The press loves to celebrate stories of visionaries that saw the future and charted a course to intersect it with a “revolutionary” new product offering. In a visionary product launch there is no place for being too early or too late:

While these make for great stories, behind every visionary story usually lies years of hard work, experimentation, and learning. Even the unveiling of the visionary computer in Steve Job’s words were years in the making — The “revolutionary” iPad is built on at least 3 generations of software and 5 generations of hardware.

The story actually played out is never quite as simple:

First, there is never a single customer adoption curve but a whole family of them — with each customer segment adopting solutions at different rates. You launch based on your best understanding of who you think the customers are and what they want (or will want). Odds are you won’t find yourself on the curve you were targeting. From here, it’s iterate till you intersect with the best curve (aka achieve product/market fit) which may not be your original one (aka the pivot).

Unlike the visionary launch, it is possible to start on either the left (too early) or right (too late) of the curve as long as you can learn where the customer adoption curve is heading and eventually intersect it before running out of iterations (cash).

For those that are following a Lean Startup process or have read my posts on my Customer Development checklists, this may all sound familiar. However, here I want to specifically focus on the role of the founding vision. Where does it fit into all this? How important is it? What good is it?

It all starts with an idea virus

I believe everyone gets hit by random ideas when they least expect them (in the shower, while driving, etc.). Most people ignore them — (crazy) entrepreneurs choose to act on them.

There is a difference between an idea and a vision. An idea is based on a perceived problem/solution possibility while a vision is the change you want to bring into the world by realizing the idea to it’s fullest potential.

Having acted on some of my own ideas in the past and experienced all of being too early, too late, and totally off mark, I believe more important than acting on an idea and sticking to a vision, is having a process to vet ideas quickly and refine the vision.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

Ideas and visions are best when shared

WiredReach was founded in 2002 around the idea of implementing the theory of “6 Degrees of Separation” on the Internet with the bigger vision of connecting every person on this planet. Almost every person I spoke to back then asked if I had patented the idea. There is this myth that ideas have to be kept a secret or it’s game over.

  • First, successful ideas seem obvious in hindsight but too simplistic or crazy when they are first conceived — $3 cups of coffee, DVD rentals by mail, buying shoes online.
  • Second, random ideas are never that random. Shortly after we started working on “6 Degrees”, Friendster popped up. Then Spoke, Myspace, … you know the rest.
  • Third, the idea alone is a very small part of the overall equation.

You can’t afford to keep an idea to yourself. It needs to be shared, better yet tested, especially with customers, early and often. The bigger vision is a powerful recruiting tool for future founders/employees, and investors. For tips on crafting a good vision, read Nivi’s post. Sharing parts of my vision on my blog led to my first visionary customer that subsequently bootstrapped the company.

Share the idea with customers.
Share the vision with future co-founders and investors.

This is not to say that customers aren’t visionary enough, but more often than not, customers care about their immediate problems and not your future vision.

Think different but make sure your difference matters

Reasonably smart people can rationalize anything. While we were building “6 Degrees”, I remember taking comfort in the fact that our solution was P2P based while all our competitors’ solutions were web based. We thought that surely “better privacy enabled through decentralization” would win out in the end. After all who would ever trust a 3rd party with all their sensitive information. Fast forward to the present — people share their most intimate life details on Facebook everyday.

Bind a solution to your vision as late as possible

One of the worst things you can do is bind a solution too early to a vision. This problem is more prevalent among technically inclined founders that tend to reach for the compiler before the phone.

Not only does building out a solution always take more time than you think but it also conveniently shifts focus away from the real challenge: The challenge isn’t building out a solution but validating that you have a problem worth solving in the first place. This can almost always be done without building or even defining the solution.

More importantly, committing to a particular solution too early can bias and limit how you perceive the problem and soon all problems look like nails. In my case, picking a P2P approach very early led me down the road of viewing everything under a “decentralization is better” lens. It was only after I deployed my first product that I painfully found inherent shortcomings with a pure P2P approach such as people not wanting to download software or leave their computers online all the time.

I came across some great examples of how to late bind a solution to a vision at the Startup Lessons Learned Conference where both Aardvark and “Food on the Table” presented case-studies on how they simulated their solution with humans versus software so they could validate the problem first and in the process learn how best to build the solution.

Ground your vision in the present

The solution adoption curve is fairly gradual but unpredictable. Trying to extrapolate too far into the future with a disruptive solution can wipe you out. Time is your most valuable resource and disruptive solutions either need a lot of time or the right timing (aka luck). More often than not, first movers of a disruptive solution end up running out of iterations before achieving success e.g. Friendster, pre-Skype VOIP companies, etc.

In our case, we made an assumption back in 2002 that broadband penetration would steadily increase which would make P2P a technically viable solution for mainstream users. While broadband adoption did rise, broadband speeds didn’t increase as quickly as we had expected and the asymmetry of upload versus download speeds put up new challenges. In our defense, who would have known that the country that invented the Internet would lag four times behind South Korea. We have since then had to refine the vision to address these shortcomings by introducing a hybrid p2web model that uses a centralized cache to serve as an always-available seed node. This wasn’t an easy decision to make because it went against our “decentralization is better meme”.

I now think it is always best to ground a vision on today’s problems and let it evolve with time. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t think big or embrace disruptive solutions at all which brings us to the next rule.

Implement your vision incrementally

A grand vision is usually too big to implement all at once. Breaking it up into smaller chunks lets you solve problems that customers want solved today. The best example that comes to mind is again the iPad. Being a hardware + software company, wouldn’t it have made sense for Apple to have gone from building desktops/laptops straight to the iPad? But instead, they took a detour into a music player and phone first. Having built and failed with the Newton that was too early for it’s time with technology that didn’t work well enough (handwriting recognition), it actually makes more sense in hindsight for Steve Jobs to have taken the path he did. The biggest surprise with the iPad is that there were no surprises.

For us, the specifics of the vision did have to adapt to external realities along the way but we are still working within the confines of a vision where personal data becomes ubiquitous and location independent (and not just limited to the Cloud). Each of our products were built to test parts of that vision. However, our emphasis has greatly shifted from chasing after technical problems to chasing after customer problems. Our first product in that vein, BoxCloud, was really a minimum feasible product as defined by Andrew Chen.

Remove the “I” in vision

Passion and determination are the attributes needed to drive a vision to it’s full potential. However, unchecked passion and determination alone can turn the journey into a religious one driven by dogma. While a vision is required to create mantra and make meaning, it is important to accept that it is based solely on your worldview alone until you systematically take the “I” out of the vision and frequently check it against reality.