A few months ago I was a mentor at Startup Weekend and had the privilege of co-leading a session with Bill Warner. Besides being one of the most active and SF-connected angels in Boston, Bill is of course one of our entrepreneurial treasures in Boston, having founded Avid -which any video/photo/creative person or Mac fan will revere- as well as Wildfire, which besides being ahead of its time gave a big boost to Rich Miner, who went on to co-found Android. So, co-lead is a bit of an overstatement- as Bill has his Startups from the Heart approach down and I was happy to see it in person and contribute where relevant. I came away thinking that it’s definitely a worthwhile exercise for founders to go through early on.
Before that session I had heard of Startups from the Heart but hadn’t really understood what the idea was or how it worked. While not a complicated exercise, it definitely benefits from some discipline and faciliation. I’ll do my best here to explain it as well as my take.
Bill asks, not necessarily in this order:
1) What is your Intention?
My interpretation of this, without getting into semantics, is- “Why are you starting this company? What change would you like to see in the world as a result?” I think one of the obstacles some founders face with this question is that it can come across as a purely do-gooding bias. I think that is an aspect, and if it’s a core part of your startup that is fantastic, but I believe that this question is very relevant regardless. You need to be setting out to create a specific change and have real passion and intention to achieve it.
The #1 trip-up that the Startup Weekend participants faced here was getting into their product mindset right away. For example, a meeting-scheduling startup might be founded with this intention-
right: I intend to save people time and stress by taking the hassle out of setting up meetings
wrong: I intend to build a calendar for people to pick time slots for meetings
This is the key, though. THIS INTENTION IS ONLY “RIGHT” IF IT’S WHAT YOU ACTUALLY INTEND! The point of the exercise is not to change your mind, “get you to think big” or “sway you toward social responsibility.” It’s to make sure you are cognizant and can articulate your founding impetus. While this exercise may seem a bit silly and obvious to some, I think there is definite value in crystallizing and committing to what you intend. It will be a bedrock that you can refer to later in sharing your vision with others and in making many key decisions in your startup.
2) What do you Believe?
This question is meant to get you to clarify the foundation for your Intention. Again, it’s not intended (in my view, at least) to force you into “believing” something do-gooding or world-changing, but to make explicit the beliefs that underlie what you’re setting out to do. For example, Alex Patriquin at Wattzy did a great job with this in a pitch of his I saw when helping with the entrants for Angel Bootcamp. He talked about how he believed that homeowners were being cheated out of a lot of money by inefficient energy appliances and homebuilding practices, and that he was personally fed up with his high electric bills and difficulty in taking control of the problem. This would lead pretty directly into what he Intends to do…
While a bit redundant perhaps with Intention, I think these two questions work together to really clarify your original motives. These are things that, years down the road, you’ll hopefully be able to hang your hat on. For example, with Going, my cofounders –Rebecca and Geoff– and I Believed that big cities were full of undiscovered treasures, with many more interesting and fulfilling things to do for everyone regardless of their interest than any person could find, remember, learn about, plan for, etc. And thus we set out with the Intent to make it much easier for people to learn about all the amazing, fun, interesting things to do in their city, and also to help the people creating those activities -museums, DJs, charities, kickball leagues, restaurants, rollerskating event planners- find their audience in a more direct way.
3) Who are your People?
I think this is one of the key questions in Bill’s approach, and particularly close to my heart as I’m a huge advocate of Customer Development. Even with an Intention and Belief, it’s important to be more explicit about who you care about, whose life you are trying to impact. “Everyone” is usually not a good answer. There usually is some group you care more about, if you really think it through. It’s ok if this group is people similar to you, again the idea is to reflect and verbalize your thoughts, not necessarily to change them. But if you don’t feel like you are setting out to address the needs of a certain group, or groups, of People, that is a major red flag.
I was speaking with a top micro-VC firm recently about a potential investment, and this came up as a key criterion. If a company has a great Intention, even a good product embodying it, but doesn’t have a People, it’s a red flag. A startup that doesn’t set out thinking about who will use their product, who needs it, who will benefit, as a constant element of what they are doing, is scary. Without the user or customer as a core part of a company’s foundation it will be much harder to do Customer Development, decide what a Minimum Viable Product is, when Product-Market Fit has been achieved, etc. And as a founder, it’s much less likely you will be excited and satisfied by what you’re doing in the long run if you’re not doing it for anyone in particular (besides yourself).
4) What is your Invention?
While Bill had this question earlier, perhaps because Intention and Invention sound good together 🙂 I think it’s most appropriate as the last one. The three previous questions feed into this one. Ok great, you intend to do something, it’s based on certain beliefs/assumptions/tenets, and it’s *for* someone(s). Now, let’s talk about what it is… the thing, the product.
What was interesting and might surprise you after the “mushy” questions above is that this was the hardest one for the Startup Weekend founders to articulate. The reason was that Bill required -totally spot-on the money- that the description of the invention be jargon-free. It must be explained in a way that anyone, especially your People, can understand. Bill mentioned that women tend to be better at this exercise, and I can see that. Most people, even non-hacker founders, immediately dove into features, buzzwords, and other in-the-weeds aspects of their product. For example, take Tungle.me-
bad: It’s a system for self-service schedule management that integrates with 3rd party sites via iCal and other standards.
good: It lets people who want to meet with you see when you’re free (but not that you’re busy at 3 taking Roofus to the doggie spa) and request a specific meeting time that you can then approve.
Bill introduced a great “scaffolding” (in educational theory terminology) or technique to help the founders with this one. He said, imagine you’re at Show & Tell day in a 3rd grade classroom, and you have to tell the kids what you do. This had a huge impact… the founders now instinctively started simplifying their language and talking in human terms that really got at the benefit vs. buzzwords of their invention. I definitely recommend this.
How Starting from the Heart is Relevant
I believe that having gone through the above exercises will help you in many ways, including practical ones, as you build your startup. Who should you hire? People that share some of your beliefs and intentions, ideally, and that can understand your people. What features should you add to your MVP? Ones that are aligned with beliefs/intentions/people.
Of course companies can and should pivot. If the pivot is small, your Intention and Beliefs may not have changed, but perhaps your People and Invention have. If your pivot is large, you can do this exercise from the top to make sure the new foundation is explicit. You’d be surprised how easy it is, two years into a startup, to have pivoted 5 times and be operating on fumes and gut with no anchor in these underlying keystones anymore. That makes it really hard for both you and your team to make good decisions quickly and can get you mired in endless debates because any idea can have equal merit if they’re not easily measured against a core yardstick.
While there are many frameworks for framing early startups, and you should take advantage of several, I think that Startups from the Heart is one of the simplest and most useful ones. The fact that it also can emphasize social good is a bonus. I really enjoyed seeing Bill in action and hold the entrepreneurs’ rapt attention. I’m doing my part by doing 1-on-1 mentoring sessions at his upcoming MassTCL Unconference, and look forward to seeing some of you there!
Other good posts on this topic:
- Ali Powell for BostInnovation on Bill’s Anything Goes accelerator and on Startups from the Heart
- Rudi Seitz‘s Posterous with his take on this topic
- Tom Peters interview with Bill Warner
photo credit: boston.startupweekend.org