(And what non-startups should learn)
At a typical startup weekend, entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and teams assemble around the idea, with a goal of building a startup in 56 hours. At London's Fashioned themed December weekend 12 ideas were selected by the teams (their elevator pitches can be seen here).
After an exhausting weekend, teams pitched to the judges, of which I was one. All Judges have their biases; some really focused on the idea and its scalability, others on technical feasibility. Despite all our proclivity, our top picks had one thing in common; an ability to execute on an idea. This came from three characteristics:
Big ideas with a single focus: There are always too many ideas. All teams were able to brainstorm loads of ways a company could work. Product strategy is about making hard decisions, and moving forward as new information, from customer and market feedback, comes to light. The winners were able to select a single feature and deliver it. FashionBrief's aim was to build a project management tool for fashion events - a product with a lot of scope. Instead of talking about a potentially crippling product roadmap they reduced it to solving a single problem - automating the creation of call sheets (a roster for each participant in an event). In their pitch they were able to demonstrate the feature, and communicate its usefulness to the market.
Delivering a single feature early, and testing it against the market is more powerful than a full product roadmap.
Very little revenue analysis: A tiny working product is much more powerful than beautiful, extensive market analysis. Getting a small product in the market and testing it gives more accurate feedback than any revenue analysis you could perform. MBA-style strategic planning was in a few pitches, but this is generally bad innovation strategy. The good teams consciously acted on their markets rather than evangelise on numbers, talk about mission statements, and converted initiatives into revenue - because they knew that they would be wrong. As well as the obviously more visceral pitch, getting a product out shows the team can make tough decisions, take risks, and were ready to act on their decisions. In business, strategic planning has its place, but more often than not, it is reduced to an exercise of affordability and risk mitigation - as managers (and boards who should keep this in check!) fail to take risks that innovation requires.
Spending too much time in estimating revenues just means you've sunk more cost in numbers that will ultimately be wrong. In this sense, strategic planning has little to do with innovation or strategy.
A focus on usability means a focus on customers: Everyone talks about user experience (UX) and its importance. In this post-iPhone era, its easy to mistake good UX with pretty design. But they are very different. Teams with a good user experience didn't make the prettiest interfaces nor made the simplest. Instead they knew how customers were going to interact with a product and solved for the users needs. Winner Swappi aimed to make swapping clothes fun by not only having simple interfaces but by recognising the problems users would encounter in the transaction - like swaps being one-sided. Or recognising the problem of not liking what someone is offering, could be solved with a three-way swap.
Usability is about recognising, researching and solving the needs of users. It has little to do with a slick interface or pretty graphics.
With these characteristics, the winning teams (FashionBrief and Swappi) not only showed that they could define a startup - they were able to self-organise, with potentially differing ideas, leave their egos behind them, and stand in front of industry experts (like myself... cough) and explain what they've achieved with clarity.
Photo courtesy of Aram Ostadian-Binai