Lesson #2: Exploring Ideas

Exploring Ideas

Beyond its ability to have a long battery life, a swanky touchscreen interface, or a well-designed package, the success of your hardware product relies on the idea from which it was built. This is a daunting thought for some entrepreneurs: they feel that their idea has to be novel and groundbreaking in every way which leads them to get stuck before ever getting started. While this isn’t an impossible task, it’s unreasonable to think that every startup has to start from a completely new idea. Often times, the greatest products grow out of the simplest ideas that are instantly relatable; those products that make you think, “Why didn’t I think of that first?”

This post will attempt to cover everything about that tricky thing we call an idea: important factors to consider as it relates to a hardware product, methods to propel your brainstorming sessions, and other resources and readings to help you through this abstract process of ideation. This isn’t a time to get overwhelmed with details. If you’re coming into this with a clean canvas, your ultimate goal should be to land on a constructive idea with a high customer appeal. If you already have an idea that you would like to work with, use this post as a filter to assess your idea’s startup potential.

1. Make it solve a problem

Last week’s “homework assignment” had you define your startup in a very simple sentence which encapsulated three things: your hardware’s basic product type, the problem it solves, and your ideal customer. It’s probably obvious why we asked you to ground your device on a problem: if your product solves a problem, you are essentially building a product that people already need. The more common the problem, the bigger your pool of potential buyers.

How frequently does the problem occur? And exactly how painful is it? In what matter? If the pain point that you are solving only resonates with a small group, or if it ranks very low on the aggravation scale, your idea may lack buyer appeal when it comes time for them to pay money for your product. However, if the problem resonates with the buyer in a personal/emotional way, or happens often enough to compound into a big pain point, you may have an idea that’s worth building a product around.

2. Start with a passion

In building any kind of startup, it’s imperative to understand the problem you’re tackling, inside and out. You should feel like you know it better than anyone else in the space.

This is when passion is an easy shortcut to take. What passion lends you is direct experience which not only lets you understand your future customers, but gives you insight into what can or needs to be improved to make the whole experience better. As Chris Dixon put it, “There are two ways to develop startup ideas: through direct experience with tools/technologies, problems, perspectives; or through abstract things like analyst reports, trends, analogies. The best ideas come through direct experience. The abstract things tend to be an encapsulation of conventional wisdom. When you diff your direct experience with conventional wisdom, that’s where the best startup ideas come from.”

3. Think of ideas as questions

Since you’re planning on building your whole startup around a single idea, it’s easy to feel intimidated or hesitant when settling on one. This is when it helps to think of ideas as questions. Paul Graham wrote an amazing blog post on this topic and suggests that you start thinking about ideas as questions: “The initial idea is just a starting point — not a blueprint, but a question. […] Treating a startup idea as a question changes what you’re looking for. If an idea is a blueprint, it has to be right. But if it’s a question, it can be wrong, so long as it’s wrong in a way that leads to more ideas.”

If you find yourself getting stuck on the finality of your product’s core idea, think about it as a question. Monkey-bar around to other questions that branch off from your initial starting point until you land on your real idea. What you end up with may be far different from where you started out but the product of a good brainstorming session is often this way.

4. Consider your MVP

This is one of the most important factors to consider when starting a hardware startup: the MVP, or minimum viable product. This refers to the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. How difficult is it to build the barest prototype of your idea? How long will it take?

Unlike software, there are many elements that become limiting factors when deploying hardware. Iterations on prototypes can be costly and time-consuming, which drastically restricts how quickly you can respond to your market. For a young hardware startup that is still developing a product, it’s very important to get real feedback from users from the get go. Many startups go down before they even have a chance to launch because their MVP was either too complex or took too long to build.

Eric Migicovsky, Founder at Pebble, told us his biggest learning from his experience: “Focus on getting something into users’ hands ASAP. Don’t worry if it’s got a lot of wires hanging off it, just get something that people can start using and preferably pay you money for!”

And if you want to test out your idea before you even begin building it, try using a tool like QuickMVP to build a landing page for your device.

5. Look at the casualties of the past

If your idea is a good one, chances are, it’s been tried before. Look and see what others have attempted in the past. Learn from what they did right and what they did wrong, and incorporate your learnings to how you flesh out your idea. Balaji S. Srinivasan refers to this as an Idea Maze: “A good founder is capable of anticipating which turns lead to treasure and which lead to certain death. A bad founder is just running to the entrance of the “movies/music/filesharing/P2P” maze or the “photosharing” maze without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions.”

For Next Week:

Try to further map out your future device using the Hardware Product Canvas. It was developed to assist teams through the earliest stages of hardware design. Read our blog post on how you can use it for your startup and fill in the blanks!


Lesson #1: What Type of Hardware Startup Do You Want to Build?


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