This is a hard lesson learned in the land of early startups and new products, but there are good reasons that it’s both a hard lesson and one that founders keep having to learn for themselves.
Entrepreneurs are typically driven by a vision, one that they hold dear, perhaps for many years, of how they can and will solve a pain that they’ve experienced and that they believe a lot of others experience - and will pay to fix.
That vision is powerful. It wakes the entrepreneur up every morning. It inspires those first people willing to have coffee with you to bounce your idea off of. They validate it, making the vision that much more powerful. It excites friends and family who feel your passion and may even be willing to invest in it. They believe, which adds more fuel. It draws those first people who want to join your team and help build your vision. They want in.
That vision is fundamental. It’s foundational.
So, it’s hard to accept when in the face of business reality the vision loses its potency and immediacy. The vision is still important and deeply rooted, but it becomes increasingly marginal in the face of here-and-now questions about adoption, what you’ve learned from the market, and how you have used or will use investment to turn the early product into a viable business. In other words, unless and until people are using your product (people who aren’t your coffee-going friends or family) and you are building and iterating based on that feedback, your vision is in a state of diminishing value to your business.
I’ve stumped even seasoned founders - after hearing their thoughtful and thorough business strategies, clear visions for the necessary features and functionalities of their products, and go-to-market plans showing how users will be downloading their app by the thousands - with a simple question (scaled to the business/conversation):
Who are your first 10 (or 20 or 100) users?
Followed by: why will they use it and why will they keep using it? And then, why will they tell someone about it?
It seems obvious after I ask the question that you can’t get to 1000 users, much less 100,000, if you can’t get, and keep, your first 10. If you’re doing it right, the product will evolve rapidly as those numbers grow, so it’s ok to think about a small but as-representative-as-you-know first set of users who you want and need to learn from to prove your value. In fact, you must.
One critical part of securing those early users is articulating the value you are going to deliver and then delivering it. It’s not necessarily about the magnitude of value for an early adopter. It’s about trust and belief that you and your product can deliver what you say you are going to deliver.
Unfortunately, founders often fall into a self-created chasm between their vision and what they have had the time and investment to deliver successfully as a working product to date.
Imagine a circle on a white board - let’s say 4 feet in diameter. This is the founder’s vision. Now, imagine a circle inside that circle that is say 6 inches in diameter. If you promise the big circle and deliver the small one, you’ve lost. It’s a major disappointment to the people who thought they were getting the big circle. You’ve not just over-promised and under-delivered; you’ve breached some level of trust. You’ve created even more doubters.
Alternately, if you promise the little circle and deliver it, you win - even if it’s with a smaller user base and only delivering on a fraction of your vision. They may not yet be blown away, but they are that much closer to lining up behind your vision.
In either scenario, you’ve delivered the exact same (small circle) value with dramatically different outcomes for your business.
It’s important to understand that this value scoping is not compromising your vision. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s building the product and the users and the business that are required to achieve the vision, which always takes longer and requires more money than you think.