Focus on Vision to Avoid Premature Startup Failure

I recently got the opportunity to speak at Big Omaha, "the nation's most fabulous conference on innovation and entrepreneurship."

As I was developing my talk, I was significantly influenced by the fact that I'm six months pregnant with my first child. My husband, Jason, and I have been baby free for just over 14 years, so this pregnancy thing is very new to us, and it's occupying a lot of my thoughts.

As a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, I spend a lot of my time writing and speaking about idea validation and customer development, but it's often difficult to convince entrepreneurs of the importance of spending adequate amounts of time on the idea stage of their companies. Most entrepreneurs think that if they can print business cards, put up a website, create T-shirts and build some code in just a few days, spending time developing their idea and business model shouldn't take much longer.

My pregnancy gave me the perfect analogy to explain the glaring fallacy of this mindset. The truth is, ideas need a proper gestation period before they ever turn into a startup, and if you don't spend enough time on this stage of a company, you are likely to prematurely launch your startup, significantly increasing its chances of failure.

Think of a startup like a toddler, because the two have a lot in common. Both startups and toddlers need a name, people who take care of them with titles and roles, legal documents, money for all sorts of things, a lot of your time, and, of course, really cute and comfortable T-shirts.

But having an idea for a product or a service is different. Having an idea is the equivalent of conception. You know, a sperm fertilizing an egg. It's the positive pregnancy test. And once you conceive an idea, you can hardly sleep or think of anything else. Your mind races, thinking about all the possibilities of what this vision could turn into.

But too many entrepreneurs confuse conceiving an idea for having a toddler startup. We've all seen entrepreneurs that get an idea and - without much interaction with their customers - prematurely launch a startup. They're immediately raising money, hiring staff, making a very public announcement on Tech Crunch and building product. The vast majority of the time, these startups fail. Why? Because they don't understand the differences between the conception and toddler stages of a business, or why that difference is important.

The first major difference between having an idea and a startup is how others react to you. You need customer feedback to understand if your product or service provides value in people's lives and what they like or don't like about your company.

But, as soon as you commit to a concept for a startup, people will stop being honest with you. They will hide their true feelings because they don't want to hurt yours. Who are they to stomp on your dreams? It's clear that you are not reconsidering once you hire a sales and marketing team and print t-shirts, so why would they ever tell you if your product serves no real value in their life? That's like telling parents they have an ugly baby.

And it's not just the outside world that is different when confronting an idea vs. a startup. YOU are different.

When you are pregnant with an idea, you are an organized, calm, proactive individual who's trying to learn and take steps to ensure you are having a healthy baby. You take time to read all kinds of books about what you should and shouldn't eat and what kind of prenatal vitamin to take. You take proactive steps to develop healthy habits, like cutting out alcohol from your diet and no longer participating in bouts of mixed martial arts. You have very few new expenses. And you're learning about everything you can. You are just a sponge for information trying to figure out what kind of parenting style you prefer.

But when you have a baby or a startup, things are very different. New parents and founders who have recently launched their ventures are very easy to identify. You are exhausted and frantic with only one thought on your mind: "Holy crap, I gotta keep this thing alive!" You are no longer a sponge for advice, instead you are operating on no sleep, spending money left and right, just doing whatever you can to keep that thing alive because you know that there is no longer any room for error. You are not open to new opinions. Not that many people other than your mom are even willing to offer them anymore.

Ok, so lets recap. Conceiving an idea is not the same thing as launching your startup. And what this means to you and your visionary idea is that it takes time to figure out if the market values your product or service. If you try to shortcut this step, you will likely launch your company prematurely, instantly putting its existence at risk.

We all know that children born prematurely have a much lower chance of survival. The same is true for your startup. A premature launch will require more funding. A premature startup will need a lot more care and support than it would if you spent the proper amount of time incubating your idea.

Spending time on idea development doesn't mean you can't get started immediately. You should. It just means that you need to refocus your energy from the things you would normally do to take care of a startup, like marketing, sales and software development, to time developing the idea, figuring out the real value proposition you offer to your customers.

Most people will only get one chance to launch a startup. Just one opportunity to quit your job, spend your life savings and chase your dream. So don't you want to save your one big launch until you have the greatest possible chance of success?

Watch my full Big Omaha talk here to not only understand the difference between ideas and startups but to find out how to get from idea to startup in the shortest amount of time.