One Simple Tip for Refining Your Business Concept

By Jesse Lipson, EO Raleigh Durham member and Forbes contributor

My wife told me this common rule of thumb in fashion: before you walk out the door, take off the last accessory that you put on. That extra bracelet or ring or necklace that you added to your outfit is probably not necessary; your outfit will look better if you undo that last step. Recently, in talking with two entrepreneurs, I found myself offering business advice along these same lines. Both had viable ideas: one wanted to create “live chat” functionality for customer support on mobile apps, and the other wanted to allow users to get social endorsements from friends and colleagues when selling things online so buyers know you’re a real person with credibility.

Both wanted to know if I thought the ideas were good. My response probably annoyed them, but instead of saying whether I thought their ideas were good I suggested that they go one level up in terms of abstraction and look at the bigger problem they want to address before getting in too deep with one specific solution.

Business people, and especially entrepreneurs, often conflate the What (the definition of the problem that you’re trying to solve) of their business with the How (the specific method of solving the problem). Moving from What to How happens so naturally that the process is almost unconscious. At the early stages of your business or project, it’s important not to fall in love with the How. Focus on the What, and treat the How as an experiment that may or may not be successful.

So how do you get to the What? I feel a bit like Abbott and Costello while writing this, but it’s really pretty simple. Write out your current idea and ask yourself “Why is this important?” The answer is probably a lot closer to the What, the true problem that you’re trying to solve. You’ll know that you are pointed in the right direction if your answer seems a lot more obvious and less risky than your specific business idea.

Let’s consider the example of the entrepreneur who wanted to create a live chat tool for customer support on mobile apps. The live chat for mobile is the How. So what’s the What?

If he goes up one level of abstraction, the problem he’s addressing is that it’s hard for companies to provide customer support on mobile apps. Given that more and more business transactions are being conducted on mobile devices, the problem may be worth addressing. But is a live chat the best solution? What about screen sharing or mobile analytics so that app developers can see when their apps are crashing? How else could you address the problem?

Going up a level of abstraction forces you to identify the core challenge and think creatively about all the ways it can be addressed. Your idea may be one solution, but until you’ve considered the challenge from all perspectives and tested your ideas in the market, you won’t know whether it’s the best solution.

It’s easy to fall in love with the How. Like a shiny new necklace, the How can suck up a lot of attention and can even distract you from the challenge you’re hoping to address. So take the time to examine the What before you invest in the How — and don’t be afraid to go with a different solution if the What calls for it. Taking off that last layer of detail gives your business plan more flexibility and allows you the room you need to easily make refinements down the road.

You can read Jesse’s original post, and more, on Forbes.

Categories: Best Practices


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