If you’re reading this article, I’m sure that you’re a STEAM student or professional that wants to figure out if starting a company or joining a startup is a good idea. I have been in this situation myself. Six times in fact.
What those six startups have taught me is something that most STEAM students or professionals have a hard time hearing — great technology does not make a successful startup. In fact, if some of the most successful startups in history were not the most creative in terms of technology. Just look at Facebook (MySpace was first), Spotify (Napster invented steaming), or Dropbox (Linux had fsync since the dawn of time). So if it’s not technology (at least not all of it), then what is it?
Startups Need to Gather STEAM
Normally, STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. If you’re a student or a professional in any of these fields and you want to see if a startup is for you, then you’ve found the right article. One thing you should know is startups need people just like you. They also want to gather STEAM for their ideas or products. This is the other STEAM: Sales, Target customers, Engagement, Acquisitions, and Market share.
For a STEAM student or professional, startup STEAM is foreign and, speaking as an engineer who had to learn it, scary. It’s hard to understand. It’s not governed by the laws of physics. It’s not something you can just code all night to get right. It takes time, patience, and a little bit of guidance.
That’s why I wanted to share with you these three valuable startup skills, that as a STEAM student or professional, you should try and master. Of course, there is a lot more to a startup than these three skills but this will take you a long way in understanding 1) the aspects of startup STEAM, 2) if your idea has merit, and 3) if the startup you want to work at has a shot.
Skill #1 Creating an MVP
An MVP or Minimum Viable Product is what all startups want to create and create fast. It’s the product or service that you use to confirm Product Market Fit (see below).
An MVP can be an elusive, creative idea that hides in the depths of one’s brain. It needs to be coaxed out of hiding since the battle between good enough and perfect is constant.
For STEAM students or professionals, building products is something that comes naturally. Heck, you got into STEAM because you like to create. The challenge lies in what to create. That’s where you need to consider a few tips and tricks to make sure your MVP can correctly prove your product market fit. A few to consider include:
- Solve a Problem You Have: Most great ideas come about from solving a problem the founder has. Netflix is a perfect example of that. Reed Hastings hated late fees from Blockbuster. A very simple idea, yet no one did it as well as NetFlix.
- Do Something Slightly Different: You’re idea does not have to be disruptive or so cutting edge that most can’t understand it. Squatty Potty figured that out. They invented a stool to help you poo. Hardly revolutionary. Yet …
- Fill a Gap in the Market: Gaps are great things to fill. Just like power abhors a vacuum, so does a market. That’s how Lyft got started (and that other U company). The gap was lack of cabs when you needed them.
Again, these are not the end all, be all of MVP but if you start to shift your mindset from the cool thing you want to build to ‘does this cool thing have a market’, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration.
Skill #2 Crafting a Narrative
Stories move us. History has shown countless times that the best story wins. Period. End of story. This next skill is all about telling a compelling narrative or story about your MVP. It’s this story that is going to convince a potential buyer that they need your new gadget or service during the Market Fit stage of your startup.
Since stories have been with us since we could talk and walk upright, they have a known structure. This structure is consistent across all stories. Each story has a beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff.
- Beginning Hook: A disruption to the status quo for the protagonist.
- Middle Build: The antagonist has its way with the main character.
- Ending Payoff: The protagonist battles the antagonist and either wins or loses.
These three parts need to be part of any story that works since, as readers, we expect there to be a movement towards some sort of resolution. This also means that your product narrative will also have a known structure, which is presented below:
- Why — Beginning Hook: The reason your product or service exists or why you built it, independent of making money.
- Uniqueness — Middle Build: What makes what you do unique and different.
- Pain Solved — Ending Payoff: How does your product or service solve a pain that a customer has.
All of these pieces create the narrative of why a customer will want to buy your product. A well-told narrative will inspire others to share it and hopefully, buy whatever it is you’re selling.
Some Examples of Great Narratives
- Kiva: Loans that Change Lives.
- Hyperloop One: Hyperloop is a new way to move people and things at airline speeds for the price of a bus ticket. It’s on-demand, energy-efficient and safe. Think: broadband for transportation.
- The Hustle: The Hustle is a media company on a mission to inspire, educate, and entertain an entire generation of people. And it all starts with their daily email that cuts through the bullsh*t to deliver the news and interesting content that you need to know.
- PolyMail: Simple. Beautiful. Powerful Email.
Skill #3 Confirming Market Fit
Product Market Fit is the hardest of the three skills to master simply because it depends on the first two so strongly. Without a solid MVP and a stellar narrative, it will be hard to convince people to part with their hard earned money.
To attempt to figure out Product Market Fit, you’ll need to master the following skills:
- Release Early & Often: The sooner you can get an MVP to the market, the sooner you’ll gain insights into whether or not it’s something people want for free or to buy.
- Catch a Trend: General market trends can be used to see what’s hot or not. What’s even better, is figuring out what trend is either done or saturated.
- Find One Metric That Matters: Metrics are an important part of determining success. These metrics can change over the lifetime of your MVP or as your MVP changes. Metrics like email addresses, app downloads, and revenue all have their place. Choose wisely.
The Alchemy of Product Market Fit has many buzzwords associated with it. The most common one is growth hacking, which are the tactics to achieve product market fit. There are tons and tons of blog posts that deal with that. The rub is what worked a year ago might not work now. That’s why the skills above are broader and more mindset oriented rather than specific tactics.
Strive for the Goldilocks Zone
Where MVP, Narrative, and Market Fit converge is what I call the product goldilocks zone, where conditions are just right to allow for product life. This zone is hard to find and many a startup has tried and failed. In reality, the odds are against a new product making it in the world. That’s why it’s vital that if you’re considering a career in a startup or have your own idea, that you master these three skills.