Humans generally learn through trial and error. But it benefits us to learn through the trial and errors of others as much as we can.
Those who impact their profession or imprint history hardly ever do so by accident.
Rather, they operate from ideation to IPO with purpose and strategy.
And the best way to operate purposefully and strategically? By conducting research, heeding feedback, and defining what exactly you want your end product to look like. That research will inform how you construct the ideological foundation of your business or project, and lending credence to customer and user feedback will ensure you’re making necessary adjustments along the way.
On the entrepreneurial side, this is actually pretty easy: as a young founder at the initial stages of company building, you have at your disposal a diverse array of case studies with which to educate yourself. And not always case studies in the literal sense, mind you (although you will, obviously, specifically test things like software applications), but the stories that produced the businesses or services you’re either fond of or look critically upon which you can draw parallels to––examples which you can seek to emulate or avoid.
For instance, if you’re building a subscription business, try going through the acquisition funnel of a site you enjoy yourself and see what they do to make the experience seamless. What about the UX, sign-up emails, and introductory processes works so well? And you can do this across industries. If you’re in FinTech, you need not limit yourself to studying Barclays. Rather, do a deep dive into the practices employed by Spotify, or Pleo.
Smart founders make good use of these “case studies” and more broadly of this research, paying particular attention to which strategies former founders employed to garner success, and which mistakes ended up grounding startups before they could ever take flight. Humans generally learn through trial and error. But it benefits us to learn through the trial and errors of others as much as we can.
Of course, that’s not the end of our work. As I mentioned, to impact the world or your industry, you must remain flexible and listen to the people using your product or service. In building Nexford University, one of our core cultural tenants is placing value in the wisdom of our learners (we don’t call them students). Consumers don’t always do what they say they’re going to do, but aggregate data and consumer habits do serve as critical indicators of whether your offering resonates.
Companies, teams, and creatives who understand this survive and, ultimately, thrive; those who don’t either stagnate or drown.
A concrete understanding of what you’re doing and why cultivates conviction.
Whether you’re starting a company or writing a book, you shouldn’t make decisions or build anything unless you’re holistically invested in your plan of attack—which is to say, don’t build without knowing what purpose or goal it’s meant to serve. If you’re not so informed or confident, you’ll carry out that plan half-heartedly at best, and without any conviction at worst. Your team will, in turn, sense that subsequent disconnect, and they themselves will lose motivation. Your apprehension, in this sense, will infect the totality of your company.
This is why the smartest founders conduct lots of research in the ideation stage of their startup. It’s also why the world’s most consistently successful companies, musicians, and authors conduct continuous market testing. They understand the undying importance of operating with purpose and how such sound strategy itself emboldens motivation.
More plainly, it benefits you to educate yourself and stay up to date around how to best provide value to your consumers.
Personally, again, this is something I’m remarkably thankful I did in building Nexford University. My team spent months surveying thousands of students around the world, along with faculty members and employers. We set forth to identify which aspects of higher education succeeded––which methods of teaching, which modes of development, which forms of support worked––and which didn’t. And we tested elements of our software, applications, and services to fine-tune each. This legwork informed, among other things, what pain points we wanted Nexford to solve for.
Then we set forth to create that solution. Ongoing, we’re continuously working to determine whether we’re still on course.
Regular research will evince what problems remain to be solved.
To this last point, consumers––whether they’re students, professionals, or founders themselves––want, above all, solutions.
They don’t care about bells or whistles or whatever other superfluous appendages you believe to be market differentiators. They want only an absence of pain.
Conducting continuous research of both the theoretical and practical sort will avail you this critical insight––what still causes your customers pain––along with a certain wisdom that the afore-referenced bells and whistles really don’t matter at all.
In building and continuing to improve Nexford, my team has seen that what causes our could-be customers pain are things like elongated response times, mysterious fees, lack of flexibility, and one-size-fits-all pricing plans. What students really wanted is job skills, speed, affordability, transparency, and efficiency.
So that’s what we’re designing and ever-tweaking Nexford to provide. We ask ourselves every day: how can we deliver on those rapidly changing skills, reduce fees, provide more transparency, and eliminate waste?
Now, as should be noted, it can be tempting for founders to get carried away building features they deem cool and interesting––to create a company that solves for all the horrible misery unearthed through research and customer surveys.
You must resist that temptation. Focus instead on utilizing insight first allowed by research and, more ongoing, provided by your customers, to build a company that does one thing really well.
Ultimately, this is a matter of working smart and putting the customer first.
That’s why, to others out there who, like me, are working to so fundamentally impact the world, I believe it prudent to suggest we follow this advice: utilize the lessons available in the struggles of those who came before us, seize the opportunity of the ongoing education provided by our users, and, above all, work smart.