How we developed a winning startup idea in five weeks

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Guest post by Sheetal Dube (Co-Founder, Tetherpad). When we presented our Women 2.0 startup idea Tetherpad, a travel management solution for busy people, on the mobile Founder Labs Final Demo Night, we had no idea that it would be a crowd favorite. For five weeks, Dharini, Everett and I worked diligently on validating our problem/solution hypothesis and communicating our minimum viable product (MVP). The process was a huge learning experience.

As Everett's guest blog post on Women 2.0 Founder Labs suggested, our team went through a number of ups and downs. So when the esteemed panel of John Malloy, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Dan Levine and Tim Connors picked Tetherpad as one of their top teams for a hypothetical next meeting, it was unanticipated and felt a bit surreal when the audience also picked us as their favorite. Personally, this was a huge validation. Five weeks ago, I did not know where to begin, let alone give advice to others. Lesson Learned #1: Getting started is not rocket science.

Maybe it can be, but wasn’t for me since the Women 2.0 Founder Labs program broke it down into simple steps. Every week, we worked on one aspect of developing our idea. The sequential progression helped us follow the best practices outlined by gurus in this area. If they are not available to you, below are some key resources for you to get started:

  • Invest in buying all of the following books - Four Steps to Epiphany by Steve Blank, Lean Startup by Eric Reis and Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder. These books will provide the framework you need to validate your start-up idea and making it profitable.
  • Learn the startup lingo – Customer development, lean start up, minimum viable product (MVP), pivot, customer segments and business models. These are part of the startup world’s vocabulary. Use these terms as you develop your concepts. It will not only give you a common language within the team but also help you communicate better with advisors and investors.

Lesson Learned #2: How to validate the idea.

One thing we all agreed upon early was that none of us knew enough about the problem we were trying to solve. We agreed that we would do something in the travel space. However, it took us two weeks to narrow down on what problem we were trying to solve and for whom.

  • Identify your startup idea. Don’t be in a hurry to finalize on your idea. Take the time to do customer development and validate your problem hypothesis. Find out if the problem you are trying to solve is actually a pain point for your customers. If not, then try and find the real pain points or find another customer segment who relates to the problem. For Tetherpad, we started out talking to casual travelers before we moved on to executive assistants and travel agents who got extremely excited about the problem we were trying to solve. It was only then that we decided we had an idea worth pursuing.
  • Discuss your idea with experts. Find people who have built startups before and are willing to help you. We were fortunate that Women 2.0 handpicked some of the finest mentors for us. They gave us advice based on what worked for them. Hiten Shah highlighted the importance of building something quickly and getting it in front of customers instead of perfecting the idea and delaying the customer feedback process, Jenny Fielding gave us insights on how to think of revenue/ pricing models for Tetherpad and Carol Realini’s feedback made us aware that we had work to do before our idea could turn into a business.
  • Learn about your competitors and read Techcrunch. Keep a lookout for new startups and closely follow developments with your potential competitors. The industry you’re looking at may be moving very fast, and it is likely that your idea has been fully or partially explored by someone else. Every time we came across a potential competitor, we took the time to list how we were different in terms of our value proposition and/or customer segments. This helped us get better at defining our MVP and preparing for Q&A sessions with our mentors and panelists.

Lesson Learned #3: How to build and iterate.

Once we felt confident of our problem hypothesis, we started sketching and developing concepts. Following Eric Ries’s Lean Startup methodology, we defined our MVP. While we were not able to build our MVP in the five weeks, we found ways to communicate our idea using interactive prototypes and partially built functionality.

  • Define your minimum viable product (MVP) - Identify features that are critical for your product to exist by actively discussing your concepts/solution with potential customers (and experts) to define your MVP. While providing the ability to create an itinerary was imperative for Tetherpad, feedback from customers revealed that integrating it with other travel applications was also vital. Not having that could result in a huge barrier to trials. Customer feedback also revealed additional features that could add value to the product and help us differentiate it from competitors. However, we chose to table them for later and keep the MVP focused on the most critical features.
  • Find the best way to communicate your MVP – Consider using interactive prototypes and other skills available within the team to demonstrate your idea. This is especially true for programs like Women 2.0 where developing a fully functionally prototype is challenging due to the time and resource constraints.Lesson Learned #4: From idea to business.

    During our presentation in week 4, Carol Realini asked us if Tetherpad was a cute app or a business. Her perception raised a huge red flag and pushed us to think beyond our primary customer segment and explore more attractive revenues streams and customer segments. It helped us expand the vision for Tetherpad.

    • Thoroughly research your market size and opportunity. How many people have the pain point you are trying to solve? What price would they be willing to pay? What are the other products in this category? What is their revenue model? Who are the key decision makers? Get answers to all these basic questions.
  • Think big – Challenge yourself to turn your idea into a business. When we did this exercise we learned that having some potential customers in sight with the possibility of multiple revenue models was sufficient to get started. It was not necessary to nail down details like the pricing model at this stage.Lesson Learned #5: Give it your best.

    On final demo day, we Skyped with Jay Jamison. His valuable feedback led to a number of new ideas on how we would communicate our MVP. We got down to business: I ended up adding additional scenarios to the prototype, Dharini got down to tightening the presentation and Everett rehearsed new slides.

    • Seek trusted advice until the very end. While it is important to keep your blinders on when you are bombarded with feedback, look out for details that could make your idea pop.

    As I wrote down this article, I realized that Dharini, Everett and I naturally came together as a team. We listened to each other’s gut feelings, worked around everyone’s schedules and filled in each other’s roles as needed. My hypothesis is that this happened because of two things: first, all of us had more than a decade of experience working within our domains, along with diverse teams and second, we had similar taste in cereal bars. The latter was realized thanks to the generous snacks at Blue Run Ventures.

    While having a winning idea is not the end, it makes for a good beginning. If you have any comments, please write them in the comment box below or drop me a line at sheetal.dube@gmail.com.

    If you are in the Portland area on May 26th and would like to hear more about my experience, please stop by at Webvisions where I will be talking about Making Ideas Happen.

    About the guest blogger: Sheetal Dube is a senior user experience consultant at Evantage Consulting. She has over 14 years of experience in designing consumer centric products and applications for a number of organizations - Fortune 500 to start ups. She loves to travel, enjoys doing travel research, is an organization freak and hence, is excited about Tetherpad. In her spare time she enjoys jotting down ideas for building products and services that can help people live a better life. Sheetal also gives talks on user experience in healthcare. She holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Design from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.