When you work with a variety of founders, a number of patterns emerge.  In my work coaching early stage founders, one of the most common issues I see is Founder Bias or Founder Blindness. They are variations on a theme, but both, if not addressed, can be fatal for a startup.

Being a startup founder is hard. I say that in a lot of my blog posts because it’s hard in a variety of ways, including the sense of isolation, imposter syndrome, navigating amid uncertainty, the pressure of making things work, etc.  For this post I want to talk about how founders have to walk a fine line between between being enthusiastically in love with their idea and being able to see past their own blind spots.

Have you ever had a conversation with a founder where they are frustrated that people “just don’t get it”?  “It” being the brilliance of how their product will change lives. Or what about conversations where the founder is convinced that they “just haven’t found their audience yet” (which might be true)?  How about the conversation where they have all sorts of the metrics that show things like anemic conversions or weak engagement, but they just want to give it “more time”?

By themselves, these are not horrible things for a founder to say.  But at some point, if the founder isn’t making changes to address these things because “eventually things will take off”, then that’s either founder bias or founder blindness rearing its ugly head.

How are Founder Bias and Founder Blindness different?

For the purposes of this piece, here’s the difference between “bias” and “blindness”. Bias is when a founder is inclined to believe something more than the data that they have would support.  They see what they want to see in the data or more often, don’t feel the need to research data because they feel that they already know the answer. If you show a founder with founder bias real data that contradicts their bias, they are sometimes open minded enough to consider that their bias might be unwarranted.

When a founder has founder “blindness”, they’re “true believers”.  They know that they are Correct (with a capital “C”). Almost no amount of data can convince them that they need to adopt a new strategy.  Unless the founder is right and never needs to adjust course, blindness is terminal for a company for a lot of reasons. The most obvious reason is that investors can spot founder blindness most of the time and will steer clear.  No one wants to invest in a founder that isn’t open to course corrections when needed.

On the other side some founders aren’t so much biased or blind, they just don’t have the instinctive empathy for their customers and don’t know why things are not working as planned.

There is an exercise that I usually have my clients do, that can help them see past their blind spots.  The exercise is designed to pull the founder outside of “invented here” mode and help them imagine “why” there is a gap between their expectations and reality.  The exercise is “Why Not?”.

To do the exercise, a founder should have an open mind and be willing to let go of the things that they know about themselves, about their company, about the product, and about the magnitude of the problem they are addressing. It’s an even more effective exercise if it’s done with a number of people involved. Maybe as a group exercise for the founding team.  Even better if it includes people who are not emotionally invested in the product at all, like friends of the founding team. I’ve done this exercise with many of my coaching clients if they don’t want to make it a team project.

The rules of the exercise are simple.  

First you need to create a persona or personas for someone who fits the demographic and psychographic description of someone you would expect to be an “early adopter”.  This person should have the capability to pay for the product and the authority to purchase or recommend the product. They should be someone who regularly encounters the use case where your product adds value.  In short, they fit your target, have the problem, and have no limitations in being able to become your customer.

The persona should be considered to be sane and intelligent.  They make sound judgments for good reasons. In other words they are rational and are able to grasp the information “that you share with them”.  I put that last part in quotes intentionally and will explain its importance in a moment. The key to this part is that this person should be as close to a slam dunk early adopter as you can imagine.

Now comes the tricky part.  Now you have to imagine that you pitched or marketed your product to this person and they decided “thank you, but no thank you.”  This is where the hard part begins. Based on your thinking, this person should have been a “yes”. In reality, they were a “no”. Why?

Why wouldn’t they buy from you?

It’s time to make a list. But before you do, you need to remember two things.  The first is that this person does not share your thinking.  

  • They don’t know what you know. 
  • They don’t think like you. 
  • To them, you are a stranger. A startup. Someone without a deep performance history. 
  • They don’t know how smart you and your team are. 
  • They don’t care that you’ve raised money or graduated from YC.  
  • They don’t know the research that you read and have not seen the spreadsheets you created.  
  • It doesn’t matter to them how long it took you to develop the prototype 

The second thing is to recognize that what they do know comes from two places.  They know what they knew before you encountered them, and they know the information that you shared with them (mentioned earlier).  

The information they had before includes:

  • Their personal experience with the pain point/use case that you are solving
  • Their history with the legacy product that they currently use for that use case
  • Their awareness of other current options for that use case
  • How the decision to purchase your product might impact them personally
  • Anything they may have heard about you from other people
  • Their perceptions and worldview 

The information you shared with them starts with your initial marketing message.  It’s pretty limited. If the headline isn’t compelling, don’t assume that they scrolled to the bottom of your landing page. If the landing page isn’t engaging, don’t assume they know what you would tell them on a phone call (since they may never make that call).  So in short, they may not have known much about you before you reached them with your marketing, and what you shared with them might be limited.

Time for some Persona Empathy

So now you make the list based on everything above.  The list is a list of the reasons why this perfectly sane person, with no limitations on becoming a customer, decided to pass.  To get you started, here are some common “reasons to say no” that might have a place on your list:

  • They don’t believe your claim/assertion on the product’s impact/effectiveness (you don’t have social proof or they don’t believe your social proof)
  • They are worried that you won’t stay in business and they’ll be left with an unsupported product
  • The switching cost from their legacy system to yours is too high
  • The learning curve or change in workflow isn’t worth the impact they perceive
  • They don’t trust you with their information (especially with products that require sensitive information)
  • They don’t think that their legacy product is as bad as you think it is
  • They don’t perceive the benefits of your product to be as big as you do
  • They don’t fully understand what your product does
  • They don’t have the need you think they do. At least not at the magnitude you think
  • They may see your product as a risky one to switch to (the purchase could affect how their judgment is viewed by others)
  • You get the idea. Your list will vary…

Be honest and really brainstorm the possible reasons.  When you’re finished with your list, go through each and ask yourself which ones you can and should try to address.  Keeping in mind that your product isn’t for everyone, ask yourself if anything on the list narrows your thinking on the definition of your early target market.

So far, this exercise has provided something useful for all of my clients.  At a minimum, this will give you some additional customer insights or increased empathy. At its best, it will help you address invisible roadblocks that can materially dampen your traction.  In either event, if you block some time and take this seriously, I promise it will be worth the effort.