Founders: Avoid Death by Assumption

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” — Isaac Asimov

When you’re building a company, your ability to make good assumptions can be the difference between skyrocketing or skydiving. A few bad calls in a larger business can be damaging, but in an early stage startup it can be — and often is — fatal.

A roadmap to better

At Fruitful we’ve made a conscious effort to get better at making assumptions. We do this by mapping out the following on what we call an assumption roadmap™

An illustration of the Assumption Roadmap. See description below.

For the upcoming months, we unroll a stretch of paper and stick:

  • Blue Post-its → for what we assume we can do.
    An example being: We will raise a new round of venture investment because we’ve built our product and are ready for go-to-market.
  • Red Post-its → for things that could undo the above (namely, risk factors).
    E.g. Investors pass on us because they can’t get comfortable with our costs to acquire new customers.
  • Green Post-its → for contingencies that we develop.
    E.g. Use investor feedback to rework the pitch / consider a change in strategy / reach out to previous investors to jumpstart the round / collect data to make our pitch more compelling / secure a bridge loan (lol).

Assumption Roadmaps FTW

As a team, we’ve found the exercise to be pretty helpful since it:

  • Forces you to think of worst case scenarios — every headstrong founder hates doing this but it’s important for so many reasons that go way beyond the role of this article.
  • Encourages brainstorming of contingencies — and trust me, you’ll need these.
  • Serves as a visual overview of
    (1) important assumptions we have over the next few months
    (2) where have a large number of risk factors
    (3) where we’re looking shallow on fallbacks for said risk factors.

Most importantly, this role your sleeves-up approach to planning is quick and simple — making it accessible for everyone on your team to contribute.

★ For extra points, use the Post-It Plus app to rearrange, organise and share your assumption roadmaps anytime after your planning sesh.

Saying Something Memorable

It should come as no surprise: The best way to make a point, teach something or sell a product is to tell stories. Here’s one of my favourite storytellers:

When I start preparing for a talk, I often struggle to think of stories that help explain the ‘thing’ I want to talk about.

After hearing Eamonn O’Brien’s brilliant talk at Sage in Newcastle the other day, I think I know where I’ve been going wrong.

1) I can’t think of story

It’s tricky to think of a story on the spot.

A simple way to solve this is to keep a journal. Whenever you encounter something funny / poignant / bizarre, jot it down. Overhear a funny conversation on the train this morning? Write it down.

Once you start building up a bunch of stories, you’ll have less of a problem thinking of one.

I ended up buying the Day One app as I’d probably end up losing a notebook — but good old pen and paper works just as well.

2) I think the story needs to be as thrilling as a James Bond car chase

As Eamonn pointed out, the James Bond car chase stories often wind up alienating your audience as they find it difficult to relate.

Better to go with simple, local, everyday stories that have an interesting twist.

In my experience, captivating stories encourage the listener to inject themselves into the narrative — “Oh my goodness, imagine if that happened to me”.

Or as Steve did; they use analogies to light up the imagination and explain a point in a super compelling way.

♫ New Mix: This & That #18

Managed to find some time to flick through my music and produce a new mix.

Tinged with autumn leaves, this mix brings together some of my favourite melodic house tracks featuring the likes of Guy J, Vincenzo, Radiohead and the very talented Dosem.

I’ve made it available for download so you can stick it on your phone for listening on that train journey // cold walk home =)

This is how you package consumer goods

Yesterday I was in the market for some plughole unblocker. We’ve moved places recently and I forgot to put this useful little thing in our shower.

So I head into Tesco and — eventually — I find the section for bleaches and plughole unblockers.

I know that Mr. Muscle is a popular brand for this product, so I look for the logo.

Bingo. I find the Mr Muscle.

photo of Mr Muscle among other products

Just as I’m about to pick up a bottle, I notice the bottle next to it. It’s called Buster — a brand I've never heard of.

photo of Buster — a challenger brand

Here’s what happened:

  • The packaging for Buster does a great job of capturing my attention. It makes a bold assertion that’s relevant to what I’m looking for -- that this product is much better for bathrooms.
  • The packaging entices me to find out why by picking-up the bottle and turning it around. In two, very succinct bullet points, it pitches why Buster is better.
  • By this point I’m already holding the bottle of Buster and since I had just been sold on why it’s better for what I needed, I went ahead and bought it.

Without realising it, this nifty bit of packaging had moved me right through the marketing funnel (Awareness > Consideration > Purchase) in around 10 seconds.

Of course, the irony here is that both of those brands probably come from the same company — be it, Procter & Gamble or Unilever et al. This is how the consumer packaged goods industry works.

That though shouldn’t take anything away from this being a nice example of how to package an alternative product, in a market that is largely dominated by recognised household brands.

Questions to ask your design work

Last month I spent some time updating my portfolio. As a product / user experience / web designer, it can be quite tricky to present your work to others.

The rock star visual designers of this world can get away with presenting screenshots of their stunning visual work — job done, money due.

But if your day-to-day consists of making user flows, interaction designs, napkin wireframes, trade-offs, A/B tests, and minimum viable products, then you — like me — need to do a bit more groundwork to do the show and tell properly.

It’s not so much the what, but the why and the how.

With this in mind, I decided to structure my portfolio around the questions I ask myself when looking at other products and services:
A user experience, product design portfolio layout

1/ What was the context?

Was this a piece of work for a fast moving startup or a 100 year old family business? Setting the context lays some good foundations for answering the questions around what you did and why.

2/ What problem were you trying to solve?

The cornerstone of successful design projects, is making sure you’re solving the right problems.

In this section of my portfolio pieces, I found it useful to pull apart the problem I was hired to solve.

Sometimes the problem definition is a bit blurry i.e: Do we really need to make the sign up process faster? Or - to convert more prospects - should we enable users to access features without committing to signing-up first?

3/ How did you design the solution?

Here we deep dive right into how you designed the product / interface / solution.

Unpack how you approached things. Show rather than tell. Let us see what you made.

Did new insights emerge as you moved through the project? If so, lay them out here — tell us how you responded.

4/ Review the above

The final section of the portfolio answers:

  • How did it go?
  • What impact did the solution make?
  • What happened when your work reached customers’ hands?
  • Can you surface some feedback or data that points to show your solution is working out?

Arguably, the biggest thing you bring to the table as a designer is your ability to render an optimal solution — and answers to these questions go a long way in revealing how you do that.