Lessons Learned: (Tunnel) Vision

Somaware is working to launch its first product: eyes-free, ears-free, hands-free wearable navigation.

Summer Launchpad rocketed off just about two weeks ago. Xiaochang Li and myself are the two cofounders of Somaware. Our fledgling startup is one of the ten teams in this summer's incubator. It also happens to be that I volunteered to give you, dear readers, the very first look into the problems and solutions we’re encountering as we endeavor to bring to fruition our company’s vision of tools extending the human senses.

And there we have it. That lofty word “vision.” A vision is exciting and inspiring and motivating. But a vision can just as easily block out reality all around it.  Crafting a vision is relatively easy. Executing a vision, however, is an immense challenge. I admit that I love visions. Mathematicians speak of certain mathematical proofs as beautiful. For me, a sharp, strategic, compellng vision is a thing of beauty. I want to see the vision for Somaware come to pass. But I'll acknowledge that I am wholly enamored of that vision, and I'm coming to see all the little ways I can be deluded by that infatuation.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” —Niels Bohr

If we could know the future, executing a vision would be simple. We would know just what approach to take to realize it—or even whether to attempt it in the first place. Nihal Parthasarathi, cofounder of CourseHorse, was our guest speaker for the second week of Summer Launchpad. He told the story of the very earliest days of his company. He presented that story through the lens of continual learning (so very appropriate for a company that connects students with local classes).

When I asked Nihal about their biggest mistakes in those very early days of the company’s history, he immediately responded that each of their biggest mistakes was in extending themselves beyond what they understood. He clarified by explaining that what they failed to do was test their plans and visions before committing precious time and resources to them. Without testing first, they were, in fact, taking big risks in attempting to predict the future. Nihal encouraged us to carefully test reality before executing our visions. Take small nearly inconsequential risks so as to learn, to see the real world and real opportunities. Scaffold a vision with small, focused tests.

I come from a software development background, and I’m accustomed to the Agile style of development based on building working software as soon as possible in small iterative increments, testing all along the way. This method limits the tendency to build software that is not needed or wanted. I’ve seen it succeed firsthand. And so Nihal’s advice made immediate sense to me.

Presently, we are deep in customer development at Somaware to understand just who our potential customers are and what they need and want. Lately, we’ve been talking to lots of runners and cyclists, and we’re really starting to get a solid handle on all the different kinds that are out there (way more than you might think!). Certain profiles are a great fit for what we have to offer. But, it's the darndest thing. The people who jump out of their chairs wanting our product are not from the groups that are a seemingly great fit. In fact, our potential early adopting, very first customers don’t follow a pattern. So, we have at least two options. We can press ahead with our vision of who our customer is and how they will use our product. Or, we can keep talking to potential customers, testing our assumptions and hypotheses in those conversations, until we really do understand our customers.

Entrepreneurs, myself very much included, can keep our propensity for grand visions in check with small iterative increments, testing markets, channels, partners, revenue streams, and all the other components of a successful business all along the way. My new mantra: Pursue your vision. Beware of tunnel vision. This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.