Are you building a product nobody wants?

One of the most common mistakes when starting up is to focus on the solution instead of the problem. I’ll tell why but first allow me to tell you two quick stories. One about paintings and one about buffalos.

Paintings, happiness and the intricacies of human mind

Chosing a painting

This story is an actual study on what makes people happy. You can find the full TED talk here: The surprising science of happiness, by Dan Gilbert.   

In a room, the study participants are presented with 6 paintings and they are asked to order them from the most liked to the least liked. They order the paintings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. After the experiment, they are offered as a present one of paintings 3 or 4. A rather difficult choice, because none was strongly preferred over the other, but most subjects still chose painting #3. The experimenters told the subjects they would mail the print.

Two days or two weeks later, in the second part of the experiment, the subjects are presented with the same 6 paintings and asked to rate them again… and the resulting order is 1, 3, 2, 5, 4, 6.

The painting that was rated 3 jumped to the second position in the top, and the painting that was rated 4, jumped to the 5th. “The one I chose was really better than I thought; the one I didn’t get, sucks”

In other words, people “fell in love” with their choices. And before you say anything, there’s more to the story. And this is rather spectacular.

The researchers decided to repeat the test, just be sure… but this time they did it with people with chronic amnesia, as in they forget everything within 30 min. You walk in you have a talk with them, you walk out of the room, come back in and they have no clue who you are. So, what were the results you might ask. Oh yeah, you guessed it: same results. People that have no recollection of what happened 5 min ago, did the same thing. Chose 3 and then 3 became 2. Amazing isn’t it? Of course it is, but what’s the key learning here?

Well, for me it’s clear that the process of falling in love with our decisions (solutions) happens at a subliminal level, and even if we think we are super objective, our subconscious plays tricks on us.

So now imagine if even people that suffer of amnesia prefer the paintings they choose prior, if there’s a connection at that level, imaging how strong and subtle that must be. So if you come up with a solution before knowing the problem, then according to this study chances are that as time goes by, your solution will go from 3 to 2 and from 2  to 1. You will end up building your solution just because you made an unconscious decision… without having all the puzzle pieces. Without understanding what people want.

And this leads me to the second story, with another important learning point at the end…

Buffalos, problems and banging at the wrong door


The second story is about bufallos. Well, on the surface at least… It goes something like this:

At one point Hornaday realized that the buffalos that were roaming the great America plains were almost extinct, so he did what every respectable conservationist would have done: he went to Montana to kill several dozens of them.

Yeah, that’s right. You see, William Temple Hornaday was one of the greatest pioneers in the early wildlife conservation movement in the United States. He was head taxidermist at the Smithsonian museum and he traveled the globe hunting exotic animals and stuffing those animals for the museum. It’s sounds weird, but for Hornaday killing all these animals was a kind of conservation. He believed that by stuffing them he was preserving endangered species for future generations that might not know them. Through taxidermy he could make the immortal…

After he hunted down and stuffed around 24 buffalos he arranged them in the natural museum around a fake watering hole. As he looked at them he realized he was just a funeral director embalming the species that America was exterminating.

Again, for me this story packs another strong lesson. If we go and start working on the first solution we think of, we might spend years doing the wrong thing. Hornday, didn’t know better when he became a “conservationist”, he could not imagine another solution because his knowledge was limited… he just didn’t know better.

And same applies to other situations as well. Chances are that your first idea is not the best idea, even when you are seen as a specialist in the field, like the gentleman above.

The above fragment of one of my earlier posts. For the full story and the audio version (which is amazing) head over to A story about buffalos, problems and solutions.

Building the ghost towns of China



Choosing a solution without understanding the problem first, might lead you on a dangerous path. A path on which you take the wrong decision based on limited information and then you become too attached to it t let it go. So what do you do? You end up building a product your customers don’t want.

Maybe the old saying “build it and they will come” shouldn’t be your motto in this case… otherwise you might end up building on a Chinese ghost town.

So how do you focus on the problem? Click here to find out.

When you shouldn’t listen to your customers

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

When building a product is important to know who’s feedback you can trust. Your customers might have the best intentions in the world but that doesn’t mean you should listen to them.

Why? Because usually they don’t know what they want, they don’t want to offend you, or they simply like the idea but that doesn’t mean they would actually buy the thing once it’s out.

So how can you go from not trusting them, to trusting them? Don’t ask for their opinion, ask for their money. You will see immediately what they really think of your product.

This video is part of a free course that helps Adobe employees become more creative. This course is packed with valuable date and did I mention is FREE. For more info visit Adobe Kickbox.

Should I keep my startup idea secret? TLDR: No

A few months ago I received the following question on the Startup Maze Amsterdam meetup group:

Hi Andi, I recently joined the group and I’m new to meetup, so pardon me if this has been discussed already. In the next workshop we are to discuss our ideas and products and what need/ problem they are meant to address – great topic – but how does one make sure that someone else doesn’t steal or copy the idea?

I answered the question and moved on. I thought that it was a one-time question. However, in the following months this issue kept coming back over and over again. And this Friday, as I was talking with a friend, I realised that I have answered this question so many times that now I have a script ready for it. And it sounds like this…

I think you should share it with as many people as possible and here’s why:

Ideas are simple, implementation is hard

Scott Belsky Bēhance Quote

Don’t believe me? Well, if it’s really that simple, why didn’t you do it already? Believe it or not a ton of people have a ton of ideas on a daily basis and still we don’t have a ton of new companies opening every day.  Toying with your idea in your mind, achieving virtual success, selling your imaginary startup for millions and then spending all the money on a nice car, a nice house, vacation on sunny islands and becoming a Angel Investor… well, I’m sorry to break it to you… we all do that. What we don’t do is actually go through all that…because if F’in hard.

If it’s that simple to steal, then what’s your unfair advantage


Really, if you think that all it takes is for me to hear that idea in order to steal it than you are in serious trouble anyway. When building an product you want to have a unfair advantage, a way to protect that business. Some entrepreneurs rely on patents, some on their knowledge, some on their unique set of skills, some on their resilience….

So, if it’s so easy to steal, how will you protect it once you launch it? Or are you going to be even to scare to share your product with the media and customers? Think about it.

You might build an existent product

I actually have a joke ready for this one. It’s not mine, I heard it from Chris. It goes like:

“I love when people come to me and tell me:

Dude I have an amazing idea. I want to build a product that will be amazing. Not sure how come nobody else did it. Listen, I want to create something that will store your music online so you don’t need to have it on your phone or computer. Imagine you could stream all your music on the go, from the cloud on any device. And then I go: uuuuhhhmmm like Spotify? and he goes: Spotify? What’s that?”

birds owls head tilt_www.wall321.com_93

I know the example is a bit exaggerated … I hope. And while I believe/hope that nobody will want to pitch a startup idea like Spotify as a completely new concept,  unless they lived under a rock until now, it might be that for niche markets you haven’t heard of all the solutions yet and indeed your big concept might be already a massive success.

You’ll get instant, valuable feedback

Oh, and don’t share it with your mom, dad or close family. Share it with people you don’t know that well. They won’t feel the need to protect your feelings. You will see immediately if they get it or not, which is gonna be great feedback.

If they don’t get it then either:

  • your product sucks
  • you don’t know how to explain it
  • you didn’t pick the right audience

All of the above great learning points and you should do something about it.

If they do get it, if they do like your idea it’s aweosme because:

  • the counter reasons of the above points
  • plus, you can ask them if they want to be your beta testers. Ask them if it’s ok to contact them for feedback once you have a tangible solution.

It’s not the first thing you should focus on anyway

One of the most common issues with startups and entrepreneurs is that they start with an idea/solution. And on one hand, sure it’s normal to do that. That’s the fun part.

But, there’s a huge down side. If you start with an idea in mind, if you think that you already have every single detail of your solution figured out… well, you are in big trouble.  Every successful entrepreneur will tell you that the final product is not the product you have in your mind right now. It will evolve a lot on the way.

So there you have it. If you think that sharing your idea will let others steal it… well, maybe the stealing part is not your biggest problem anyway.





Use this proven offensive army tactic to win at startups

Last week I had the great pleasure to interview Holger for the Startup Maze podcast. He is a serial entrepreneur, an ex Dutch army officer and currently the founder and CEO of (more on that here).

As we were discussing, he mentioned a tactic which he learned as an officer and which he adapted for his startup, so he can maximize ROI. I forgot the actual name, so I’ll call it: the 5-point attack with 1 reserve behind.

The 5-point attack with 1 reserve behind

It goes like this: whenever you’re not sure where’s the weakest point in your enemy’s defence line, a common tactic is sending out 5 small groups of soldiers to attack in 5 different points.

Meanwhile, the rest of your unit (the reserve) waits behind. As soon as the weakest point is discovered, the entire reserve steams ahead and crushes the enemy line through the weakest point.

Makes sense, right?

Holger took this tactic and used it to maximize the ROI for his startup. Whenever he is unsure where to put his money, he “deploys” a 5-point investment in the most promising opportunities. The one that proves to be the winner is the one he invests in.

What a great way to frame your challenges! What I like about it is that is pretty simple and quite intuitive, yet I never heard someone think like this before.

So, there you go. Use this tactic wisely and if you enjoyed this post please share it with your friends.

How to convince premium subscribers not to cancel their subscription?

Here is a great example of how Spotify deals with it.

I love how they try to change your mind until the very last moment. They don’t make it difficult for you to cancel your account but they play with your emotions.

This is the message you see when your are about to take the last step to unsubscribe from Spotify. Check out the song 😀

Spotify - increase retention tips

How cool. I think this a is great example of how you can reduce churn/ increase retention among your users. Make it personal, play with their emotions, make it funny.

Seth Godin: People don’t want email, they want ME-mail

A simple phrase that holds so much gravity.

“People don’t want email; people want ME-mail.”- Seth Godin

Most people are interested in their own needs, wants and fears. They don’t really care about what you want. Seems obvious right? Yet, some entrepreneurs forget this essential idea while building their startups.

Why? Because, at the end of the day, we’re also people, and we all have our own needs. That makes it easy to fall in love with a solution WE came up with and forget about the customer’s needs.

Even though it seems obvious it can be quite counter intuitive and this is why I think it’s worth mention over and over again.

Now take a look at your products. Do you build ME-mails or emails for your customers?

Oh, and in case you haven’t watched it already I really recommend Seth’s TED Talk below:

Churn vs Retention: “meh” vs “I love it”

My theory is that one will lead to a product that your customers don’t hate while the other to a product your customers love. Now, before I go any further I will tell you again this is just my own idea and unfortunately I don’t have hard numbers to back it up, BUT I think I’m on to something. Here’s why…

Most people would say that churn and retention are two faces of the same coin, so why the different outcomes? Well, for me the answer lies in understanding a basic idea promoted by NLP (neuro-linguistic programming): the words we use in our communication have an inherent and unconscious impact on the outcome of our conversation.

For example if I tell you: “Don’t think of a black cat“.

What’s the first picture that comes to mind? A black cat. That is because the command “think of a black cat” is in that short sentence. Of course, before you have a chance to not think of a black cat, your unconscious brain has already put a picture of a black cat up and stuck a DON’T label on it saying “this is the thing to not think about.”

This same principle helps you achieve certain goals, from buying milk to building better products. NLP specialists say that you’ll have more chances to remember the milk if you phrase it: “remember to buy milk“ instead of “don’t forget to buy milk“.

To a certain extent, I do believe that, and I do believe that words and phrases have an inherent effect attached. We might not notice because it usually happens unconsciously. Thus, IMHO it’s better to focus on what you want to achieve instead of what you want to stop/move away.

Long detour, but this is why I think churn and retention will have different outcomes.

Churn vs Retention

Inherently, stopping churn implies that you have to stop people from quitting using your product/service. In other words stop people hating your product so much that they wan to quit. Once you’ve done that you are fine.

On the other hand, increasing retention implies that you want people to use your product for as long as possible, thus you want to maximize the value they get. In other words you make people love your products, which by the way is a much better goal to have ;).

So… any thoughts on my theory? Please let me know in the comment section.

Photo by Linda Tanner, used under CC

Many start, but few can finish. Here’s an example.

When Sam Altman announced that his “How to Start a Startup” Stanford course would be available for free on YouTube, entrepreneurs went crazy. Everybody wanted a chance to learn from him and his guests: Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky, Aaron Levie, Reid Hoffman, and Ben Horowitz among others.

Now imagine my surprise when I looked at the numbers. The first episode was a great success gathering over 273K views (until now). The last episode on the other hand gathered only 13K views. And as you can see the growth curve is similar, showing that most of the views happen the very first days, so we can eliminate time as an influencing factor.

How to start a startup video views 2015-01-06  1How to start a startup video views 2015-01-06

If you would have told me that 260K people, who were interested in entrepreneurship, would pas the opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds in the Valley, … for FREE… I would have had some serious doubts.

PS: I know it’s napkin calculation but I think the story still stands.

#StartupMistakes: Not practicing what you preach

To be fair, I think this might apply to bigger companies as well, not only to startups. However in my mind it will always be linked to the startup scene because that’s where I’ve seen how destructive this attitude can be.

Here are a few examples of things that were preached as “The way we do things around here” and at the same time disregarded by everybody:

  • Pareto rule of 80/20 -> there was no prioritization, we “focused” on everything
  • Agile/Sprints -> in reality management would change their mind about the features every two days #featureCreep
  • Lean approach -> people waited until to launch a project until the project got canceled.

And I could probably go on…

The issues I’ve noticed so far that come out of this behaviour are:

  • Employees will lose trust in your leadership and authority
  • Employees will get frustrated when you mess with their expectations
  • The team will be confused and morale will go down

My advice: be consistent. You can always change your principles BUT make sure that your team knows about these changes.

I’m telling you all this because I believe that changing your behavior starts by acknowledging the impact of your actions. I also think that changing your behavior can be as simple as changing your perspective. Thus I challenge you to go think about your actions.  Do you practice what you preach?

What do you think you about my idea? Did you ever see this happening in your company? How did that make you feel?

Photo by Mario Mencacci, used under CC

Here is how can you replicate Ford’s assembly line idea for your business

A little know fact is that Ford’s inspiration for the assembly line came from a slaughterhouse. Yes. You’ve read that right, a slaughterhouse!

Back in the day, taking cows apart was already a streamlined process. As the cow was moving around the slaughterhouse on a conveyor belt, specialized people were cutting certain parts, over and over and over again. This process was much faster than having one person slaughtering the entire cow.

Story goes that Ford had seen this and he thought: “If this system works so well for taking animals apart then it might work great for putting cars together.” So he reversed the system and voila: the world’s first assembly line.

I love this story because it shows that inspiration comes from strange places. Another reasons to love this story is that it hints to a recipe on how to look for inspiration in strange places.

Here’s how I see the steps to replicate Ford’s assembly line idea for your business:

  1. Define what area you want to improve: customer service, communication, mass production, sales, …
  2. Explore other businesses which have that area as core business model, or that perfected the skill over time
  3. Pick the top companies in that space
  4. Identify what technologies, models, partnerships make them so successful
  5. Take the essence of what you learned and see how you can apply it to your business model

Here is an example:

Let’s say my company sells shoes online and I want to increase traffic on the website. Where should I look for inspiration?

  1. Area of improvement: increase web traffic
  2. Businesses that have web traffic as their core business model: News industry, social networking sites, …
  3. Successful businesses in this area: Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Reddit …
  4. Their tactics: social sharing, catchy titles, involve the community, UGC, …
  5. How can you use this for your own business?
    • Start a blog and have catchy titles
    • Invite people to generate content for you
    • Have social sharing buttons

That’s it. I hope this will help you. Is this applicable in your field?