Broken Light Bulb

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If you want to know how many times I’ve failed as an entrepreneur, all you need to do is take a peek at my personal domain name graveyard. I collect domain names like some people collect Star Wars action figures. In fact, some of my domain names are still in their original packaging, untouched by human hands or search engine crawlers. But unlike that vintage Han Solo in Bespin Fatigues, their pristine condition adds absolutely nothing to their value. 

For every startup of mine that has made it to the light of day, there were at least a dozen or more that got far enough through the planning stages for me to plunk down the $8.99 or whatever for the .com, but then never made it to alpha. What’s even more embarrassing is that I still own most of them, enough of them that it costs me a chunk of change every year to keep them all up. 

In my own defense, I have let the stupidest among them go.

But my URL hoarding speaks directly to my belief in each of the original ideas, dime-a-dozen as they are, to become the next Facebook, or at least the next ExitEvent. And every time I get a notice from the registrar telling me that is about the renew itself, I think – “Yeah, maybe it’s time to let that die.” But it’s rare that I actually follow through, because the next thing I think is “Yeah, but all it needs is…” 

For what it’s worth, I believe in these ideas so much that I refuse to even name any of their corresponding URLs in this article, regardless of the laughs they most certainly would have brought you, because THERE’S STILL A CHANCE.

It’s a sickness.

I can say, for the first time… I think ever… that I am actively working on exactly zero of these ideas. But I also have to highlight the word “actively” because I’m always passively thinking about one or more of them.

Now, I’m assuming that if you’re an entrepreneur, this is part of your makeup too. And I’m also assuming that unless you’re working 80 hours a week on your primary focus, you spend a lot of time in this same exact tailspin. You’re constantly working on bringing one or more ideas into reality, and riding that emotional roller coaster between the peaks of sheer joy—when something you’ve added changes the scope of the thing entirely—and the valleys of frustration—when you spin for days trying to figure out how to make the thing be more than it is.

I know I’m speaking in generalities, but if you’re an entrepreneur, you get it.

The important part—the learning part—of this column, is figuring out how to let the losers go.

Look, I know that all it takes for you to get back into said tailspin is a hot shower or a good run, something that sparks an extension of the original idea and then three hours worth of CodeAnywhere later (I mean, you can code in a browser now, it’s like giving a crack addict chewable sugar-free crack) you’re one step away from an alpha test.

I’ve been there.

So my advice is simple: Let it go quick.

From the very beginning, don’t waste time trying to figure out exactly how the idea should be born into the real world. Rather, narrow it down to its simplest, most niche iteration and get that into alpha immediately. This is a minimum viable product (MVP) approach with sales being the endgame.

In other words—and remember this is totally generic—build the 'Buy Now' button first. Then build enough functionality to make that purchase worth the asking price. Admittedly, this is the most difficult part, but if you can’t map out that functionality and get it to life quickly, whether by yourself or with your team or through an incubator, whatever your path of choice, there’s your answer. If the answer is no, scrap the idea and move on.

Seriously. Ideas are indeed cheap. If you can’t execute on it, it’s not worth pursuing.

Next, throw up just enough marketing bravado to get your customer from the wild to the landing screen (think mobile) to that 'Buy Now' button. Then launch. While you’re waiting for metrics and measurement, spend time on three areas: Discovery, Hardening and Retention. Add these as needed.

Example: No one knows about your product? Work on discovery. Product is not functioning perfectly as your new users use it? Hardening. Not enough value to justify the price? Retention. 

If incremental adds in each of these three areas don’t build momentum, fight until the adoption curve flattens. But once it flattens, move on.

The maximum amount of time it should take you to churn through all of this?

For me, it’s about six weeks.

Yes. I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you to set yourself a deadline that starts at the purchase of the domain name (or whatever) to repeatable, high-margin, low-cost-of-acquisition sales (that part is non-negotiable).

If you reach that deadline and you hit your goal and you’re still having fun, then this idea might be the one you’ll sink the next few years of 80-hour weeks and your hard-earned money and your relationships and good name into.

And that’s the reason I’m being so strict with the dates, honest with the metrics, and cavalier with the death shot trigger. If this is the thing you ultimately choose to do, you will be all in. You’re going to put a ton of effort and resources into it. Years. Thousands. Furthermore, if you do it right, you’re going to convince a lot of other people to put a ton of effort and resources into it as well. That’s all going to be on you.

You are ultimately the best judge of whether or not the idea has legs, provided you can emotionally detach yourself and look at it as a casual observer as well as the product expert. This is so much easier to do at six weeks than it is at six months, and the amount of pain and the opportunity cost of killing off an idea off at six weeks is far less than killing off an idea at six months or two years or five years.

Too often, entrepreneurs embark on a new venture thinking, “This is a pretty good idea, let’s see how far it goes.” This is something your second, third or fourth hire should be thinking (or maybe your first investor). What the founder should be thinking is, “This is a game-changing idea, let’s see if I’m the one to execute on it.”

The first question is open-ended and directionless. The second has a handful of answers, including “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” “Probably” and “Not Now.” Your goal should be to get to “Yes” as soon as possible. If you can’t, put it in the graveyard and move on to the next game-changing idea.

Because I’m sure you’ve got another one.