation.

Why is customer discovery hard?


In customer discovery, you don’t need to conduct a complicated, detailed and perfect research. You don’t need to use sophisticated statistical tools. All you need to do is to collect reliable feedback and clues.

Yet, for many of us, this is one of the hardest part in a new startup building process. Why? There are several reasons for this and some of them are:

  • Many a times, we fall into love for the product we build and that makes anything else not so important any more.
  • It is very hard to resist the temptation to pitch or sell our product and in the process, we tend to forget “learning” as the core objective of customer discovery.
  • There is a hard work involved in locating prospects to be approached for customer discovery and at times it is hard to reach out to them and convince them to spare time for us.
  • We feel shy to approach an unknown prospect.
  • We don’t know what to talk and how to talk to a prospect. You may find some interview scripts on the internet, but its best not to follow any script in a customer discovery. So, you need someone to handhold you to clarify your thoughts and approaches needed for this, besides the required framework.
  • The whole process is time consuming.
  • It would take focus away from product development, design and sales.
  • Prospective customers are not good at expressing their needs, problems and opinions out of context. So, easy option such as surveys doesn’t work.   Further, surveys cant build a relationship with potential customers.
  • When you’re getting prospects give you feedback on their situation or your products, you should be talking with just one prospect at a time. Focussed group discussion, yet another easy option for market research, suffers from a tendency of ‘group think’.
  • Its hard to articulate and curate an MVP, based on our specific situation, so we may end up spending resources in an effort that is not needed.
  • Even if we manage to conduct customer discovery interviews, we don’t know how to make sense of them and draw meaningful inferences from them.

Do any of these reasons resonate with you?


6 Different ways to make use of a customer case study

8. how to use a casestudy

Most B2B companies have one or more case studies in use.  The power of the case study is simple to understand.  There can’t be anything else more persuasive than reading how a company has helped someone just like you. And helped them so much, they’ll sign up to tell the world about it.

Case studies are versatile and can be used in more than one way.  Six major ways in which you can use a case study are –

On your website

Ideally, your case studies can be accessible directly on your homepage, with some popup option based on the prospect’s interest. Or, at least you can try to place it in a way that prospect  can find it within 2 or 3 clicks.  You can feature your case studies on your homepage or any other page with higher traffic.  Case study on your website can help you capture leads by placing it behind a marketing form and including a CTA.

With a sales team

Your sales team is the front line of the company.  They can add many ways to increase sharing of case study among prospects. Your r sales team can add links to relevant case studies in their email signature.

Social media

You can  share your case study on relevant social media including  Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can also  use social ads to drive traffic to the case studies.

At conferences and events

A nicely designed printed case study document catches attention. You can hand them out at events, tradeshows or speaking engagements.


You can do a press release  of your case study , if  your clients is ok for it. You can also pitch your case study to relevant media companies, who may like to feature your client.  Media stories will also help boost your search engine ranking.

Within the client’s network

You can ask your customer to share the case study with their network. Since this is a jointly created content, the customer will be happy boost it.

How do you decide on where to use a case study? In an early stage (upto product-market fit), you want to keep overhead at a minimum and managing multiple channels creates overhead.

The guiding factors as to where to use a case study would be the stage of your business building and of course your target audience.