Turning An Idea Into A Viable Product: The Founder’s Journey

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What marks a great entrepreneur is not necessarily the idea, but how well the idea is executed. By Jennie Lees (Product Manager, Google)

The spark of inspiration strikes at the strangest times. Whether it’s a flash of insight in the shower, or a puzzle piece clicking into place, we all know the wonderful moment that marks the birth of a new idea.

However, taking that idea and trying to make it actually happen can be a frustrating rather than a rewarding process — it can feel like you are trying to navigate without a map, compass or any idea where you are going! It becomes easier to jump to another idea, and think about that for a while, than to execute... an unfortunate habit that many of us (myself included) are prone to developing.

What marks a great entrepreneur is not necessarily the idea, but how well the idea is executed. Recognising my own struggles getting an idea off the ground, and from working with other entrepreneurs in programs like Founder Labs and at Startup Weekends, I’ve codified the early stages of this process into a map of sorts. But because this is a journey, not a prescription, I call it the product story.

You may be familiar with the narrative structure known as the “Hero’s Journey”. Many stories, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, can be broken down into this recognisable pattern, a fact which never ceases to delight the engineer in me. Funnily enough, product development is no different! Let’s take a look...

  • Call to Adventure: You receive the call to adventure. An idea strikes! You’re pulled from your ordinary world (the 9-5 rat race) and inspired to follow this strange new path.
  • Refusal: The doubts and fears creep in. Perhaps it’s safer to stick with what is known? Perhaps you’re not going to be good enough? Perhaps the idea sucks after all?
  • Meeting a Mentor: Fortunately, you run into someone with experience who actually likes your idea. Your doubts fade, and you follow the guidance of this mentor to pursue your dream, crossing the threshold into the mindset and world of execution. This could be marked by a commitment such as quitting your job, or signing up for a program like Founder Labs.
  • Road of Trials: This is where the fun stuff happens. You might not meet mysterious old crones or engage in lightsaber battles, but you will test your idea, encounter rejection, iterate on your design, and battle your own personal demons of self-confidence and motivation. You may be tempted to stray from the path, but as you persevere, your major challenges will become clear. There’s one in particular that affects all products universally...
  • The Big Challenge: Finding your first customer is the major hurdle that everyone must conquer. You may find there are plenty of others depending on your particular idea, but without focusing on finding people who resonate with your idea and actually want to use your product, you are actually focusing on side quests rather than the main challenge. Often this moment is very hard-fought, after many versions of your idea which were met without enthusiasm—embrace the learning process, and celebrate in this victory!
  • The Return: Bringing this knowledge through to its conclusion, creating the product and finding more users, is a journey in itself. You’ll need mentors and guides along the way, and may reject the road ahead as its sheer length and complexity become clearer and clearer. But you’ll persevere, and return to the 9-5 world... as CEO!

Want to learn more? I’m teaching an online class on Skillshare, “Making It Buildable: Turning an App Idea into a Viable Product”, starting November 5 for two weeks. I introduce this structure and focus especially on the Road of Trials and the Big Challenge.

It’s a hybrid course, meaning it’s primarily conducted online but encourages you to form a study group with other local participants — the feedback you’ll get from this is invaluable, and I encourage you to sign up with a group if you can.

Women 2.0 members save 50% with the discount code "WOMEN2", and five (5) lucky students can sign up free with the code "FASTFAST"!

Women 2.0 readers: What hurdles have you faced going from idea to viable product? Let us know in the comments.

About the guest blogger: Jennie Lees is a product manager at Google, where she focuses on mobile platform development, having formerly founded a natural language processing startup in the UK. She is a frequent sight at Bay Area hackathons and startup events hacking, learning and putting these ideas into practice. She also pulls from her experience in creative writing, improv and gaming to make product development fun. Follow her on Twitter at @jennielees.