6 Questions to ask when building a startup

The 1 Line Description

Which assumption, if false, makes nothing else matter? (6 questions to guide this)

When to use it

Before doing anything else!

Key Ideas

Starting a startup is hard and messy. It’s not nearly as sexy as they make it out to be in the media. There’s loads of completely pointless tasks that require your attention — and focus is the most valuable thing that you have.

Building software, designing a logo, finding a URL, hiring a team, finding offices, raising money, and all of the other things that you think you need to be doing while starting up a business is wrong. Often this confusion comes from not having a proper prioritisation framework and not acknowledging what is most important.

The easiest way to find out what is important, is to ask:

“Which assumption, if false, makes nothing else matter? “

Asking that helps you to identify your biggest assumptions, find your biggest risks and focus on the right things. Lucky for you, the first 6 questions for any new idea are pretty much always the same. What you need to do is go out and find qualitative (or at least, quantitative) data to backup the answers to these 6 seemingly simple questions:

  1. Is this a real customer problem? What is is and who are ‘customers’?
  2. Is there a viable solution to this customers problem? (Who are the competitors?)
  3. Can we actually build the solution?
  4. Will customers use it?
  5. Will customers pay for it?
  6. Will customers pay enough to make it a sustainable business?

If your answer to any of those questions is not true, then nothing else matters.

Your knee-jerk reaction is going to be to answer “Yes, obviously” to each of these questions. But do you have hard data to actually back that up? If it’s coming from your experience, gut, or intuition then it should be really easy data to get… right? Start at the top and go and chat to some customers. Remember that their opinion matters — yours does not.

As you move through these questions you’ll need to start building out different versions of your product. The first will probably be an interview script, then a prototype or concierge MVP, then the minimal solution that customers will actually pay you for, and so on. You should be able to validate whether it will be a sustainable business before you have to spend too much money.

These questions are working you through the Design Thinking process of Desirability (1 & 2), Feasibility (3 & 4) and Viability (5 & 6) of your business. The tools that I recommend that you should be using at each stage are for (1) Customer Profile, (2) Solution Design and you complete a Value Proposition Canvas, (3) Value Stream Mapping and finally a Business Model Canvas for (4–6). (These are all explained in our Lean Iterator Playbook.)

What you’ll notice as you move through this is that by focusing on the biggest assumption or question you’ll have a sense of what actions and activities are useful and which are not. This becomes your prioritisation framework by which you can measure your progress in the very early days. (Everything that isn’t backed up by hard data is an assumption!)

Remember that showing how a model will make a potentially massive business is completely irrelevant if you haven’t actually validated that there is a market need for it — and any time you spend building on assumptions is mostly wasted as it could be based on a fundamental flaw.

So if you’re trying to build a new business and test your idea, use these simple questions to make sure you stay on track.