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The One Question Every Founder Should Ask and 3 Ways to Find the Answer

Disrupt or be disrupted.” This proclamation by venture capitalist Josh Linker has become a mantra in the startup world over the last decade. Weve 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 weve 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 cant 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 its 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 didnt 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, theres 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. Youre 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 youre 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, Ive found that its difficult to arrive at a meaningful answer to this question. Whether youre 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 usersperspective

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 ABCs Good Morning America as a better alternative for walking to work. It turned out that the majority of people in the US dont 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 didnt 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 products 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 youre setting out to solve

Not everyone will consider the status quo unacceptable – its also not necessary. So instead of identifying a problem that youre solving for all consumers or all businesses, define a specific group whose problem youre 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. Its 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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.

 

Conclusion

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, youre working towards a profound shift in your teams mindset. Youll move from a model where its tempting to tinker with the status quo to see if we do this, what will happen?” to a mindset where youre driven by a clear purpose as you work towards changing the world through your startup.

Radhika Dutt on LinkedinRadhika Dutt on Twitter
Radhika Dutt
Contributor: Radhika Dutt is the author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. An entrepreneur and product leader, she has participated in four acquisitions, two of which were companies that she founded. She has built products in industries including broadcasting, media, advertising technology, government, consumer, robotics, and wine. Dutt advises organizations from high-tech startups to government agencies on building radical products that create a fundamental change instead of optimizing the status quo. She also teaches entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Dutt cofounded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change and is a frequent speaker at business events and conferences around the world. She graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and speaks nine languages, currently learning her tenth

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Contributor: Radhika Dutt is the author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. An entrepreneur and product leader, she has participated in four acquisitions, two of which were companies that she founded. She has built products in industries including broadcasting, media, advertising technology, government, consumer, robotics, and wine. Dutt advises organizations from high-tech startups to government agencies on building radical products that create a fundamental change instead of optimizing the status quo. She also teaches entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Dutt cofounded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change and is a frequent speaker at business events and conferences around the world. She graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and speaks nine languages, currently learning her tenth

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