This week, Everett Harper guest blogs from Founder Labs – “When your idea has no game”.
Our team of foodie travelers share a common problem – travel and review sites generally stink at making recommendations with our tastes in mind. We’ve been hungry in London without vegetarian options, driven around wine country trying to avoid tour bus parties, and sought a decent playground for two cranky kids. So, we figured there was a travel product we could design with these travelers in mind. In the first few weeks of Founder Labs we proposed: Custom itineraries! Crowdsourced targeted recommendations! Photo album collaboration!
The Worst Pivot is the one between your Ears.
The typical reaction from guest mentors was: “I’m… confused.” Resisting the urge to reexplain and speak louder – like the proverbial first time tourist – we asked a lot of questions and kept scratching our heads. Do we need another feature? Is the addressable market big enough? How can we monetize? We kept pivoting in our heads, asking the wrong people (us) the wrong question.

Nice, this is a hypothesis we can test in real life. So we went to Barnes and Noble travel sections, armed with paper mockups, to find our target customer in the wild.

The Trough of Despair and the Flatline look exactly the same when you’re in it – Just keep moving.
Once we got past the “are you in a cult?” looks, and after getting kicked out of one Barnes and Noble, we were able to conduct a few interviews. Assembling custom itineraries based on real needs was interesting, but there was no acute pain point that inspired a desperate and greedy desire for our product. Ugh.

At this point, it’s week 4. We had 2 *meh* presentations, no tangible evidence of a customer need, and 10 days left. Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator talked about the trough of despair, but while you’re in it, you can’t tell the difference between a trough and a long, flat, bleak horizon.

The prospect of embarrassing ourselves in front of a lot of important people is motivating, to say the least. So, we started thinking, “Who plans travel often enough that they encounter this problem all the time?” Answer” Executive Assistants. Business travel exceeds leisure travel, is a must-have, and generally is a pain to schedule. If EAs experience this problem also – and they’re experts – then maybe we can figure out something to help them. And, we could quickly reach out through our network to find them.

The Best Pivot is The One that Uses your Ears.
We conducted 12 hours of in-depth interviews with EAs to find out how they organized travel, where they described adding value, and what was important to them. We listened for patterns, gave interviewees opportunities to disconfirm our hypotheses, and out of that *pain points* emerged. Based on those interviews, we quickly modeled a product that addressed pain points *in context* using their language, and their workflow. When I heard gasps of “Wow, it’s all in one place!” from EA interviewees, I knew we had captured something with emotional resonance: “Hey, you *see* me, and you take me seriously”. Our next preso to our colleagues was simple and clear, and now their feedback turned to how to make this a business, not *what are you talking about?*

So, that’s this week’s challenge. We have to hustle, and we’re still at the very early stages. But I’ve seen how fast we can crush or accelerate an idea through the same customer development process.

Emerging Knowledge: The Difference between a Pivot and a ZigZag.
We have been warned by many entrepreneurs to avoid the zig zag – taking the well-meaning but often contradictory feedback from advisors and investors and developing an entirely new business plan. But I’m grateful for the advice of our mentors and colleagues who didn’t say, “The real business is ….”, they said “Test it. As fast as possible.” We spent less time in our heads, and more time with our ears.

About the guest blogger: Everett Harper is a marketing leader with customer development focus and entrepreneur’s passion. He has led product and marketing teams across web, social networks, virtual worlds and mobile companies. Everett co-founded Macerate Ventures to create social & location-based mobile products for the wine industry in 2009. Macerate developed the iPhone app Bottlenotes Mobile in September 2010. Before Macerate, Everett led customer acquisition and community at Linden Lab, creator of Second Life. Before that he led product marketing at e-learning innovator Ninth House Network and developed business strategy for Fortune 500 companies at Bain & Co. Everett has degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, an MBA and M.Ed from Stanford University. While at Duke, he started for Duke’s National Championship soccer team, the school’s first any sport. Everett lives in Oakland, CA.

*** Update *** Everett Harper’s team won both judges’ and audience choice at the final presentation night at Founder Labs. TetherPad co-founder Sheetal Dube blogs about it here: How We Developed A Winning Startup Idea in Five Weeks.