One of the first things I did when founding Wahanegi was create a Twelve Step Plan for Lean Startup Success. The goal of the plan was to get to ‘the right answer’ as quickly as possible by focusing on learning about customers and failing cheaply and quickly. To do that, it is also important to keep investments of all sorts low, since any investment ends up needing care and feeding. That care and feeding is worth it if you are headed in the right direction and need to scale, but it is a costly distraction if you are not.
I thought my plan was so smart with such a high-speed iteration and feedback loop that we wouldn’t need any ‘pivots,’ which is Silicon Valley speak for what to do once you realize you are going to fail if you keep executing against your original plan.
Unfortunately for Mr Erik “Faux Rocket Scientist Smartypants” Larson, things went sideways during Step Three. First the booklicants got us with bad market test data from our Facebook ads, and then I realized the first set of product ideas all sucked and it might take years to experiment our way to a design for an app that makes people happy.
Time to pivot.
Since the ‘happiness app’ route was out, I considered other choices. I wanted to build a business based on making people happy in a sustainable way with a five-year time horizon. Although I only focused on proven strategies, I still opened the aperture pretty wide:
- Write a self-help book and go on a motivational speaking tour. I’m a good writer and a good speaker, plus Wahanegi was so lean that there was not much downside to making the change. The business model is great – customers pay up front for an experience, they feel happy during the experience, and they feel energized after it in a way that encourages them to recommend it to friends. It is a little unpredictable since to be a mega-millionaire guru you need to be exceptional in skill and luck, but it is a known path with low capital requirements. Unfortunately, I also knew that these things usually don’t make very many people happier, at least not in a sustainable way. Sure, occasionally someone will change their life for the better based on what a book or a guru says, and that is great, but at my core I am a product guy, not a counselor even if I might be good at it…in the end, the self-help process is not sufficiently scalable nor predictably effective.
- Start a religion or a church. Like I said, I opened the aperture pretty wide – I don’t mean to be profane, I was just following a thread. I have no idea if I would make a good prophet, since the data set is fairly small with high variance and lots of obfuscation. The fact that I grew up on a farm and like aphorisms looks favorable, while my lack of supernatural accoutrements is a bit problematic. I come from a line of country preachers, so it is in the family so to speak. However, the deal killer for me was the process. Like good entrepreneurs, prophets, deities and preachers work hard cultivating early adopters, often starting with the poor or downtrodden and hoping to expand from there. However, holy endeavors often require infallibility on the part of the founders except when part of a pantheon, which makes pivots tricky to handle either way. So it is not surprising that founders and early adherents usually commit themselves right up front to an eternity of work, often via martyrdom, and that preachers must then carry the flame of past sacrifice and engage in a series of incremental illuminations as they keep the message fresh. A noble endeavor with a certain appeal, but my heart and mind aren’t that into it even if my soul is, I’m not well suited to work on mature products, and the timeframe didn’t make it past my five-year filter.
- Become a real scientist and invent a happiness pill. This was almost a ‘trivial reject’ for me, since my previous lame attempt at being a scientist right after college proved that I’m not cut out for that work – it looks cool on paper, but I lack sufficient patience and I am mildly de-motivated by the typical rewards of status and/or obscure expert understanding. However, I really like scientists, it does seem like a very useful thing to do, and it can clearly be very lucrative if you do it right, so I considered it briefly before rejecting it. First, like the self-help route, there is really no guarantee that your pill will make people truly happy in a sustainable way. Second, like the religion route you are probably going to start with people who are deeply in need of help and you may never expand your market to everyone else. Further, there is a lot of necessary regulation to deal with that isn’t much fun and so you need to assume you are in it for a lifetime or you are likely to be quite frustrated.
- Quit and go get a real job…
Fortunately, some sort of mystical or cognitive or emotional muse stepped in before I took that process any further, and the answer to the question of what to build and why it will work popped into my head in a series of eureka moments as described before.
It turns out the best route is to invent a game with an integral pay-to-play-faster business model, something I had purposely been resisting because it seemed trivial and faddish, and because I don’t play a lot of games, at least not since my Atari 2600 had its throne usurped by football, dirt bikes and eventually girls and other such things.
Knowing what we are building and how to make money is a good thing, even if it is a game. However, at the same time we just skipped all the way to the last three steps in the original plan, and that is not a good thing. Now Wahanegi needs a new plan.
That is this afternoon’s task. Hold on to your hats.