From a Fly on the Wall of the Lightning Lab
Being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest jobs in the world. We all know the statistics that are often bandied about on how many startups fail – while no one ever wants to believe it could be them, the environment for startups is undoubtedly harsh and unforgiving.
The Lightning Lab aims to short-circuit the long and painful process by providing a safe space for entrepreneurs to try, fail, try again, succeed, and learn about themselves and their company in the process.
We’re 5 weeks into the programme and all of our teams have seen, fallen into and skirted around a lot of pitfalls along the way. As a constant observer of the happenings around the lab, I’ve gained insight into what these are and how to avoid them – so read on to find out the key learnings from the lab so far!
1. Entrepreneurial biases
We all fall in love with our ideas. It’s a natural phenomenon: we invest our time and money in an idea because we think it will be successful, and we are reluctant to admit anything otherwise. While faith in an idea is good, it becomes problematic when confirmation bias kicks in, especially in areas such as customer validation.
So what is this dangerous confirmation bias? It’s when we have a preconceived idea of what customers want and how our product is a perfect solution, and we search for and interpret data to fit with these beliefs. It’s one of the most significant hurdles our teams have had to battle through – confronting the feeling of weakness that comes when your assumptions don’t match the data is a terrifying prospect.
The key strategy to avoid this mistake is to be comfortable ‘killing your baby’, as the phrase goes. The Captain of Moonshots at X (previously Google X), Astro Teller, says this is the secret to the success of his innovative organisation. Instead of avoiding the risky areas because of fear of failure, he encourages his employees to fail first and fail fast, so that they can adapt their idea to be better.
This ties in nicely with the next common mistake:
2. Not fully validating the market
It seems logical that if we provide something that solves a problem, everyone with that problem will automatically want to buy it. When people ask questions like, ‘how do you know?’, I hear time and time again, ‘because it just makes sense’. However, the assumptions we rely on are the biggest threat to the success of a company. Things that seem intuitive, such as, ‘everyone wants to pay for convenience’ may not apply to those who, for example, are not tech savvy, or are set in their ways.
In fact, we’ve seen a number of pivots in the Lightning Lab which resulted from conversations with customers. Companies realised they were solving the wrong problem, or not solving it in a way that customers want to buy into.
The good news is that there’s an easy way to avoid this: go out and talk to customers! Have conversations, probe deeply into what their problems are and what motivates them. When you have a prototype of your concept, get out and test it. Engage, engage, engage, with competitors, mentors, potential investors, customers… startups absolutely cannot operate in a bubble. Heath Sadlier, one of the Lightning Lab mentors and an expert on UX/UI design, directed us to some excellent tips on rapid testing to gain customer insight.
3. Not asking for and accepting help
We all like to think we know what we’re doing. No one wants to be told that their strategy isn’t working – that pesky ego gets in the way, as asking for help can be seen as a sign of failure. Yet one of the most well-worn pieces of advice from entrepreneurs is to leverage the skills of those around you by asking other people for help. Afraid that they’ll turn you down? Steve Jobs assures us,
‘I’ve never found anybody who didn’t want to help me if I’ve asked them for help’.
Swallow your pride, and realise that every single person you meet knows more about something than you do – just think how much there is to learn!
A fantastic byproduct is that you get many more people invested in your journey. Someone who has given up their time to help you out wants to see you succeed!
4. Confused pitches
When you pour your days and weeks into creating a company and know everything about it and your industry, it can be very hard to distill that down into a 30 second pitch to give to someone who knows nothing. 30 seconds drags out, and by the end the listener sometimes still isn’t sure what your product does! Pitches are so, so important, as we are learning at the Lightning Lab. The whole programme culminates in Demo Day, where teams deliver a 7 minute pitch to hundreds of investors – that pitch can make or break your company.
So, to get to a point where you’re pitch perfect and crystal clear, you need two tools. Firstly, confidence in yourself. Practice and memorise your pitch until it comes out naturally, and use self-talk about the value you’re offering investors to boost your self-assurance.
Secondly, follow a proven structure. A great one to use is the 7 step story telling formula – check it out here.
5. Not working as a team
No one can succeed alone. Having a strong, tight-knit team makes such a difference: if you’re away sick, others can keep everything moving forward; if you need advice or other skill sets, you have them on-hand; when it’s Friday evening and you’re working late in the office, you have people around you to crack a joke and get you smiling again. Teams are no easy feat to assemble – it has taken some of our companies weeks and weeks to find the right people for the job.
If you don’t have the right team, it’s ok to let them go and look for those who will help you reach maximum effectiveness. The most important criteria are that they are equally as passionate and invested in the company as you are, that you trust them completely, and that (as uncomfortable as it seems) they know things you don’t. As the saying goes, ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room’.
6. Not looking after yourself!
When we find ourselves in situations of stress, our health usually drops to the lowest level of priority. We skip lunch because we think our time is more productively spent working, or stay up late, because who needs sleep? We place immense pressure on ourselves without giving our body a chance to recover. Here’s the thing: as an entrepreneur, you can’t afford to let the pace or the level of intensity fall – you have to find a way to keep yourself healthy while maintaining a high-pressure, high-performance lifestyle.
There’s an endless list of techniques you can use. Some of the most effective ones were introduced to us by Cameron Gallagher, the performance psychologist for entrepreneurs:
- Create rituals in your life that allow you to get into that state of flow, where you’re 500% more productive.
- These rituals should apply to each of the four elements of your health: Physical (your body), Emotional (your feelings that don’t follow logic), Mental (learning and engaging your brain) and Spiritual (your higher purpose). Some examples are yoga, visualisation, power breathing, and taking time to talk with friends and family.
- Regular exercise and meditation are non-negotiable!
So there we have it – 6 common mistakes based on the combined experience of 32 hard-working, innovative and resilient entrepreneurs in the Lightning Lab. Hopefully you gleaned a few tips from this – as always, let us know if you have anything to add through our:
Twitter: @Lightninglab #LLAKL
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