Building a Business seminar: a taster of last night

Our MD, Dave Fletcher, presented last night in the Building a Business series at the Saïd Business School. He shared 12 years of product development experience to help start-ups avoid some of the common pitfalls. Here is a taster of the seminar…

A number of years back I was involved in one of my first product launches. Everybody involved was running on high-octane – certainly we all believed in what we had created. We spent several hundred thousand pounds building a brand and bringing a new product to market. But despite immediately signing up over a thousand users, we came across one huge hurdle. Nobody was coming back to the product for a second visit.

As a consequence, our product had failed. The question then was what did we learn?

Conviction – the entrepreneur’s Achilles’ heel

It’s a cruel paradox that one of the qualities you need to be a successful entrepreneur is the very thing that can trip you up early on: conviction.

We had developed our product on a hunch and had unswayable conviction that what we were doing would work. This is normal. If you’ve just quit your day job, then the one thing you’ll hopefully have is complete belief in your project.

A tough reality though, is that when any of us start out we have no idea whether a product is going to work. It’s true that our own conviction helps us take that initial leap of faith. But there’s a very real danger that this same conviction blinds us to the signs that guide a product’s development towards success.

A more effective approach to product development

One thing our failed product launch taught us is that no product’s journey ever follows a perfectly straight line. In hindsight, we couldn’t possibly have known our destination from the start.

In fact, what we should have done is switch into a search mode. This would have meant putting our convictions to the test before going to market. Doing so would have provided us with some clues which may well have caused us to change direction, and ultimately have led us to a more robust offering.

Granted, we had already asked the key questions in our business plan (see insert). But we should have been sure to truly challenge our conclusions – it is too easy to settle on answers that may simply fit into those preconceived convictions.

So this searching, putting our product to the test a little more, and listening to the clues we find, is the first step in refining a product. Once we’ve done that searching, the next question we should ask is what do we need to change?

  • Who are my customers?
  • Do they really need my product?
  • How am I going to reach them?
  • Does my product solve their problem?
  • Finally, will they buy it?
Dave Fletcher presents Building a Business.

Dave Fletcher presents Building a Business.

Here’s what we should have done

When it’s done properly then, the product development process will often lead us to a totally different end product. The mistake we made was that we just built it. Had we challenged our own convictions, using bite-sized research samples, here are a few things we’d have found out:

Firstly, speaking to potential consumers would have shown us they were already using a different, (but non-competitive) website to serve their need. So partnering with that site may have been far more effective for us.

And rather than building the marketing infrastructure (to support those millions of anticipated users) from the outset, we should have dipped our toes into the water. We could have stared with a small up front social media spend, to check if our message was working. And we should have waited to put staff and a PR agency in place until we’d at least demonstrated our product’s value using a sample of users.

I can now say with confidence that had we discovered these things, and relied a little less on our own conviction, the product would have looked completely different. It might have worked – we certainly would have discovered that our our initial assumptions were flawed before we’d run out of cash.


Dave’s presentation focused on the first two stages of Steve Blank’s Customer Development Model:  * Customer discovery.  Do my audience actually exist? And do they have the problems I think they do?  * Customer validation.  Can I get into this market? Will they buy my product, and will it scale?

View Dave’s presentation, How can I know if my idea is good?
More about Building a Business seminar series.

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