“Disrupt or be disrupted.” This proclamation by venture capitalist Josh Linker has become a mantra in the startup world over the last decade. We’ve typically judged whether a startup is going to be successful and the potential scale of its success by this question: “Will your startup disrupt the status quo?” It turns out that we’ve been asking the wrong question.
In an HBR article, former CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman, explained the mindset saying, “[Innovators] get a kick out of screwing up the status quo. They can’t bear it. So they spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to change the world. And as they brainstorm, they like to ask: ‘If we did this, what would happen?’”
Unfortunately, screwing up the status quo and brainstorming different things to try is exactly the recipe that leads entrepreneurs to try one idea after another in the market. Along the way it’s easy to catch the product disease Pivotitis as they repeatedly pivot to find the holy grail of product-market fit.
We often point to the examples of unicorns as proof that this approach works. For example, Slack started out as a gaming company, and when that didn’t work, it jumped into team chat. Twitter started as Odeo, a podcasting company, and pivoted to a platform for sharing status updates when it was clear that its days as a podcasting company were numbered.
But for every founder that hits the jackpot through a pivot, there’s a graveyard of companies that have run out of money pivoting from one idea to the next. Pointing to these jackpots to justify an iteration-led approach of trying one thing after another is analogous to advocating for a strategy of playing the slot machines for long enough to hit the jackpot. You’re more likely to run out of money than to hit the jackpot.
As a startup (even a well-funded one), you have 2-3 pivots before you run out of money and momentum. Instead of squandering these pivots in a game of chance, you need to think of your pivots as silver bullets that you use when you need them the most.
To minimize unnecessary pivots, instead of thinking “If we did this, what would happen,” you have to work deliberately to solve a well-defined problem that you’re inspired to solve. Instead of asking “Is your startup disrupting the status quo?” you have to ask a fundamentally different question: “Why is the status quo unacceptable?”
Finding the Answer
While many have previously professed the importance of why, I’ve found that it’s difficult to arrive at a meaningful answer to this question. Whether you’re the founder of a social enterprise, a high-tech startup, or a freelancer, here are three tips you can use to develop an irrefutable answer to this key question:
1. Answer this question from your users’ perspective
While you may think that the status quo is unacceptable, your users may not. Take the example of the Segway — it was launched with fanfare in 2001 on ABC’s Good Morning America as a better alternative for walking to work. It turned out that the majority of people in the US don’t walk to work — there were few who felt like their urban walking commute was unacceptable. Segway tried to disrupt the status quo, but most users didn’t see the need for it.
The Segway example shows that your wanting to disrupt the status quo may not offer enough justification for your startup to exist in the long term. Your product’s reason for being has to be grounded in why your users find the status quo unacceptable. Otherwise, you risk building a solution in search of a problem.
2. Identify whose problem you’re setting out to solve
Not everyone will consider the status quo unacceptable – it’s also not necessary. So instead of identifying a problem that you’re solving for all consumers or all businesses, define a specific group whose problem you’re solving. For example, in writing my book, Radical Product Thinking, I applied these same principles to answer the Why for the book. I could have defined my audience as all business book readers but the reality is that not everyone will see the need for radically rethinking how we build products and companies.
I identified my audience as professionals who have experienced product diseases that get in the way of building successful companies and products, and who, as a result, see the need for a repeatable model for building successful products. It’s tempting to want to define a large audience but the reality is that if your startup tries to serve everyone, it ends up serving no one.
3. Repeatedly ask “So what?”
To answer the question of why the status quo is unacceptable, you have to be open to the possibility that perhaps the status quo is, in fact, very acceptable. For example, a company where we were building a product for the ad-sales market, we believed that the status quo was unacceptable because it took a lot of time for a sales rep to quote a price for an ad campaign. But despite a product that saved users a lot of time, the sales cycle seemed inexplicably slow.
It turned out that we hadn’t asked “So what?”, i.e. so what if it took reps a long time to provide a quote? The answer in this case was nothing… absolutely nothing. Advertisers who approached the sales rep at these large advertisers were already planning to spend money on these campaigns. It really didn’t matter that it took the sales reps a few days to provide quotes with pricing. The answer to your so-what informs how important it is to your users that you solve the problem, i.e. whether your solution is a nice to have or a dire need.
Instead of creating a startup to simply disrupt the status quo, take some time to talk to your team about the irrefutable why for your startup. In crafting a meaningful answer to why the status quo is unacceptable, you’re working towards a profound shift in your team’s mindset. You’ll move from a model where it’s tempting to tinker with the status quo to see “if we do this, what will happen?” to a mindset where you’re driven by a clear purpose as you work towards changing the world through your startup.
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