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10 common startup mistakes: #8 what I think = the facts

July 2, 2018 by Lee Erickson
The eighth installment of a 10 post series on common startup mistakes. Mistake 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Assumptions can kill your startup.

All entrepreneurs start with a bunch of assumptions. But the successful ones look for signs about where they are right and where they are wrong.

A key tenet of the Lean Startup philosophy is validated learning – a.k.a testing your assumptions. By testing and validating assumptions, tossing out ones that are inaccurate and focusing on ones that are true, you are able to reduce uncertainty and improve decision making.


  It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

~ Mark Twain


Watch out for the phrase “I think.”

Whenever you hear yourself, or anyone working on your startup say, “I think….” or “I’m pretty sure that…”, it’s a sign that you need to validate an assumption. You want to be able to “know” what your customer wants and you can only do that by engaging with them.

Having the mindset that your job is to find out where you are wrong (versus proving that you are right) means you will quickly identify barriers to success and then can proactively figure out how to overcome them.

How do I validate/invalidate my assumptions?

  1. IDENTIFY THE ASSUMPTIONS YOU ARE MAKING
    Make a list of all the assumption you are making that, if you are wrong, will mean you don’t have a viable business. All startups struggle with, “Will anyone buy this.” That’s too generic. Instead make a list of the assumptions about the job people are trying to get done, their motivations, their needs, and challenges in your specific context. What pains do they have; what gains are they looking for?
  2. RACK AND STACK YOUR LIST
    List your assumptions from most critical for survival to less critical. You want to start by validating (or invalidating) the assumptions that will “tank” you if your wrong.
  3. FOCUS ON REAL DATA
    Validated learning is demonstrable. Data trumps opinion. Think scientific method. It goes like this:

    • specify an assumption (or hypothesis) that you have – I believe that [customer x] has [this problem] when trying to do [this job].
    • specify a way you will test that assumption (e.g., interviews, smoke screen, landing page, etc.), and what you want to learn
    • specify the metric that demonstrate that the assumptions is valid (This assumption is true if [x] number of people out of [x] exhibit [this behavior].)
    • analyze your findings and create concrete actions based on what you have learned (e.g., what steps will be taken)
  4. DOCUMENT
    While running your tests, be sure to document what you learn. What are the new insights you have created? These insights should be integrated into everything you do, from describing your customer (personas), to creating an MVP (features), to messaging (marketing), and sales (pitching).

Resources to check out:

There are a ton of tools, best practices, and processes that entrepreneurs can leverage to systematically test their assumptions. Of course, no one set of tools will guarantee success, but here are some to check out:

COMING UP: MISTAKE #9…I need money = pitch to VCs

* Main photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

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