We talk a lot about the practicalities of building a product and building a startup. We talk about what it means to be a founder as a skill set. And as we see products and teams grow, we talk about the changes that come when you switch from leading a small team to a scaling team.
But we talk very little about the work a founder does as they rediscover their identity during the journey of building a product. This is about a new bias that we’ve encountered a lot, especially in first-time startup founders.
It goes like this: many founders who start this journey feel that the product they’re building is tightly linked to their own personal identity. And that such a thing is both natural and expected. But it’s not. In fact, the only identity constant here is about becoming comfortable with various degrees of uncertainty, which is the name of the game when you’re building startups.
The direct implication of this credo is that, for these founders, it is very hard to build and iterate on a product that takes into account other people’s needs when you put an equal sign between the product and your identity. In other words, this bias makes them a lot less open to the proper lean startup process of validating before building and pivoting as a way to find product-market fit.
Change is the only constant for a founder
As a rule of thumb, startups are small organisations that eat uncertainty at breakfast, lunch and dinner and are in a constant search for predictability and certainty. Typically, the first few years of a startup’s life are a game of survival. It’s in the nature of the work for all product founders because they’ve decided to innovate.
What does that look like? Well, if you’re a founder, you envision a future where the product you build will make life easier, better for a specific audience. When you start out it’s all very exciting. But innovation also makes it hard to plan ahead for the long term.
What’s constant is (in)validation and having an experimental mindset. That is what helps most founders navigate the new insights they discover, adapt to changes, and plan a path ahead.
Your background dictates how you deal with change
Founders are optimistic by nature – they see a problem and they believe they have the right set of skills to bring the right people together and build something to get it fixed.
Here’s the thing: there isn’t a way to test if you’re made to be a founder, or if your product concept is good enough to make it in the long run. You can do early validation work to de-risk your product. But the real test to make it as a founder is getting started and seeing what happens. If you’re like most of the founders we work with, you rely on your own professional background to build your skillset.
Your background shapes how you:
- Discover a problem in the first place
- How you research it
- How you relate to it
- How you define problems and how you try to fix them
- How you think other people relate to problems (and how you relate to that!)
Theoretical knowledge and previous experience can only do so much when you’re in a new context. You might have started out feeling excited about your product concept, but the work still needs to get done day by day.
No matter your skillset, the market research still needs to get done, users need to get interviewed, strategies need to be defined, wireframes and code need to be signed off. Frustrations need to be aired, goals need to be aligned, dailies need to be held. The MVP needs to get launched and then iterated upon.
And every other day, the plan will re-align, and you’ll learn something new.
You navigate uncertainty with openness and hard-boiled facts
You need a certain level of curiosity to follow the evidence and see where it leads you. In the early days of defining your product concept, you might realise that what you perceive as a problem is:
- Not a problem at all
- Not a big enough problem for enough people to make a business out of it.
What you thought to be a business opportunity might show itself as an inconvenience to most people.
As you invest more into your product and it becomes an entire operation, you need to become aware of one bias that might colour how you perceive the data you gather.
Founders, meet ‘escalation of commitment’
Escalation of commitment is the thing founders and their teams do when they’ve invested for a long time in their product and start getting negative outcomes. They continue investing time, knowledge and energy in the product, to align with previous decisions and actions, despite persistently getting bad outcomes. It’s not a behaviour you only see in business.
Why people have this kind of behaviour is explained in various ways, depending on the type of behavioural scientist doing the research.
It might be because:
- It’s a way to navigate and counteract negative feedback (“If I fix this part of the product, I’ll show them!”)
- It’s a belief that more investment will counter failure (“It will get better after a funding round.”)
- It’s a belief you the negative outcomes can be attributed to external or internal factors (“We haven’t reached product-market fit, let’s try this type of audience next.”)
- It’s the fear of figuring out who you are if you stop being the founder of your product.
Economists have a related term called “sunk cost fallacy”. They encourage us to make rational decisions based on present alternatives and prospective costs because you can’t recover sunk costs. Emotionally, you’re probably still thinking about those bills and hours of work put into the product. And if you also chain your identity to those investments, you have a deadly weapon here.
Here’s one way to think around it and keep your eyes on the future. You started building a product because you wanted to help a specific audience get a job done.
Look at the evidence through this lens: is the product delivering value? If not, can you fix it?
How you respond to change is what makes you a better founder
It makes you a better founder to realise when your product needs to change. And it makes you a braver founder to have the humility to make that change. Sometimes that means pivoting the product towards a new market or a new value proposition. Sometimes it means making the harder decision of cutting your losses and moving on to a new concept.
Product building is uncertain through its very nature. Every iteration is an experiment. And experiments with bad results don’t invalidate you as a person, nor do they take away the insights and skills you’ve learned so far. Surround yourself with the tools and the people who help you make the best decisions, and you’ll have the skill set at hand to navigate uncertainty.
At Tapptitude, we’ve made it our mission to help gifted founders de-risk their product investments, both by helping them de-bias their approach to building a product and then apply a ‘build-small and validate’ approach to their startup adventure.