Going from idea to execution takes a lot of motivation. I struggled with this for Banofi Leather (my start-up that makes plant-based leather from banana crop waste). Despite having the idea for over two years, it stewed in my brain and I did not speak to anyone about it because I was so afraid of sharing the idea with others. Reflecting back, I realise now why people say “ideas are a dime a dozen, but the ability to execute is priceless.”
12 months ago I finally took the plunge and now have an MVP, our first order, a manufacturing and R&D facility, a team of 10+ people, and grant money to give us a few months of runway. So, what changed? I fractured my ankle (all better now), and as I healed I began to appreciate the present, as cliched as it sounds, and this mindset shift helped me transition from ideation to execution.
I recognize that the situation above was unique to me but speaking to other entrepreneurs along the way I’ve learned that there are 3-4 tangible steps you can take to begin executing their idea.
1. Talk to people: This is a great way to force a founder to get clarity on the problem and solution, get feedback, which then allows you to iterate and refine your idea, and forces you to commit and to hold yourself accountable since someone else ‘knows’. The most effective way to find the ‘right’ people to talk to is to leverage your network. It’s likely someone in your network can put you in touch with others working in the industry your startup operates in. John Hill from Techstars had some great tips on how to leverage LinkedIn to find such connections (which I have personally used):
- Find connections at organizations that are in your industry. While this may seem straightforward, it is particularly hard to find people that are ready to invest time to provide deep and meaningful insight. Thus, finding someone who is a 2nd or 3rd connection through a mutual connection increases the likelihood of receiving a response or of them being helpful.
- Step 1: Open a company page on LinkedIn and click on the number of employees
- Step 2: Filter for the right department for instance procurement
- Step 3: Filter for connections that are 2nd or 3rd
- Find someone that is an alumnus of your university or former/ current place of work. For instance, if I worked at McKinsey & Co. and wanted to find someone that can put me in touch with the Gucci’s procurement team:
- Step 1: I would search for current Gucci employees
- Step 2: Once I have this list pulled up on LinkedIn, I would open the filters and filter for past company being McKinsey, and current function as procurement. (Yes, LinkedIn allows you to do this!). Now, I have a list of people I want to speak to but who are equally willing to speak to me, since we have a common ground through our past employer.
Prior to this I spent a lot of time searching for the right people on LinkedIn and even though I spent hours tailoring a message for them, that would warrant a response, I was largely ignored. Using the tips above I didn’t waste as much time, reaching out to people who wouldn’t respond.
Although LinkedIn is an incredibly helpful tool for pinpointing the right people to talk to it is also important to remember that you’re covering a range of crucial topics through these conversations during the ideation phase.
2. What do you talk to people about
- Identifying the problem that needs to be solved: This typically would involve speaking to potential customers for your startup.
- Identifying reasons why the startup could fail: You are probably not the first person to have this idea. It is highly likely that your idea has been tried and tested repeatedly. Find founders in the same space, including successful ones and those of failed startups. Ariel Stoddard shares great advice – “Spend time with founders of failed startups in the same space for a quick and in-depth way to get up to speed about the industry.” They are a lot more willing to share their learnings and speak openly about the potential or lack thereof of the idea.
- Individuals who have invested in the same industry: Investors can be incredibly helpful in providing an overview of the industry, the future trends, and also making warm introductions to existing startups in your space. Investors are also a great avenue to receive quick feedback on your idea and the competitive landscape.
- Industry organizations: For instance, if you are working on a plant-based meat startup, reach out to the Good Food Institute. Find the parallel for your industry and reach out (not applicable for all startups).
Pro tip - Leave every call with a list of 2 more people to talk to. (Ariel Stoddard)
Pro tip - Follow up the call with a simple thank you email to both the person who you spoke with, and the person who connected you to them (goes a long way in building a good relationship).
3. When to stop talking to people and start building
- Once you are clear about the problem you are tackling, take a break from talking to people and start executing. Jennifer McFadden, who leads the entrepreneurship program at Yale School of Management and interacts closely with dozens of startups every year, summarises this succinctly - “You can always learn more by talking to people, but at some point, you know enough to start working.”
- Often in these calls you get a lot of input on potential solutions and a space to brainstorm the idea. However, after a certain point it can lead to more confusion and inertia. Birch Benders, a company that is known for revolutionizing the pancake mix category, provides a real-world example of why this is important. At one stage, Lizzi Ackerman LaCasse, the Founder of Birch Benders, began receiving contradictory feedback on the pancake taste during early prototyping. Finally, Lizzie decided that there would never be a perfect answer and that it was important to take initial feedback and start producing their product so they can put it out in the world for people to try. Thus overall, starting somewhere is critical, and realising that once you start you are not tied down is even more critical.
- Startups pivot all the time, and accepting this reality upfront is crucial so you can stay flexible. When I started Banofi, I wanted to make plant-based leather from wasted mango peels. However, only once I started did I realise the extent of supply chain issues arising from the seasonality of mangoes, which in turn meant I had to pivot quickly to another potential raw material. Pivoting / refining the idea is inevitable, so before perfecting the idea, take the plunge and refine it as you go.
4. Take the first step
- Find a cofounder. When possible, find someone to help you take the first step. Finding a cofounder has many benefits but in the initial stages it is incredibly helpful for three major reasons:
- You hold each other accountable and prevent inertia
- You provide moral support to each other through all the challenges
- You have someone to lean on which helps improve your productivity
However, the search for a cofounder can also become a barrier because finding the right person requires a lot of time and effort. As a solo founder, I have always worried about not having a cofounder, and on discussing this with Kofi Ampadu, a Partner at a16z (VC fund), I learned that there is no harm initiating work on the idea without a co-founder. Often through the process of talking to people along the way, you find many potential cofounder candidates. It is also possible that your idea might change entirely and that would require a cofounder, with entirely different skills, than what you were initially looking for. Claudia Reuter, who has seen hundreds of ventures during her role as a GM of Techstars, recommends only choosing a co-founder, when you know you are equally invested in the success of the company, and your skill sets are complementary.
- Apply for a grant: Grant and pitch applications are a great way to force yourself to refine the idea, explore the market, understand the competitive landscape, and to build a clear set of tangible next steps. The grant framework helps you streamline and prioritize. For Banofi Leather, we applied for a grant of about $25,000 pretty early on in our journey, and the 20 questions on the google form, forced us to think about our business more holistically. Questions like key competitors, competitive advantage, proposed cost structure were all areas we hadn’t given much thought to. Additionally, the process of giving a 10-minute concise pitch and the preparation for the 10 minutes of questions, forced us to have a robust and airtight plan and well thought out next steps. Just this entire preparation, geared us for execution.
Countless opportunities and competitions are available for equity and debt free capital. Some noteworthy opportunities can be found here for student entrepreneurs.
If you don’t have such a forcing mechanism, find a simple ten slide template / or a word document and answer the basic questions - the problem, the solution, key differentiator, market fit (customer), market size, competitive landscape, your team and progress for far, business / revenue model, next steps for the next 3 months.
- Start building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) - The MVP is a simple version of the product (prototype) with only the core features which reduces development cost and time, and helps you develop something that can be tested and refined with users. A tangible example of an MVP is Zappos - the online shoe selling platform. To test the core idea (i.e., will people buy shoes online without trying them?), the founder, Nick Swinmurn, took photos of shoes he found at stores and put them online to get an initial understanding of product-market fit. He then began to buy them from stores and resold them on the Zappos platform. Today, Zappos looks very different from this initial MVP, but the MVP validated the business model, and helped the founder get early feedback. MVPs can be anything from building wire-frames for an app, a landing page where customers could sign up, building a product in your kitchen. The common thread is starting somewhere.
Thus, after going through these key steps of execution you hopefully arrive at a point where you have a functioning MVP and are convinced of the potential product market fit that provides the conviction to move forward.