You can’t speed up time: On testing startup hypothesis

The amazing rise and prominence of Y Combinator, TechStars and 500 Startups has bestowed upon us the idea that startups have a very specific timeframe to figure out their product, raise money, launch, build a brand, etc. You combine that with many entrepreneurs talking about having an MVP in a couple of weeks, and abandoning their idea after four weeks and you start to believe that if you can’t prove something in a couple of months it’s not a good path to continue.

The problem of that is similar to our current elementary educational system. The schedule is set and your learning style and pace are irrelevant, you must learn as prescribed. That doesn’t work for kids. That doesn’t work for startups.

Let’s peel this onion in three layers: The founders, the product and the market.

The Founders

Not two founders are alike. Some have more industry expertise. Some have more technical expertise. Some have raised capital in the past, some have not. Some are very wise and understand distribution and partnerships, others are strong at building highly scalable products. None of them is “perfect” for the job. All of them will need to learn many new things to succeed in their current venture. Some of these lessons might be fast, some will be slower, but they will be different. It’s unrealistic to expect multiple founding teams to operate in the same pace.

The Product

It’s one thing to hack together a web service that aggregates some type of data, does something smart with it and presents it to customers in a valuable way (think financial services, fitness, shopping, analytics, etc.). Is a whole another thing to be doing things that haven’t been done before and require a lot of research and unproven technology (think VR, image recognition, etc.). I’m not arguing that one is better than the other (the best one is the one people want), but I’m saying that the pace in which things get executed cannot be determined by a prescribed schedule. You can’t say that startups must build an MVP in 2 months. There is no formula. Each product will have its natural pace of execution. It can be done faster (by exceptional developers & product team), and it can be done slower (part-time team, lack of resources, etc.), but it’s an intrinsic pace for that product.

The Market

This is the most critical layer of why you can’t have arbitrary dates or schedules for your product. The market (read, the buyer) doesn’t play by these rules. First, there are products that require trust. Heck, almost anything that we buy requires some type of brand value associated with it. If you are looking for a cheap flight are you going to trust Priceline or Brand value takes time to build. If you are working with real estate, travel, cars, healthcare, high price items or high-risk items you won’t be able to prove anything in weeks. If you are working with entertainment, food, something cheap or low risk (who cares if it doesn’t work?), then you might be able to validate it faster.

Finally, there is also a natural cycle of the universe — OK, maybe it’s Earth’s cycle only. But many purchases or purchase decisions are made in specific times of the year (or a person’s or business lifecycle). Are you launching a barbeque grill comparison shopping engine in November? Good luck with that. Are you trying to sell employee tax benefits services in May? Are you sure that’s the right time of the year to be selling it? Most Weddings happens in the summer, but when are the products and services associated with it sold? When are companies making their next fiscal year budget decisions? When is cities and counties making their decisions? These questions are very specific to each product.

Bottom-line: Timing matters

If you are not at the right place, at the right time, selling the right product, you might write off as a failure or a need to pivot, and you just need to miss one of those — in the case my argument here is “time” — and you’ll get bad data on testing your startup hypothesis.

You can actually pre-set a pace and timeframe to test your hypothesis, however, on that case you have to be aware that you are eliminating a lot of ideas that would take just a little bit longer to develop and prove themselves. It’s a filter and that’s fine. Some people are fine spending ten years to launch a product (e.g. pharmaceuticals). Others prefer products in which a Facebook ad can work as an acquisition channel and having one week of conversion and purchase data is more than enough to prove if it worked or not.

The trouble happens when there is an unnatural pressure by investors or an accelerator to prove things in their schedule and not on the organic pace of the market, the product and the founders. It’s like a pre-Kindergartner for toddlers saying that all kids age 2, independent of their birth month or abilities, must be potty-trained, know how to use a fork and have a 300-word vocabulary in the first day of school.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.