Lean Startup guru Steve Blank famously has said that A Startup on day one is a faith-based initiative built on the Founder’s vision. Then the founder goes out into the world and interacts with real customers to validate, shape and refine that vision into a reality. And the process of doing so is what he has named Customer Development.
I like that he uses the word vision and not idea, because they are truly two different things.
Yet historically, a great many tech founders have been subject-matter-experts with great ideas who want to build things to change the world. So they focus on their expertise and spend a lot of time building and perfecting the product. Then they go out and try to convince the world to adopt their thing. It’s a risk that often fails when the world and that thing are not really aligned and acquiring customers becomes a costly unprofitable process. The reverse is what is needed. Tech founders need to go out into the world and let it change them.
When we think of the word vision, rather than idea, we think of something much larger. Like a diamond, rather than a zirconium. Where an idea is often flat or two dimensional, a vision is multi-faceted. A vision is complete – not in the terms of meaning it is finished – but in terms of meaning that it is whole. In in the Customer Development methodology recommends using the Business Model Canvas to articulate this initial vision. Which covers many aspects of the business, not just features and benefits.
But what is Vision and how do you cultivate it.
It’s one of those soft skills that people assume are personal characteristics or innate talents. We know it when we see it in someone. We often call someone a visionary in retrospect when their vision is successfully realized. It’s a soft skill that needs to be supported by other soft skills to come to fruition such as: being able to articulate the vision to others, being able to inspire others to follow the vision, as well as having the courage and determination to develop the vision into something substantive.
I believe we cultivate an ability to envision from a number of things – our experiences, our intuition (our gut), our creativity, and our interactions with other people. Most importantly it is cultivating openness – an ability to suspend what we know now, to look beyond our own boundaries and limitations.
I find sometimes soft skills, such as Vision, can be best explained through the simple definitions of the word. That is after all where they have their roots. So to me Vision is first and foremost the ability to see. Vision is seeing things from all angles and covers all aspects of a thing. So it’s not just the idea, it’s additionally things like the context of how the idea will used, and what’s needed to create it, and how important it will be to people. It’s difficult sometimes for people who “know” things, to stop and look outside themselves and first “observe” things.
Secondly, Vision is an interpretation of what you see. What gives Vision its capital V is imagination. It’s what people have who can buy a house off the plans and not be disappointed after it’s been built. Or looking at a child and being able to imagine all its potential realized as an adult. It’s the ability to conger up in one’s mind’s eye an image of that thing without concrete physical reference.
Thirdly, I do believe Vision does need to be articulated. A visionary person is able to communicate what is imaged; to put into words or drawings what they are thinking. They are able to paint the picture to the listener, so that the listener too can also see what is imagined.
So it’s a good place for the Customer Development process to start. It’s the start of the conversation.