Why Do People Avoid Checking Their Assumptions

by Andrew Chen

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Viral Startup: A Guide to Designing Viral Loops.

February 17, 2007

The venerable Chris Yeh recently remarked on an entrepreneur that DIDN’T want to verify his assumptions:

Whenever someone comes to me with an e-commerce idea, I tell them to sell some of their stuff on eBay and let me know about the results.


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February 17, 2007

The venerable Chris Yeh recently remarked on an entrepreneur that DIDN’T want to verify his assumptions:

Whenever someone comes to me with an e-commerce idea, I tell them to sell some of their stuff on eBay and let me know about the results.

One entrepreneur actually refused to do the experiment. “Chris,” he said, “I might learn that my idea sucks. I’d rather not know that until after I’ve raised my money.”

I think he was missing the point. I’m sad to report that the business failed.

Now let me confess why someone might do this, as someone who did EXACTLY this several times in a row for different projects. I think the ultimate reasons come in a bunch of different flavors:

5 Deadly Sins for Blind Business Creation

  1. “I’m smart, I know this will work.”
  2. “I’m introverted, and I like the technology more than the people.”
  3. “I’ve spent too much time building already, I’m afraid of the results.”
  4. “I think we should build all of it first, then figure out if it works.”
  5. “I’m dumb, I don’t know what assumptions to verify.”

Any of these sound like you? If so, you might be in trouble. In almost all the cases, I’ve mostly been guilty of number 2 and 4. I enjoy tinkering, and that coupled with an overly-structured approach (waterfall??) to problems leads to a blind approach to major problems. This is an area I really came to identify and accept over the last few years, and it’s been very helpful.

Anyway, let’s break this stuff down.

1. I’m smart, I know this will work.

If it’s consumer internet, no you don’t. In fact, being smart will make it harder to relate to most people in the world, who are by definition average. All the time you spent trying to act and sound smarter (and more logical) will bite you in the ass. Seriously.

The big risk is how OTHER people think, and no matter how logical it is for them, it’s up to you to design something that works for the people, not the other way around.

2. I’m introverted, and I like the technology more than the people.

This one comes down to what you’re trying to do. If you don’t like people, and don’t want to design for real, live customers, then you’re not really doing a startup, you’re doing research.

You can either handle this by trying to fight it, maybe by appointing a less-introverted co-founder the task of talking to the target customer and building/relaying a persona. Another option is to go find someone who is in your target market to work with you, in which case you’ll talk to your customer every day.

3. I’ve spent too much time building already, I’m afraid of the results.

I’m not even going to address this one. Get over it, quick.

4. I think we should build all of it first, then figure out if it works.

For the really organized, structured people of the world, they prefer to think in terms of top-down innovation and delivery, rather than letting innovation grow like weeds. How Microsoft of you.

I’ve gotten really comfortable with this by relating it to the pharma world – you start with 100,000 compounds, and you narrow this down to one drug and 99,999 failures. If you accept this as a normal part of the process, then you can start thinking of pushing out prototypes on a weekly basis (prototypes can be powerpoint or paper or whatever, not just code)

5. I’m dumb, I don’t know what assumptions to verify.

Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Eventually you’ll learn. Read books and talk to people, too!

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