Why your startup may not be as great as everyone says
Gil Ben-Artzy is a founding partner at UpWest Labs.
One of the very first things we ask Israeli entrepreneurs who are hoping to break into the U.S. market is to tell us how their product or service is being received by their target market. What is the feedback? Are potential customers hungry for what the team is selling?
Validation, both of the broader vision and the early product itself, has to be a key focus for any aspiring entrepreneur. Testing your product and getting specific feedback is the only way to know if the company is on the right track or wasting its time chasing down the wrong path. However, even for seasoned founders who understand how vital market validation is to the success of their company, it can be all too easy to get distracted chasing the wrong kind of validation.
Not all validation is created equal. It is crucial that founders differentiate between meaningful validation and vanity “wins” that do little more than make you feel good. Fake validation is everywhere. Here are some common traps founders need to beware of.
Not all customers are born equal
Founders need to be careful about soliciting customers that are either too small or too big for their entry point into the market, or not even in the actual market segment they are targeting. If your early customers are different from those you eventually hope to acquire, then the things they ask for and feedback they provide will skew your short-term goals and put your business on the wrong path.
The best companies and founders are the ones that aren’t afraid to go out and get real, tangible feedback from potential customers.
This is especially common when targeting companies outside the U.S., where startups build long lists of customers in their home market that may or may not have the same set of needs as U.S.-based customers. But by the time these startups are “ready” to expand beyond their home country, they have a hard time selling investors and foreign customers on a product that has only been validated by unfamiliar brands in a small domestic market. Many times, these early customers do not have exposure to competing products in the larger U.S. market, or they have a different set of problems they are aiming to solve altogether, which sends misleading signals to the startup.
Securing customers is obviously crucial to any startup’s success, and can be helpful in shaping how a startup markets itself in the early days. Yet founders must be able to properly contextualize the pedigree of those customers, and always keep the long-term vision front and center. The product isn’t truly validated until you have the right type of customers validating your product.
Large corporations are constantly looking for the next cutting-edge technology that will propel their next phase of growth. This is why countries like Israel, with its deep talent pool in AI, IoT, cybersecurity, etc., have become hotbeds for corporate innovation labs.
At first glance, this is a great thing for Israeli entrepreneurs because it gives them exposure and access to the biggest companies in the world. But proximity and feedback from these groups isn’t everything. Many of these innovation labs accept local startups into their program, which can obviously be exciting for those founders, especially at the early stage. The corporate will then aim to work on a pilot program with the startup to test their product, which could be beneficial for the startup. However, gaining just this one customer doesn’t always guarantee future success, nor does it truly validate the product.
Getting a pilot with a larger corporate can be a great opportunity, but diligent founders must also continue to pursue other pilots. First, pilot programs do not always translate to becoming real customers and founders need to avoid placing all their eggs in one basket. Second, the feedback founders receive from just one large customer may not be representative of the entire customer segment. Simply being in the innovation hub is often not enough by itself to signal long-term success.
All your startup friends say your product is cool
This one may seem obvious, but it remains just as pervasive as ever. It’s easy for first-time founders to drink their own Kool-Aid and get overly hung up on any positive feedback that’s heaped upon them or their product. An overwhelming number of new startups are created in heavily concentrated markets like Silicon Valley, which can make it difficult to find unbiased feedback outside the echo chamber.
It’s not only nice to be told your product is awesome, but it can become downright addicting.
This is especially true for startups that are just beginning to validate their product offering, or a specific piece of their technology. Afraid of approaching someone who “won’t get it,” we see founders chasing the feedback they want to hear, often from peer entrepreneurs, who will be excited by a piece of technology but obviously won’t be the ones who end up buying and using it as real customers.
By self-soliciting feedback from the wrong people, founders make the mistake of focusing on the wrong aspects of the product instead of taking it directly to potential customers in the market who will specifically tell you what they do and don’t like.
You just raised $10 million. That has to mean something, right?
Even raising a sizable round from VCs can be a form of fake momentum. Much has been written on the topic, but it’s easier than ever for some entrepreneurs in specific domains to raise significant capital these days. There are more seed funds out there than ever before. Valuations and deal sizes at the seed and Series A stages continue to climb. What this truly means is that bets on the success or failure of a startup are being made earlier in the life cycle of the company.
Just because a VC chooses to invest in a company does not mean that startup has reached the promised land. VCs are not your customers, and while capital they provide is a critical means to further the development of the business, it does not replace getting real validation from and selling to the target market.
Founders often misunderstand or overestimate the tangible impact that awards and PR recognition will have on their businesses. We see this all the time when entrepreneurs come bragging about some competition they won, or a top 10 list they were included in. Don’t get me wrong, awards are nice to have and they can help with attracting talent and hiring into your startup. However, founders need to realize that the value is capped, does not serve as real validation and is typically meaningless to investors and potential customers alike in their evaluation of the startup.
There are several potential traps on the journey to validation, and it can be easy to fall victim if entrepreneurs take their eyes off the prize. It’s not only nice to be told your product is awesome, but it can become downright addicting. The best companies and founders are the ones that aren’t afraid to go out to market and get real, tangible feedback from potential customers. If you’re not doing that, you’re simply making yourself more susceptible to fake validation that can derail your vision.ᐧ