Three Steps to the Epiphany

Perhaps you recognize the title of this blog post as a reference to Steven Gary Blank’s «The Four Steps to the Epiphany». Our three steps encompass a wider set of objectives than Blank’s four.

Our three steps overlap with Black’s four, a process he dubs «Customer Development», as well as with the lean startup philosophy, with the exception that we don’t subscribe to the idea of scaling. We believe it’s perfectly OK for a startup to aim for sustainable operation, and don’t consider our project a failure if we don’t get filthy rich from it.

We think a successful startup can be modeled by these three steps:

  1. Understand your customer’s problem(s)
  2. Solve only one problem beautifully
  3. Make sure your customers help you get more customers

The steps are supposed to be applied iteratively and in a non-linear fashion (even if my narrative suggests a step-by-step linear process). What you learn in one step may force you to reconsider assumptions you made in other steps.

That’s it—it’s really that simple. If you don’t like to read, just stop here and go for a walk while you contemplate these three steps.

When you come back, leave a comment at the end of this post and tell us what you think.

If you do like to read about our reasoning behind these steps, please continue.

1. Understand your customer(s)

The most common mistake that most people—ourselves included—make when deciding to create a product, is thinking that they understand the customer.

While it may be true that the product you are making solves some of your own problems, if you’re planning to charge other people money for something that solves your own problems, that’s not gonna cut it.

In addition to a certain degree of hypochondria, the startup industry is suffering from extreme narcissism. You need to get rid of that as well. You have to talk to people who aren’t on Twitter, who don’t care about CES or WWDC and who generally don’t mirror yourself in every imaginably nerdy way (unless, of course, those are your actual customers).

So you need to get out of the office, ask questions and collect data. Understand that you are the question mark, not the exclamation point.

2. Solve one problem beautifully (don’t make features)

Okay, so you have talked to your (potential) customers, and identified some problems and solutions.

Your next challenge is to narrow down your list to just one very important problem, and to create a very simple and elegant solution to that one problem.

In our case, when we started making #lillygram, we had all sorts of ideas about the plethora of features we needed, because we really imagined ourselves using all those features as users of our own product.

However, the most important feedback we received from our «early adopters» was that above all they loved our service because it is simple—in other words, for its lack of features.

Had we only considered our own needs we might have overloaded the service with features most users don’t need (read: aren’t important) and obscured the important ones. More importantly, we may never have been able to reach a point where we would be satisfied enough to launch!

What is beautiful?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that graphical design defines your product. You really don’t need a logo yet and nobody cares about your custom made Powerpoint template.

Focus instead on the one important problem and how best to solve it. You design your color palette and border gradients later. After you get rich, you have a lot of time to waste on making Powerpoints.

A good rule of thumb: if you’re fooling around in any product made by Adobe, you’re probably on the wrong track.

Beautiful, in this case, really comes from the proverbial within.

3. Make sure your customers help you get more customers

With an excellent understanding of your customer’s problem and a very simple and elegant solution to it, you may think that you have all it takes to be the next Steve Jobs.

While the first two steps are certainly necessary, they are not sufficient. Imagine where Apple would have been without its extremely loyal customer base who serve as Apple’s most important marketing tool.

If your customers generate new customers, then you can achieve healthy, sustainable growth.

The basic principle behind this step is that your most happy customers want to spread your products for you.

They don’t want to do this to be nice to you. They want to spread your product because they know it will help other people as much as it helped them. Your job is to make it easy for them to do so.

The challenge of course, is how to achieve just that. How do we make it easy for our customers to be evangelists? We’d love your input on this.

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