How to reduce your chances of failure in startups with 3 Key Design Thinking & Lean Startup Methods

It is wise to take calculated risks in startup venture

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the beach on Christmas Day. Having grown up by the Coast, i have always loved the ocean. For me, it represents calmness, power and freedom. But here in Ghana far away from Kenya, the Atlantic Ocean had a different tale. Gorgeous magestic waves can easily lure you into the deep unknown. Underneath the beautiful scenery was cold water, huge rocks and reefs, strong & unpredictable waves, and who knows what else. I had not been to the ocean in about 5 months and was dying to get a taste of God’s wonder.Only to be met by a cold unfriendly host.

I am not the world’s greatest swimmer but i can definitely survive if thrown in the waters. Having been taught swimming in high school, i pride myself in knowing a few tricks of survival. So how different can the Atlantic surely be from the warm blue Indian Ocean? Truth be told, i didn’t last 20 minutes at the beach that day. I was almost ‘swallowed’ by the waters maybe 3 times in a row. And just when i was tired and decided to get some well deserved rest by the shores just near the shallow waters ,watching the quiet blue sky and practicing my new mantras, a huge wave swerved up from nowhere and i struggled to regain my balance, stand up and got up cursing & headed to the hotel, swearing almost never to return.

My recent encounter with the ocean is much like venturing out into entrepreneurship. As a Millennial, we get swept by the hype about one year startups and even worse as ‘experienced’ entrepreneurs, we often think we know and have seen it all so what’s the worst that could happen.

Our perception

We imagine our new journey of conquering the world with our ‘next gen revolutionary tech product which is going to change how things have been done for ages’ , is going to be a smooth ride-warm, inviting, understanding, calm, predictable etc. And this is our first biggest mistake into startups and the underlying message behind Lean Startup & Design Thinking. As Eric Ries rightly puts it in the book , “A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”

Just like i assumed the new ocean would be similar to the Indian Ocean, most startups venture out with predefined minds about what they are ‘assured’ to be the right product for the right customer and solving the right problem. While some get this right, sadly most(90%) will not. “ For every success, there are far too many failures”-Eric Ries(pg18). And this has led and continues to lead to a worst form of damage , “A colossal waste of our civilization’s most precious resource: the time, passion, and skill of its people”(Lean Startup)

Both DT and LS are built on the principles of ‘think big, start small’. This is not a new notion in business but rather a principle that has existed for over 100 years and has powered tens of great companies that we know now, including Coke, Ford, GE and Toyota. But with over 1 Million apps available online and so many of them considered ‘useless’, how do we ensure we build sustainable businesses in the new year that will surpass the confines of time? Often than not, most startups do not survive the first year into market because of reasons that could have easily been avoided if only more of us used DT and LS. Here’s how:

Market Reality

“The only way to beat competition is to stop trying to beat the competition”-Blue Ocean Strategy (Book by W. Chan Kim.) Now this might sound like a non conventional way against what you were taught in business school and that’s because it is. Instead of trying to swim under deep waters with a tiny floater you have devised in your startup garage, hoping you will make it past 3 years to a successful exit or acquisition, why not take a step back and start from zero to one. As most people say, everything that can be invented has been invented. I don’t agree. And so does Peter Thiel. In his book from Zero To One, Peter says , “ Technology is miraculous because it allows us to do more with less…Other animals are instinctively driven to build things like dams or honeycombs, but we are the only ones that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” Design Thinking helps us beat competition the only way how-by making products customers love(Y Combinator). When we take a step back,get out of the building, and talk to real customers facing real issues, we stand to discover new ways to deliver value to a customer, which is ultimately the key goal for any startup or company.

2. Get into your customer’s shoes

DT and LS are all built around customer development. Great products are built around real customer needs. Many techniques can be used to discover problems and thus solutions including customer interviews, observation, volunteering, walk a mile, shadowing etc that will help you empathize with your customers, get new insights, identify mistakes and opportunities your competitors are making & not seeing, build great customer relationships and even form branding & marketing messages.

Zappos’ Founder Nick Swinmurn was able to create a multibillion company with great reputation early on simply by interacting with real customers, building a small product and growing from there. Till now, this principle has formed Zappo’s great customer service that continues to be the backbone of their success among other traits.

3. Go lean

Don’t get swayed by the hype

Even as you start seeing progress and traction, it is always important to remember to keep your FOCUS. Ride the wave of success while taking calculated risks. Its very easy to be swept by the hype of traction but just like Facebook’s belief, don’t get lost in the hype. Identify your true north i.e the key metric for your efforts and not just number of likes or downloads, but rather functional metrics about your business that let you discover more about your customers’ behaviors and what makes them tick and thus how you can continue serving this need. This is the true key to customer retention. For Facebook this was, how many new users are connected to 10 friends immediately after sign up. Not the ‘growth hacks’ and 10 ways to trick your customers to click your website. Your first mode of growth is organic. If you provide insanely great service, your product will grow on its own wings. This is important because as a startup with limited resources(and even big companies), your mission is to treat everything you do as an experiment-Build,Measure,Learn. Learning, and failing sometimes, successfully, smarter and cheaply should be your new mantra for your startup team this year.

If you have interacted with your customers before,during & after building your product, constantly engage them, offer great service, set observable key metrics, build small and grow as you learn, you are almost definitely guaranteed to set yourself from competitors and thus create a blue ocean. Happy riding the wave of success in this new year!



HR Generalist| Founder @JobonicsHR | Where HR, Tech & Design meet | 🇰🇪 IVisit for more info.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stella Ngugi

HR Generalist| Founder @JobonicsHR | Where HR, Tech & Design meet | 🇰🇪 IVisit for more info.