Early stage founders must have a sharp focus. When there is everything to do, including finding a set of customers who care about your offering, there is no time to even consider shiny new apps and services. For people who love ideas, this is a hard pill to swallow.
You Only Get 1 Idea
Many early stage founders shift from idea to idea as they try to find something that resonates with a meaningful customer set and is addressable by the founder(s). This can be called “exploring,” and although it is really fun, it primarily results in churn. You are not building expertise or relationships within a particular space. At best, you are learning some interesting general principals about marketing or technology. I can speak from experience, as I have built prototypes for professional networking (Dyor.com, Skypresso.com), real-time social networking (RallyWire.com), social mapping (BigMapper.com), a patent marketplace, a location brokerage, and a host of others.
I am still actively working on Dyor.com (go check it out), but for each of the other sites I got to a point where I lacked confidence that I was on the right path. Simultaneously, I would have some other great idea that would be growing in my brain that was more intriguing. So, I would abandon my initial effort, and pick up a new one.
Each time that I shifted from one idea to the next, I lost (almost) everything that I had built previously. I lost the understanding of the competitive space. I lost the marketing material that I had generated. I lost the deeper understanding of the domain-specific technical challenges and opportunities. Perhaps worst of all, I lost the initial customer set.
1 Idea Can Have 100 Business Model Variants
If you look ahead, and see that the path you are on does not lead you to where you want to be, do not wholesale shift ideas. Instead, try fundamentally shifting the business model. A great way to shift business models is to answer the question “who has the biggest (in terms of money) problem that could directly or indirectly be addressed if I continue working this idea.”
Applying this concept to the professional networking space, I originally expected that individuals would pay to have a “professional networking coach and virtual assistant” – somebody to help them build a plan, to find top-flight contacts to help them achieve big business goals, and handle some of the administrative work that building a professional network entails.
My original interactions with prospective customers, however, has led me to believe that people will NOT pay for such a service. Most people believe: 1) that it is very important for OTHER people to invest more time and money into building their professional network; and 2) that such a service will not work for them (either because they already have a system that works well enough, or because they do not have time to invest in their professional network). What I have come to understand is that helping people with professional networking is a lot like helping people eat their vegetable, and you cannot build a business telling people to do something that they know they should do but don’t.
So this is where I started looking at other business models. Perhaps I have focused on the wrong customer. Who could I approach as a customer that could help (or make) another group of people improve their professional networking. Who is already actively coaching professional networkers? There are actually a number of different opportunities here:
- Companies: companies should be able to hold their key employees accountable for strategic corporate professional networking in support of core business objectives.
- Universities: graduating students need to be intentionally building their professional networks to ensure that they get a job with a great company, and placement services could offer professional network services.
- VCs/Incubators: potfolio companies need to connect with prospective customers, distribution partners, key advisors, key prospective hires, etc, on an ongoing basis, and providing them a tool to create and manage professional networking plans will make this activity measurable.
- Professional Communities: professional communities could help their members achieve big business goals by offering a professional networking service as part of their membership.
Each of these customer segments would have a different set of expectations of a professional networking service offering, but it is still the same idea: helping people achieve big business goals. Instead of shifting ideas, I am evaluating different business models. Please share your feedback on these other business models related to professional networking below.
We will see if this approach (1 Idea, 100 Business Models) sticks, or if tomorrow I will be super-focused on building a startup incubator .