Jen Costillo on Being Disruptive

5061046603_c8ba3d58af_m.jpg

Here is a blog post from one of the teams at Women 2.0 Labs this fall 2010 in San Francisco. Jen Costillo's Story

It was a day my team was dreading: Thursday presentations.

Every week over 5 weeks, each Women 2.0 Labs team presents the development of their idea and gets a chance to be properly torn down by the guest lecturer. The feedback is a once-in-a-lifetime chance but it can be a brutal wakeup call for teams who are deeply drinking the kool-aid all week.

This week was particularly special because it was our first longer presentation and more importantly, it featured guest speaker Steve Blank whose book we had been reading since day 0.

Leading up to Thursday, my team had done a lot of customer discovery work on our Walk This Way mobile guidebook application. The truth was, out of 260+ survey responses and 4 personal interviews with guides and travelers, we could not hone in on a true pain that someone was willing to pay for. The market was all over the place. Even worse, the closest pain point we could find led us to believe we would just make a real-time ad-hoc meetup service which we called PosseUp. By Wednesday night at Hacker Dojo, my team was not excited about the business.

We wanted to be as inspired by our product as much as our currently undiscovered customers would be. We decided to take a step back and do what a bunch of gamers wanted to do: turn traveling around the city into a mini-game playground. Excited and renewed about the possibilities we quickly made our presentation about yet another pivot. We were back into the mobile space but did not know how our multi-pivot week would be received.

As two members of my team, myself and a few other W2Labs members took Caltrain up to the Thursday session, we discussed what we thought Steve might say about creating businesses and the concepts we were all working on. We listed some questions. Given the previous weekend's Twitter discussion about rapid prototyping with software people, I was mostly wondering about how to follow his outlined methodology if you are from a hardware or other long-event horizon industry (medical, pharmaceutical, semiconductor, etc...) without spending a lot of money. The answers I received from both HW and SW professionals on both sides quoted Blank's book. I needed to know the truth directly from him.

After we arrived and the session started, Shaherose provided Steve with a wide array of leading questions. Steve blasted us with tons of information that built upon the book rather than regurgitating it. He commanded the audience as if they were a university class; we remained attentive. Steve gave us the background on his methodology. He noted that engineers in particular are often too sure:

  1. They know what the customer's problem is.
  2. The problem will be solved once they quickly build their original product.

These two behaviors are often what sink most businesses.

"You can't compute a startup. Don't be a slave to the process [in the book] but use it to avoid the top two problems."

However, he was quick to point out that we should use the artistic side of our own brains to know when to follow the method and when to do something else for the business. He then explained further that we as entrepreneurs today are both at a great advantage and disadvantage in terms of information overload. We need to spend more time filtering out not just information, but advice because we simply can't do everything that comes our way regardless of how valuable it is.

In the Valley, the word startup does not imply a small or a lifestyle business. The stakes should be reasonably high - enough so that you cannot just hire your sister to help out. You need top-notch people to create the type of scale investors and the Valley expect.

Another topic he covered was what it means to be in a startup and how it is different here in Silicon Valley. The expectation is that the business will scale by doing more than simply exist. Instead it will take over new industries.

Steve Blank's words reminded me of The Innovator’s Dilemma concept of disruptive technology. During the presentations, as expected, everyone received plenty of feedback.

Our humorous explanation of the last week's events seems to make everyone sympathetic. We were constantly reminded that things won’t simply go the way you want them and if this was easy, everyone would do it.

During the break, I asked about the hardware versus software dilemma that plagued me last weekend. Given that most of the Women 2.0 Lab program assumes a lean startup process for a web product, how does his method change for hardware businesses? His answer was that it only changes in the length of the iterative process and that hardware businesses still have to do a proof-of-concept phase while customer discovery is happening. It is just a matter of utilizing your hardware for as long as possible to contain costs early on. I shed a sigh of relief that I did not misunderstand my own industry. I thanked him for his time and got my book autographed.

Now if anyone ever tries convincing me that Steve Blank would expect a week turnaround on a hardware product or that his book is the bible, I have a signed book and a quote that says, "No, that's simply unrealistic".