The dangers of falling in love with your startup idea and what to do instead

You need passion to run a startup. The fiery kind. The type that keeps you going through the rollercoaster of founder life. But passion has a dangerous side too.

Time and time again, startups make the mistake of passionately falling in love with their own shiny ideas. You can be the most hardworking founder and still, your startup could fail. Let’s explore why this happens and what to do instead.

Why do we do it?

Confirmation bias

We often start a business to scratch our own itch. We notice a gap in the market, and we immediately start hatching a plan to plug it. We believe we’re our own first, ideal customer. It’s the biggest mistake I see businesses make. I know my customers, they’re just like me. Until they’re not. And it all ends in tears.

The moment you step into entrepreneurship, your perception of what your customers want inevitably shifts, however much you had in common with them in the early days. You are just too invested in the outcome. We slip into confirmation bias where we unconsciously seek out signs, evidence and information that confirms what we want to believe (that our idea is genius! And that our target customers will think so too.)

We ask the wrong people

Another reason founders fall in love with their own ideas is because they get their nearest and dearest to fall in love with it too. We tend to test out our ideas with the wrong people. In those early days, we ask friends, family, and folks from our network whether they love our idea too. And, more often than not, we hear nice things in return. Startup life still carries a lot of kudos and can quite easily impress (read blind) well-meaning friends and family members. But remember they are not a proxy for your customers. Yes, they could well end up being some of your first customers. But don’t kid yourself, they are just being nice.

Sunk cost fallacy

This catches us all out. In life and in business. According to research agency The Decision Lab, the sunk cost fallacy “is the tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits in the long run”.

This tends to happen when we relentlessly pursue our idea despite early warning signs (that we choose to ignore!) that it might not work out as planned. Unfortunately, just  because you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, that doesn’t mean it will work. Investing time, money and energy into your startup can’t guarantee success. Listen to the little voice in your head telling you that you might need to pause, re-think and potentially pivot.

What to do instead?

Fall in love with the problem not the solution

If you want to fall in love with something, fall in love with the problem(s) you’re trying to solve for your customers. Not the solution or end-product itself. Solutions come and go as technology and know-how evolve (think about how many product solutions there are to the problem I want to listen to music on the go). Keep yourself focused on the challenges your customers face in the area you’re looking to play in. Explore with customers what they are ultimately trying to achieve and what success would look like instead of jumping to solutions too quickly.

Talk to the right people

Make sure you conduct interviews with the types of customers you are targeting. Surveys are not enough. Start with a solid 10 people. Set aside 30 minutes to an hour and write a discussion guide with the themes and questions you want to explore with them. Provide an incentive if necessary. Customer interviews are one of the best market research methods to really understand customer behaviours, attitudes and challenges that other methods just won’t give you.

Ask the right questions

Once you’ve found some real people to talk to, don’t fall in the trap of asking the wrong questions. Questions like Do you like my idea? will get you nowhere. Erika Hall in her book Just Enough Research says: “On some level, we all want things to be liked, so it’s easy to treat likability as a leading success indicator. But the concept of ‘liking is as subjective as it is empty…I like horses, but I am not going to buy any online”.

Instead seek out evidence of the behaviours you need to see for your idea to work. Let’s say you are looking to launch a new subscription box with wellness products, instead of asking target customers whether they like the idea (or whether they’d buy one) ask them whether they currently subscribe to any kind of subscription boxes. If yes, how many? Why? What do they like about it? What don’t they like? If the answer is no, ask whether they have subscribed in the past? Whether they’ve considered it? Did they cancel? Why?