The latest generation of software businesses exist in a volatile, unpredictable world. There are no guarantees about what will work, and what won’t. To find out, you need to experiment, fail, learn and improve.
To quote Eric Ries of 'Lean Startup' fame,
“If you cannot fail, you cannot learn.”
However, too many people use that adage as an excuse for inefficiency. They make needless mistakes, waste a ton of resources, and rationalise it as ‘learning’.
“I had to spend all that time and money, and reach all those dead-ends, because it helped me discover the right way to do things.”
But they could have (and should have) learnt those lessons in a far more efficient way.
The Painful Truth
Most mistakes can be avoided.
With a bit more planning and a bit more experimentation, it's almost always possible to reach the same conclusion (or a better one) without having to endure quite as much pain and anguish.
It’s incredibly hard to find fault in ourselves and realise the blame lies at our feet. After all, it’s human nature to rationalise bad experiences, to create meaning for the suffering we have to endure. It's difficult to reflect on our mistakes, and admit that all those late nights and hard decisions weren’t actually necessary. But it's a realisation that we need to have.
It's true that a ton of successful founders learn valuable lessons through trial and error alone. But it's also true that other founders learn those same lessons by reading, talking to the more experienced, and absorbing the stories of people who went through that trial and error in the first place.
Same outcome, but a very different expenditure of energy to get there.
Many people (myself included) justify costly mistakes as ways of reinforcing lessons learned.
After all, the lesson learned from burning your hand on a hot stove is vastly different to the lesson learned from reading about hot stoves. The sensation (and the mental image...) of burnt, searing flesh is infinitely more vivid than a black and white diagram of the same principle.
But there are only so many times we can afford to burn our hand. If we keep doing it, over and over again, we'll end up with a serious problem.
The same principle applies in our business. With so much riding on every decision we make, we simply can’t afford to burn our hand every time we need to learn a lesson – we’d end up broke.
So, actionable takeaway time.
What can we do to work a little bit smarter? To reach our goals with a little more efficiency, and a little less effort?
1) Experiment, Little and Often
Experiments are more powerful (and more revealing) than market research. Instead of relying on third-party data to make massive, ill-fated judgements, get your hands dirty, and test things in small increments.
Sounds like it works? Great! Now prove it.
2) Combine the Qualitative With the Quantitative
Developing a myopic fixation on metrics can easily blind you to the bigger problems facing your company.
Quantitative data is essential for informing your decisions, but it only paints half a picture. Without the context supplied by qualitative data, metrics alone can steer your SaaS business in the wrong direction.
3) Get Answers From the People That Matter
If you want real insight into your business and your products, there's no subsitute for talking to people. Make time for interviews and chats with your early adopters, customers and lost prospects.
When faced by a big decision, don't paint yourself into a corner by making bad assumptions, and get real answers from real people.
4) Stop Burning Your Hand
Sometimes, ideas and experiments fail - it's a part of the job description.
When those failures happen, you need to be completely honest with yourself. You need to work out why you failed, and how you can avoid failing again. Crucially, you need to work out if you could've had the same realisation in a less expensive way.
You need to stop burning your hand on the hot stove.
After all, success is borne from repeated failure. To get anywhere, you're going to have to take a ton of risks, and deal with a ton of failures.
You need to get good at failing.