Friday, January 03, 2014

The "Blank Check" of Entrepreneurship

Two seconds left.  You can feel your quads burning.  Your form on the ice is rock solid.  As you race past the last defender, the only thing standing between you and the win is the goalie who you’ve beaten one-on-one countless times.  You’ve been practicing for this moment your entire life.

You accelerate towards victory, when suddenly… BOOM. An unanticipated body check, from who else, but Steve Blank. You are slammed against the wall and your entire game-plan is thrown off-course.  S.G. Blank from the opposing team has just issued his signature move, the "Blank Check" -- you know it’s going to hurt tomorrow.  Even minutes after the impact, you can still hear Blank taunting you with his infamous saying, “Get out of the building!”

Getting burned on your way to victory is precisely what happens when you try to execute a business plan devised inside your company walls.  As Steve Blank would say, “No business plan ever survives first contact with the customer.” When Steve Blank, author of “The Startup Owner's Manual,” the genius behind the Customer Development process, and entrepreneurship professor at Stanford, gives you a message, he means business.  You better write this one down.

Today’s post is dedicated to his iconic message, “Get out of the building.” Your initial goal as an startup founder is not to execute a business plan.  Thinking you can build it, and then they will come, is thinking inside the building.  You have to go into the world, meet potential customers, talk to them, and learn from these interactions.  This is precisely what getting out of the building means.  You have to search for a business model.  If you plan on scoring without pivots, you are likely planning to fail.

According to Steve Blank, a startup is a temporary organization whose goal is to search for a scalable business plan.  And the magic can only happen when you go outside your comfort zone, when you talk to people.  This is exceptionally difficult for technical founders to grasp.  Dear technical masterminds with an itch for entrepreneurship: “getting out of the building” is the single most important piece of advice taken from all of Steve Blank’s writings.  Years of training, building things, and being on the forefront of technology have likely given you a skewed perspective on what the world wants.  To become a successful entrepreneur, you must first undo the damage of over-education.  Once you learn how the world thinks, your technical talent won’t go away, and you’ll be in a great position to lead a great company.

I wrote this blog post for a few reasons. Foremost, as a first-time startup founder, I've been reading endless books on the subject and writing helps me remember what I learned. I guess this blog is now about computer vision and entrepreneurship. Secondly, this post serves as a note-to-self because I've been guilty of engineering products to death and skipping customer development altogether (as you'd expect from a Robotics PhD).

To learn more about Steve Blank and his ideas on entrepreneurship, the Customer Development process, and Lean startups, take at look at the following resources:

Steve Blank
Steve Blank’s Entrepreneurship Blog (has lots of great video links)

Steve Blank’s Free Udacity Course “How to Build a Startup” (this was my first ever MOOC!)

Steve Blank’s book “Four Steps to the Epiphany,” which is the most influential book I read in the past 10 years.  As groundbreaking as Kuhn's “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” was to science, Blank's "Epiphany" will likely go down in history as the one that changed the course of entrepreneurship.

P.S. Another great book I just finished reading, Made to Stick, contains a similar point referred to as “The Curse of Knowledge.”  The curse of knowledge happens when your message fails to get across because you assumed everybody else is a knowledgeable as you. Or as Steve Blank would say -- you built a feature-rich product flaunting the benefits of advanced features without understanding that the world isn't filled with technical experts. Nobody cares about your features. Not yet. Get out of the building.

1 comment :

  1. Hi Tomasz,

    I've been reading your blogs off and on over the last few years and have always found them to be informative and interesting. I am a CV scientist in the Bay Area, and your advisor's work was highly instrumental in helping me decide to do a PhD in vision several years ago.

    Having read your blog posts over the years, I thought I'd congratulate you on completing your academic research and wish you the very best as you venture into the cut-throat world of entrepreneurship. I am sure you are well equipped to handle all that life throws at you. Cheers!