When last week started, I had a pretty good idea where my company was headed. My co-founder and I were confident that we could find an appropriate tablet device, develop a basic prototype, and begin testing by April. We had done several days of market research, a few days of programming, and a couple days of messaging. We strongly believed we were on the right track.
But, by the end of the week, we had scrapped our 3 month plan, gone back to basic brainstorming, and were even willing to entertain a completely different domain for our company. What happened in between was a perfect lesson in startup strategy, teamwork, and knowing when to change direction- a lesson that couldn’t have come at a better time.
It started with CES. My co-founder has habitually attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas each year. This time, he had a very specific purpose: find the best tablet device on which to build our prototype. What he found: nothing useful. Not only was there such an overabundance of tablets cluttering the market, but each device was also mired in its own manufacturing, usability, and technical barriers.
After 24 hours at CES, my co-founder joked that we should just scrap all this “learn smarter” nonsense and enter the smartphone accessories market (currently at $36 billion and projected to grow to over $100 billion by 2017). But after a few good laughs and a couple shared pics of iPhone cases that would best be described as “kitten bling,” we returned to our original inquiry. Was there a device that we could build our prototype on that wasn’t going to lead us straight into several pitfalls down the road?
It seemed that there wasn’t. Whatever device we considered, there was a huge potential downside. With iPads, we’d be forced to conform to Apple’s standards which, nice as they are, were never designed to be altered for specific purposes. With Android-focused tablet manufacturers we’d have more flexibility, but we’d be constantly worried about the hardware not keeping up with the software. With Windows 8 devices we’d have constraints and an unknown development landscape.
We had hit a wall of worries. Every move seemed like a bad one, every choice a wrong one. In chess, they call this zugzwang. In entrepreneurship, they call this Tuesday… or Monday or Thursday or Saturday. Take your pick.
We were in the classic business builder’s bind: we were stymied by our concerns. So we went all the way back to the drawing board. We threw out our assumptions, our plan, our business model, and our dreams… for exactly thirty minutes. In Agile development they call this “time-boxing,” or in other words, putting a box of time around any single line of thinking. Like a phone call that you budget ten minutes for, only you adhere to your set time without fail. If you run out of things to think and say, you sit there. If you are in the middle of a sentence when the timer goes off (yes, we set a timer), then you stop talking.
As it turns out, every once in a while your business may be doing just fine, and it might simply be you that needs a reset. For us that was certainly the case. We had become disenchanted with the landscape we were working in and we needed the freedom to think inside the time box, where our business didn’t exist anymore. Were we still committed to our mission and our vision? Absolutely! Did we need a small window of time to let ourselves off the hook for changing the world? Yes, that too.
If you listen to other entrepreneurs, you hear them talk about 100% unending, unsleeping, undying commitment to their business. They’ve even come up with a word for giving up on one business and starting another one that makes it sound like they never wavered. You may have heard it, it’s called a “pivot.” Great word, totally meaningless, and like my fellow Technori blogger Robbie says, probably here to stay. But false confidence aside, entrepreneurs waver all the time. It’s what you do in those quiet moments, when you allow yourself to falter, that defines how well you return to work (or don’t) when your moments of doubt pass.
I whole-heartedly recommend giving yourself a thirty minute window to explore other options. Ours worked perfectly. In thirty minutes, we outlined a handful of alternative businesses we could build, at least three other markets we could serve, and a completely ridiculous app we could create in 48 hours just for fun. Then we got back to work. We had a renewed sense of enthusiasm, having given ourselves the freedom to wander. For in that freedom, we found an even stronger resolve to return to our initially well conceived plan. We also had a clear path around our mounting concerns with the tablet marketplace: ignore it for this prototype. In the three months it will take us to produce our prototype, devices will change, hardware will shift and we will have more information. Does that mean our conception for the prototype must change? Yes. But it also means we don’t need to change our market, our business model, our game plan, or anything else right now.
In the end, the lesson I learned was not to get sucked into either boast of entrepreneurship. My commitment is neither unwavering, nor do I have to build a business off a 1,000 pivots. I can hold true to my vision and my goals, as long as I give myself the flexibility to discard them for a small amount of time every once in a while. After all, barriers are everywhere in building a business. Most of them are either momentary or imagined. So before you use them as a motivation to change what you’re doing or go in a different direction, give yourself a box of time in which you truly have the freedom to NOT go forward. Or in other words, close your eyes and dream about something else. When you open them again, you might just find that your path cleared up all on its own.
* Adam’s column, Mission Control, is about launching a startup and tracking its rise. From overcoming setbacks to ultimately (fingers crossed) fulfilling his mission, Adam Lupu offers his inner thoughts and outer workings while building a company. Read more of Adam’s “Mission Control” column here. *