The startup toothbrush test

oral b toothbrush

When something is new, it is easy to get blinded by the newness and confuse whether people really need it. Here’s a simple test Larry Page employs – The toothbrush test. Will people use it as often as they use their toothbrush? And lets hope that’s twice a day! 

When something is totally new, the biggest enemy is the inertia of doing nothing. It’s much harder than getting people to switch to a substitute. A substitute only has to be a better value equation. Something which is a step change needs to be life changing to the point where it becomes a new daily ritual.

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The single ‘yes’ startup


I was just talking to a startup about their project. They wanted to supply cafes with a new high tech food service. The idea was good and interesting and they we’re thinking big – too big. In their mind the path to success was cutting a deal with a large chain who could roll out their innovation at scale. Big ambitions are great, but the problem with leveraging the scale of another organisation is this:

We need too many people to say ‘yes’ before we can make progress.

Here’s a better idea, find a way to get to market where you need a maximum of 1 person to say yes. If we do this, we can get out of fantasy land and prove a real market proposition.

I then suggested they find 1 cafe, with 1 owner, who can give them an answer to test the concept. If they say no, at least you can ask why and learn something. When dealing with  big companies we also need to remember the people often say ‘Yes’, to get us off their plate. To revert us to someone else who can say ‘No’. And you guessed it, this process can drag on for months and meetings until you get to the final and real ‘No’. All the while you’re believing you’re making progress, but it’s down a long lead dead end.

The probability of any startup succeeding can be divided by the number of people we need to say ‘yes’ to what we want to do. 

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Becoming massive is about thinking really small

Startup Boundaries

When starting something new it is useful to invent some boundaries. Inventing boundaries around tiny spaces to create testable markets give us a better chance to find out commercial truths. Boundaries create a commercial lab of sorts within which we can test, learn and validate. We need smaller boundaries than we originally imagine. I use these:

Geography: What’s the smallest possible geography we can serve? A single street, a single gym, a single office. We need to prove the problem is worth solving in a very defined area.

Time: When do we solve it? What hour of the day or week does it get solved. We can cover the remaining hours in the day, or days in the week later.

Customer: A group of people so small there isn’t a current descriptor for them. They should certainly be smaller than a demographic or interest based group. Here’s the group I started to serve with Sneaky Surf: Surfers in Victoria, who are in relationships, who are over the age of 30 who live more than 1 hour from the beach. Sounds weird, but I can serve their needs better and expand from there. This group should also include people you don’t know – real customers from the real world.

Product: What is the single product offer that brings the above three things together. A single solution. There are usually many available, but we must choose the most pressing and the easiest to solve to make the audiences life better.

If we follow this approach our startup has a better chance of getting out of the starting phase.

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Is this the worst product innovation ever?

Wetsuit business suit

If the Quiksilver bedding wasn’t enough, Quiksilver have done it again and introduced possibly the worst, most ill conceived product in surfing history.

The Wetsuit Suit. Yes you read that right, a wetsuit designed in the shape of a business suit. I can only hope that this is some kinda hoax – and even if it is, it surely isn’t worth the effort and ridicule?

The first question that comes to mind is why? Did someone not get the memo that the water is a place we escape the corporate grind.

The second question that comes to mind is why? It would simply never perform as well as a skin hugging wetsuit designed specifically for surfing, or a fitted Hugo Boss.

The third question that comes to mind is why? It takes all of 5 minutes to change out of a wetsuit…. but that’s right, Joey Corporate Surfer must too important to waste even 5 minutes.

The fourth question also happens to be why?  I imagine it will be super comfortable wearing a wetsuit as the salt dries and itches your skin and you’ve got sand up your bum during a power meeting with your boss in your Quiksilver work wetsuit….

Why, why, why? It is incomprehensible. Maybe the Private Equity firm Oaktree Capital  Management who took over the company this year knows why? They’d want to, or the $600 they invested to take the company out of bankruptcy (it still has $300m debt) might be kinda hard to recoup.

This folly was best summarised by Surfer Magazine:

Don’t you just wish you never had to change in and out of that stinky old wetsuit of yours? Well consider your prayers answered! Presenting the oh-so-literal wet suit by Quiksilver. Because how many times have you wished you could just live in one outfit for the entire day? And seriously, who wouldn’t want a soggy crotch while sitting though a budget meeting? Well, logistics aside, this is happening. Quiksilver Japan is apparently onto a market that the majority of us had no idea existed – which consists of businessmen who wish they could just go straight from the water to the conference room all while looking like colossal tools? Sure!

With all the incredulity aside, it shows a company who doesn’t know their customers at all. A company out of touch with why they originally succeeded. A company which is focused on the wrong side of where work society and technology is taking us.

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The rise of the machines, or not.

John Conner & Katherine Brewster

Tonight, I’m doing some work with the TV on in the back ground. The movie Terminator 3 – the rise of the machines is on. A classic in the series of films which promulgates a human war against our own AI’s. I think it’s a real classic. There is a great line in the film with John Conner when he’s in the van with Kate Brewster explaining the impending apocalypse.

It’s just that, the life you know. All this stuff you take for granted…. it’s not gonna last.

This is true, for all of us, right now. It’s true if AI becomes the threat many smart people say it is, and it is true if such a judgment day never happens.

Nothing is going to last. The future is unknowable, and our participation in it will eventually expire. We shouldn’t take anything for granted. The joy we get in the early formative days in a startup. The wonder of spending time with people we love. The pleasure of modern day living for those lucky enough to enjoy it.

All this stuff and everything that makes life good, it is to be enjoyed like there is no tomorrow.

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PS – this is why I often choose surfing today, vs money next week. Money is a tomorrow proposition. I always take my own advice and drink my own champagne

A business model for every startup

Flying Dog

Here’s a simple business model which should be built into every startup.

Ways to make money using technology which is not available today.

The possibilities of connection are changing so rapidly these days it is quite possible that the way we make money in a few years, is not even technically possible today. The startup may invent the technical possibility, or leverage an emerging possibility for the community they are building. Either way, the path is simple – startups need to ensure that their future revenue streams consider a future possibility, not just the reality of today.

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What business are we really in?

Old music tape

The business we are in is the problems we solve, not the product we sell. During times of great technological upheaval, problems get solved in new and unexpected ways.  This is how companies get disrupted. The single way to ensure any business remains valid is this:

We must always love our customer more than we love our infrastructure. 

If we truly do this, then we’ll be able to endure the pain required during the inevitable transition.

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