The skill that every startup needs (but most don’t have)

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you may well be a startup or work with others who qualify for the label. By “startup,” I mean any individual or group that wants to turn an idea into something more than that.

Maybe you work in a big company and want to contribute or develop in some new way. Maybe you’re participating in an innovation program of some kind. Or maybe you're looking to do something on your own.

A skill you’ll need is the ability to build a purposeful network. Here are two reasons why that skill's important, and one way you can get better at it.

Bringing an idea to life

It’s clear that most innovations aren’t the result of lone inventors in garages. They’re the result of connections - between people and ideas - that result in new combinations. Steven Johnson captured this in Where Good Ideas Come From, which surveyed innovations over hundreds of years:

“If you look at history, innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect. Innovative environments… expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts.”

For those of you working in large companies, please note that he didn’t write “Innovation comes from the best Powerpoint slides pitched to judges in the innovation program.” You don’t hide your idea until the day of some competition. Instead, as Eric Ries described so well in Lean Startup, you share your ideas and related work early on; you actively solicit feedback that helps you refine and improve upon it; and then you iterate. Along the way, you build relationships with people that can help you in some way, whether it’s with technology, financing, usability, or anything else you might need.

That’s how you bring your idea to life. It’s only after you have a viable prototype that you may want to approach people for funding, permission, or other resources - if you need it.

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

Building a tribe around an idea

Now imagine your idea has been selected or you’ve somehow brought it to the successful prototype stage. At this point you have a different challenge: getting attention. After all, if not enough people know or care about your work, you won’t be able to reach the audience you want to reach, or make the difference you want to make. 

Today, most successful startups don’t rely on traditional marketing to get attention because it’s too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they try to build communities around their idea.

Using the metaphor from Derek Sivers’ popular TED talk, “How to build a movement” (a great way to spend 3 minutes), modern startups actively look to find “their second and third dancers” - early adopters who embrace the idea - by making their offering visible and accessible. Then they equip, empower, and connect those who care about their work to spread the word for them, all the while getting access to valuable feedback, knowledge, and new opportunities. 

An impassioned tribe, connected to an idea and to each other, has much more power than any lone inventor. 

How to teach yourself & others

Building a purposeful network isn’t just an extra task or a nice thing to have. It’s fundamental to the innovation process. And, importantly, it's a skill anyone can develop.

One way to do it, to learn by actually building relationships that matter, is through a Working Out Loud Circle. If your company is trying to increase innovation, you can integrate WOL Circles into your formal programs or corporate learning academy. If you’re on your own, you can form a Circle yourself to deepen relationships with people related to your idea. (You can find Circle members in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.) 

Anyone can have an idea. It takes a network to bring your idea to life, and bring it to the world.

The best way to implement social tools & practices

If you want to change how large companies work - if you want to eliminate all the waste you know is there while uncovering more commercial opportunities - you can learn a lot from the founder of a Silicon Valley start-up focused on 3D instant messaging. In most social business efforts, you work on your use cases. You research the technology. You plan everything as best you can leading up to a big launch, and see what happens.

That may teach you something about what works and doesn’t work. But that method of learning costs a lot and takes an awfully long time. And, unfortunately, it’s exactly the approach I’ve been taking.

Until now.

The problem

When it comes to social tools and practices, we simply don’t know the best ways to apply them nor which problems we should try to solve in our firms. In the midst of this uncertainty, we need to try different things - some of which will fail - while we learn.

The problem is that, in most of the companies we’re trying to change - firms with annual budget and performance review cycles - we’re used to planning our way out of uncertainty. And we ask questions at the end.

Why aren’t more users signing up? Why aren’t people using the new features? Why isn't it working as we'd planned?

Even if you do a brilliant job executing your idea, waiting till the end to learn how effective it will be turns your brilliant execution into a wasteful meander through the possibilities.

Treat your social business effort like a “Lean Startup”

A different and extraordinarily useful approach is described in detail by Eric Ries in “Lean Startup".  (Ries defines startups as “any human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty” - a definition that certainly applies to social business efforts.)

Many of the concepts in the book will be familiar, since the approach includes some of the basic methods from the lean manufacturing and quality movements. Examples include using Toyota’s “5 Whys” for root cause analysis and genchi genbutsu for investigating problems in the field.

The big innovation, though, comes from combining these ideas with modern development techniques. Concepts like agile development and user stories. Techniques like building a Minimum Viable Product (one with just those features that allow the product to be deployed and no more). And using cohort analysis (measuring user engagement over time) versus vanity metrics (things like registered users, downloads, and pageviews that don’t necessarily correlate to measures relevant to your business model).

Ries successfully weaves all of these far-ranging ideas into a simple framework you can use whenever you’re trying to “create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

Build, Measure, Learn

At its core, the framework is a feedback loop focused on quickly learning what you need to do to transform ideas (hypotheses about what will be effective) into products (the minimum thing you need to test the idea) that can generate customer feedback that can then further shape your ideas.

That is, when you have an idea, your first thought shouldn’t be “how will we implement it?” but “what’s a fast, inexpensive way we can test this idea with customers?”

As Ries says, “although we write the feedback loop as Build-Measure-Learn because the activities happen in that order, our planning really works in the reverse order: we figure out what we need to learn and then work backwards to see what product will work as an experiment to get that learning.”

The way forward

As we try to change the way we work, vision and strategy are still important. They’re just not enough.

“Only 5 percent of entrepreneurship is the big idea, the business model, the whiteboard strategizing, and the splitting of the spoils. The other 95 percent is the gritty work that is measured by innovation accounting; product prioritization decisions; deciding which customers to target or listen to, and having the courage to subject a grand visions to constant testing and feedback.”

As we try to understand which problems to solve, which customers to work with, which incentives to use, we can embrace the fact that we don’t know what will be effective.

And then we can get to work, using the Lean Startup approach to turn uncertainty into a set of quick, inexpensive experiments that can guide our learning and help us make the difference we know we can make.