This is the #1 rule of startups

Hey friend 👋

While reflecting on 2022, I teased the broad theme to my content that’s probably self-evident to my long-time readers: I really want you to get in front of customers right away.

I’ve translated that into a razor, and I hope you find it helpful.

Oh, and in case you missed it — I’ve got a new startup.

Read time: 4 minutes.


The razor is simple:

Always favor the shortest possible time-to-customer.

Let’s break it down. 👇

Time-to-customer (TTC) is the amount of time it takes to go from idea to test.

It’s the amount of time that passes between when you think of something in your head, and when you first expose that idea to real customers for feedback.

TTC is the time it takes before you learn something.

The classic example of a long TTC is the time it takes to build a minimum viable product (MVP), but it’s also any nontrivial or functional prototype, like wizard-of-oz.

Even the time it takes set up landing pages and marketing campaigns can be long.

Examples of short TTCs, on the other hand, include:

  • Customer interviews
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Writing online
  • etc

They take minutes or hours end-to-end, and you can learn on day one.

You might be thinking:

But don’t you learn less from smaller prototypes?

Why is a shorter TTC always better?

For one, because time equals risk.

The longer the time it takes to find out if you’re right, the riskier the proposition: you’re probably wagering more money and more effort. If nothing else, you’re wagering more of your life — and time is the one resource you can never earn back.

Here’s a graph to show the increase in risk:

The more time you spend, the more you’re front-loading risk, and the more you have to lose.

But that’s not the biggest problem.

Here’s something more insidious and counter-intuitive: the longer the time-to-customer, the less we actually learn.

Why?

First, you’re asking fewer questions and running fewer cycles. One big experiment in ten days yields one data point. Ten small experiments in ten days yield ten data points.

Duh.

But it’s even worse than that:

We learn less is because bigger bets ask less specific questions.

Let’s take the typical startup example:

You build a landing page with the value proposition and calls-to-action to sign up for the product. You then create social media ads to drive a bunch of traffic to the site, but no one converts.

Why didn’t it work? What did we learn?

We don’t know if we had the wrong:

  • Delivery mechanism?
  • Landing page order?
  • Value proposition?
  • Call-to-action?
  • Customer?
  • Problem?

We just don’t know!

Because we asked a big, general question with a huge burden of assumptions:

  • who the customer is;
  • what problem they have;
  • how they would describe it;
  • that they want a solution to it;
  • that they want this solution to it;
  • that this is the right offer to propose;
  • and that this copy will convince them!

That’s enough to make William of Ockham roll in his grave.

It’s too much — all we learned was that the whole package didn’t work.

Instead, what if we ditched the burden and ran a series of experiments:

  1. Can we find the right audience on social?
  2. Do they respond to the problem statement?
  3. Do they want this solution?
  4. Do they want delivered it this way?
  5. Can we get them to convert?
  6. etc.

Each of these gives us specific information, and the learning compounds over time.

In the same time period, we learn more — not less.

Ergo:

Friends, heed the razor:

Always favor the shortest possible time-to-customer.

Yet this is the most common blunder of the first-time founder.

Yea but why tho? Why do we do it?

Why are we naturally predisposed to favor longer TTCs?

It’s actually fairly basic human psychology:

Long TTCs push into the future the soonest point we can experience failure and rejection.

Broadly speaking, people don’t like that so much.

Conversely, the less time it takes to put something in front of a customer, the more immediate and more real the possibility they can tell us our idea sucks.

And if there’s one thing founders resist most, it’s that their idea sucks.

But your idea sucks, and that’s fantastic.

Entrepreneurship isn’t complicated. We make it complicated so that we can avoid the rejection and the failure that comes from being publicly wrong.

It’s not conscious. It’s buried deep.

Our brains devise clever schemes to give us things to do that seem like they’re productive, and push the time-to-customer out into the future — just coincidentally of course.

I call it “procrastivity”:

We spend time on things that feel productive, but are just helping us procrastinate on the issue that is important and immediate: is there a “there” there?

Resist procrastivity with your last ounce of strength.

If you find yourself thinking “I shouldn’t do that yet”, it’s the strongest probably signal that you should do it now.

In other words, for any idea you want to pursue — in any domain, at any time — find the shortest possible path to find out if it’s right, and take it.

Right away.

Best case? You find out that you’re on the right track. 😎

Worst case? You get time back to pursue something of value. 🤔

And time is the one resource you can never earn back.

TL;DR: Lower TTC → less risk + more learning


Whenever you're ready, there are 3 ways I can help you.

  1. If you’re still in the idea-to-seed stage, trying to get early traction, I’d recommend starting with some coaching:

    → Book a 1:1 coaching session to tackle one key challenge, from prototype to pitch.

    → Apply to my Traction Coaching program, and we’ll find traction together.

  1. If you already have early traction, I’d recommend running a Traction Sprint to find the traction you need to get from Seed to Series A.
  1. Of course, you can always ask me a question for my weekly office hours livestream.

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