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Book Club

In the @TBInnovates start-up tech accelerator workshops, we discuss product discovery and validation in some form almost every week. As part of those discussions, I often refer to several helpful books that reinforce these topics.

While I don’t expect those in the program to read all of them cover to cover, it is important to highlight some essential ideas that we drill down on in each cohort. If you are in a similar situation, starting your own tech start-up, you will likely need to explore these same concepts to understand and build your business.

To help you get started, here are some simple summaries and key ideas that capture the essence of the books I discuss.

Key Ideas: 

Crossing the Chasm – get to know the (early adopter) users who will support the first iteration of your product / company.

This is heralded by many as the bible for tech start-ups that are attempting to go from idea to product to sustainable market growth; I do not disagree. I have been a loyal follower of Geoffery Moore since volume 1 of this book and, over the years, have gifted copies to dozens of colleagues who were new to the journey. Far too many start-ups look beyond the early adopters focused instead on the promise of rock-star popularity and big revenue forecasts. Take the time to understand and embrace the early-adopters early in your product and go-to-market strategy or be prepared to start over from scratch.

The Innovator’s Dilemma – customers hire your product to do a job, focus on delivering that impact / value.

Christensen’s assertion that people hire products to do a job can be a hard lesson for tech start-up founders. The notion that it is about something deeper than the technology or unique functionality can be a real hit to the ego, but if you develop empathy for your users and what they are trying to achieve, you will unlock a whole new dialog with your market.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany – an essential perspective on early-stage start-ups that focuses on the customer and not the product. By changing the discussion to focus on discovery and validation, founders can avoid the pitfalls of becoming too enamored with technology and “hot” markets.

No list would be complete without the wisdom of Steve Blank. The Four Steps breaks down the entrepreneurial journey and takes a deeper dive that Crossing the Chasm by identifying the milestones that founders need to consider when planning and testing a new product.

Inside the Tornado – build a complete product experience. Pay attention to every detail from purchase to the installation, ongoing satisfaction, and the HPRC referral.

A sequel to Moore’s Crossing the Chasm with many of the same insights plus the additional challenge that your offering needs more than the core functionality of the product, companies need to deliver based on the customer’s full spectrum of buying and usage behavior.

All Marketers are Liars – customers convince themselves they “need” your product. You can’t force or educate this behavior.

A quick read that helps non-marketers understand the core elements of marketing and helps seasoned marketers understand that it’s not about them.

Slicing the Pie – everyone (including founders and advisors) should earn their slice of equity over time based on contributions. 

Add a bit of sanity and guidance to the inevitable arguments about who deserves what share of your new start-up. I see this play out in everywhere from Startup Weekends to 1 on 1’s with accelerator companies. Arguing about equity before anything has been built or sold seems silly, but it is also the opportunity to set the ground rules for contributions and the culture of accountability in your start-up.

Never Split the Difference – uncover true intentions / motivations by asking “no” questions. Hearing “yes” is meaningless without the following commitment to take action.

The essentials of user / market research depend on honest answers to sometimes vague questions. Every user interview should be approached as a hostage negotiation with the goal of getting the other side to reveal what they truly want as the outcome.

Start with Why – users have problems that drive their attention and behavior, understand this in great detail, and build empathy for their journey into your business.

Sinek’s book elevated the “Why” discussion into the mainstream of the business discussions. The world of product management has been living by this motto for a long time, but often it fell on deaf ears or, at best, got lip service. In the start-up world, building a why-driven culture helps prevent distractions based on bright shiny objects and the smoke and mirrors of tech for the sake of tech.

The eMyth – work on what matters. Are you trying to perfect your pizza recipe or get customers in the door to enjoy (& pay for) the pizza?

A lot of business coaches love to recommend this book as their #1 pick, not me. While it has a good underlying message, it drones on about a lot of repetitive advice that could have been reduced to a pamphlet.

Zero to One – understand what is truly unique vs. just an iteration on an idea. Stop using the word disruptive to describe every me-too product that spins out of a Startup Weekend or hack-a-thon.

The last cohort of the @TBInnovates accelerator program was conducted entirely virtual, and I have had several people ask is that was as effective as face-to-face workshops. From my perspective, online was as effective or better than an in-person program. Eliminating the weekly commute to a central location, handing out printed materials, providing driving and parking instructions for guest speakers that always seem to run late or get lost, accommodating those folks that also needed to virtual school their kids (including me), not having to manage the catering for lunch every day, etc.

I attribute a small part of this success to having a good office e setup (pictures to follow) and spending a little extra to create a comfortable work environment for the 6+ hour-long workshops, a good webcam to deliver the best visual impact and great audio for those that had to listen to me for hours and hours of discussion. If you and your team are in a similar situation, I urge you to invest in comfort and quality on both sides of your endless Zoom or Teams meetings. Below is a list of add-ons that made this situation work for me.