Build better ideas by instructing “Don’t build”

Sep 19 2014

We spent time this week preparing a brief presentation about the results of our Knight-Prototype-Fund-supported project, Capitol Hound.

We launched Capitol Hound in May 2014, and I smile when thinking about what we told the team that cooked up the original idea in the summer of 2013: “We DO NOT want you to try to launch your product.”

It sounds counterintuitive. Even the students struggle with the directive. They are accustomed to turning in final projects, papers or stories.

In contrast, our “final” project is a pitch followed by Q&A from a large audience including executives from the media, venture capitalists, startup co-founders and even state legislators. This pitch forces the students to prove the value their idea would bring to a specific set of customers. But after the pitch, the students can walk away. Their work is done, if they choose.

Which brings us to the second directive about building: “Build the absolute least amount necessary to prove demand.” This should sound familiar to anyone who buys into the Lean Startup methodology.

We help students come up with the simplest ways to test the value for their customers. Initially, it’s just talking with their proposed customers. But we do not ask “What do you want?”

As the probably apocryphal Henry Ford quote goes, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

So students present their initial idea and get an initial response. Then they start asking deeper questions. “Why do you (or not) like this idea?” “Why would you use (or not) this product or service?” “Why do you ____ now?” “If I gave you a magic wand, and you could change one thing about ____, what would it be?”

It’s not about building something you think would be cool. It’s about discovering what to build that would add value to someone else’s life. Then you start the iterative process of building little by little to prove value every step of the way.

When students start building, they don’t build the actual product. They’re build tests of the idea for their customers. They use things Google forms, Doodle polls, construction paper, physical bulletin boards, even PowerPoint presentations that simulate a programmed interface. It’s not user-experience testing. It’s user-value testing that helps students determine whether customers find value in their ideas.

In the Lab, we call this part of the research phase our pillar of desirability. If students can develop an idea that has value to their customer, financial viability gets a little less daunting. Conversely, if they can’t prove desirability for a customer, proving financial viability is next to impossible.

There is some value to the concept of “just build it.” Many innovators just built things that eventually went on to huge success.

But a funny thing happens when you focus on desirability of a product with a paying customer. In the Lab, we’ve had several projects that have begun to move forward because there was a hint of market demand. Capitol Hound is one of those projects.

By initially telling students we don’t want them to launch their product, we actually give them a better chance to launch. They focus on who they could provide value for rather than how they could build something that someone might want.


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