Thoughts On Problem Validation Meetup Last Night

Thank you to everyone who attended the meetup last night. I enjoyed the interaction very much.

Here's a copy of the deck that I walked us through. 

I have a few observations from the session that I'd like to share.

  • I think we had about 20 people in attendance. 3 were practicing entrepreneurs and 17 were newbies. This seems to be the normal mix for a meetup like this.
  • The vast majority of attendees (85%) are interested in starting a business, but they haven't yet.
  • Of the members who spoke up, the primary reason for wanting to start a business was lack of fulfillment with their current employment. Within this is an unmet need to be passionate about what we do for a living.
  • This begs the question for me, why are you waiting to get started?

1. Startups are not going to come to you. You have to muster your energy to create one. You are the driving force that changes the world, not the other way around.

In general, I think there are two work environments: institutions and startups. Institutions are schools, established companies, government agencies, etc. What they have in common are a) a defined business model, i.e., way of operating and making money and b) standard operating procedures and c) hierarchical organizational structure.

Startups have none of these things. Stop and think about that for a second. Startups have none of these things.

Institutions are like fully formed human beings. Startups are like embryos. Better still, startups are primordial goo. They contain the fundamental building blocks of life, but they are not recognizable as life in their current form. You can't look at a blob of goo and determine what it is going to be when it grows up. That's precisely why early stage investing is so difficult. It's impossible to predict what is going to happen.

When you create a startup, you have infinite degrees of freedom. You can solve any one of an infinite number of problems, for an infinite number of people in an infinite number of ways. That's a lot of freedom.

If you take someone who is used to being told what to do, how to do it, and had their compensation linked to how well they comply with the instructions, then you have someone who has been institutionalized. 

Genuine entrepreneurs don't do well in institutions. For some reason, they refuse to be institutionalized.

Institutions are designed to control people. Entrepreneurship liberates them.

Sometimes I think entrepreneurship is a mutation. Think about it. In my example, I was subjected to 18 years of schooling and 4 years working in large, established institutions. Every day, I was told what to do, how to do it, and how I would be evaluated on how well I complied with these instructions. After having this hammered into my brain everyday, somehow I resisted it completely. My performance reviews were all the same - brilliant guy, great ideas, impossible to manage. To which I would simply say, "Thank you."

To this day, I have zero respect for authority. I don't like anyone to tell me what to do. Perhaps this resistance is my super power. Perhaps it is a mutation. Whatever it is, I've observed it's a quality I share with all genuine entrepreneurs.

When you take someone who has been institutionalized, and you dump this person into the open ocean of infinite degrees of freedom, it's unsettling as hell.

I remember feeling a little out of sorts when I created my first startup. I loved it, but I was feeling disappointed that my experience and education didn't make me more prepared for the challenges I was facing. I thought I could write a pretty good book called, "What I Didn't Learn About Startups At Harvard Business School." This book would have to be a series as it would contain at least 10 volumes of content. I took the one entrepreneurial class Harvard offered at the time. Evidently, it wasn't enough.

And that's my first point - No institution, no matter how lauded, will prepare you for entrepreneurship. The only way to learn how to do it, is to do it.

My second point is when you make the transition from an institution to a startup, you have to realize that you are no longer the recipient of change, you are the driver of change. If you aren't focusing all of your energy on changing the world every day, it will never happen.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to realize that your job is now to change the world.

No one is going to give you instructions or tell you what to do. You have to figure it out for yourself. No one is going to evaluate your performance based on those instructions. The evaluation for your performance is a self-evaluation. Satisfaction and happiness are intrinsic. They come from within. How you are doing is exactly equal to how you think you are doing. It's really that simple. 

Sure, if you have investors they will evaluate how you are doing. But it's really simple for the investor. "I gave you X and you returned Y." If X>Y, the investor is ok. If X<Y, then you're just one of 9 out of 10 deals that didn't work out. If X>30 * Y, the investor is ecstatic and will be your investor for life. The truth is, most investors don't give a damn how you made them money. It's simply enough that you did. They may have opinions, but it's your job to define it, execute on it and deliver results. Period. How you do it is entirely up to you!

Which brings me to my third and final point to the mindset change that you need to go through. 

You can't be passive any more. That simply won't cut it. You must be proactive. Embrace this fully. 

If you are sitting around wondering what makes the world go around, you've already lost. You need to wake up and realize it is YOU that makes the world go around. If you don't, nothing good will happen.

You must realize that you can and you will make it happen. First with vision and imagination, then with force of will and focused execution, and then by learning what is working, what is not, and making the right pivots. Rinse, and repeat.

I realize this is a dramatic shift in mindset. As you leave the comfort of a well-defined institution and decide to swim across the ocean on your own, you must make this shift in thinking and in how you see the world around you.

The process is difficult but it's simple. Forget everything you know. You're starting a new life from scratch. Embrace this fact and allow yourself to be reborn.

2. Startups are satisfying work.

Malcolm Gladwell has a great definition of satisfying work in Outliers

"For work to be satisfying, it must have three things: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward. Those three things are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” Startups have these three things in abundance!

There are no guarantees in startups save one: if you commit yourself to the venture, your work will be satisfying.

It doesn't mean your particular venture will be successful. Odds are it will not. It doesn't mean you will become rich. Odds are you will not. It doesn't mean your life will be easy. For sure, it will not. 

It does mean, you will have satisfying work, work that provides autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward. And here's a bonus benefit. If you commit yourself to your startup, you will be transformed by the process. If this feels right, you will be on your way to becoming the person you were meant to be.


3. Startups are not for everyone. In fact, they are not a fit for 98% of us.

Like I said, entrepreneurship is a mutation. I estimate only 2% of the population are genuine entrepreneurs. While I think I can detect good entrepreneurial DNA, I'm sure I'm wrong all the time.

The best way to determine if you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur is to create a startup and commit yourself to it. I promise you that you will learn if you are an entrepreneur or not. If you do it, there won't be any doubt. 

If you are an entrepreneur, then you may have found your calling.

If you are not an entrepreneur, then now you know for sure, and you can proceed accordingly.

Either way, you win!


4. Don't live a life of regret.

It's been said the only regrets in life are things you don't do. I think this is true. 

I've had my share of startup successes and failures. Even my worst, most painful failures, I don't regret doing them. The lessons I learned in failure are some of the best lessons I've learned in life. The lessons, and pain associated with them, have transformed me into who I am now. I wouldn't change a thing.

I know that I am now prepared to handle anything. When you've come back from the brink as many times as I have, you get a feeling of confidence that you can always do it. The truth is, I can always come back from failure, not matter how bad the failure is. There's always a new day, a new play to make, a new idea, a new way, a new problem to solve, a new product to build, new customers to serve, a new channel to develop and a new flavor of anything and everything. It's never-ending.

Entrepreneurship opens up an eternal font of opportunities that are so abundant no one could never pursue them all in a thousand lifetimes.

You can't see them now because you haven't been working your entrepreneurial muscles. Once you start, you will see opportunities everywhere.

Don't live a life of regret.

When you are lying on your death bed, what are you going to say? Don't be one of those people who say, "I had a really good business idea. It would have been great! I wish I would have done it."

By then, it will be too late.

A life filled with regret is a life wasted.


5. Sometimes the hardest thing is taking the first step.

As I finished our session on Problem Validation, a thought occurred to me.

"These guys are all Newbies. They don't know where to start." 

I talked about the FounderSensei Basic Training Program, features, benefits and costs. For most of you, I'm wondering if this is too much of a commitment. 12 weeks is a long time. I'm going to hold you accountable, and maybe that scares you.

To that end, I have a new idea:

First Step Workshop - The best way to get started on your business idea.

This workshop will include hands on guidance in defining your key business model hypotheses, problem template, and the easiest, simplest, first baby step to turn your idea into a business. I'm envisioning a Saturday session, 4 hours, with a handful of Newbies as we work through your business ideas together. The cost will be $199 per person, food and refreshments included.

Does that solution resonate with you?

If it does, send me an email at If enough people do, I'll make it happen as  way to help you get started.

If you are reading this and you are not in Chicago, don't worry. We'll make the session virtual and you can participate via video conference.