Your invention, startup or product could be stuck inside one and you may not even know it. And there’s only one way out of this box.
“No business plan ever survives first contact with customers.” – Steve Blank
Right about now you may be asking, “just who is Schrodinger and why would MY startup or invention be stuck in a box?” OK, so for those of you who don’t know about Schrodinger, his cat, and what a box has to do with it, here’s a little background:
Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment, a paradox devised by physicist Erwin Schrodinger. Not to get too lost in the technical weeds, he describes (fictionally, for those of you who are worried about actual cats) a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison and a device that has a random 50/50 chance of opening the vial and killing the cat. In the world of quantum mechanics, he implies that until you open the box to check, the cat is both alive and dead, at the same time. And according to people that understand this level of physics, this is because you don’t know until you open the box. To the average person, this may sound a little crazy, but this paradox has been the fodder for a lot of nerdy conversations, and equally nerdy sci-fi shows, jokes and t-shirts.
So what does this physicist’s theory have to do with inventions, startups and entrepreneurs? Actually quite a bit, if you think about it.
This is because I have met way too many inventors and entrepreneurs who keep their invention or startup in their own version of Schrodinger’s box. Inside this box they may have their idea written on a napkin or even drawn up on paper. They may have a prototype built. They may have filed for a provisional or even a non-provisional patent. Some may have built a website, done research, or come up with a really cool name for their product. But the one thing they really haven’t done yet is to interact with enough real potential customers. “Real potential customers” are, by the way, not defined as your neighbors, friends, relatives, spouse or anyone else who may be afraid to hurt your feelings and tell you the unvarnished truth. I’m talking about the kinds of people that might actually pull out their wallets and say, “Hey, I’d like to buy one of these”. Or ones that might say, “You know, I would really want to buy one of those if it just did this one other thing”. Or even ones that might say, “Sorry, but I would never buy one of those in a million years”.
That last one really hurts to think about, doesn’t it? But that is exactly my point. Not unlike Schrodinger’s box, there is a, “I wouldn’t buy one in a million years” vial of poison in that box. And you will never know whether opening the box will reveal the needed truth of either: 1. Release the poison to kill your idea, 2. Cause you to change something significant, or 3. Enable you to go forward with confidence, until you open the box and find out. And by opening the box I mean interacting with customers. Steve Blank says that entrepreneurs need to “get out of the building” because “there are no facts inside”. This couldn’t be more true for inventors and entrepreneurs.
If you find yourself with your invention or startup stuck in Schrodinger’s Startup Box, I would urge you to closely examine the reasons why you may be keeping it in the box. For many it may be fear: you may be afraid that someone will steal your idea. If this is the case, there are many ways you can protect yourself, but at the end of the day after you have done the best you can with things like a provisional patent, you have to take the invention out of the box. This can be scary for a lot of inventors, but you have to realize that if you keep it in the box, you won’t have to worry about that vial of customer rejection poison, your invention or startup will eventually die on it’s own of neglect, starvation or old age.
For a lot of other Entre-Inventors, if they are honest with themselves, this fear of someone stealing their idea may be covering up something a lot of us don’t like to face: a real underlying fear of criticism or rejection of their invention, product or business. If you closely examine your reasons and find out that this is true for you, let me encourage you by saying that we’ve all been there – this is a natural tendency with inventors and you are not alone. But now that you’ve identified it, you need to overcome it. And one of the ways you can overcome it is by coming to terms with the fact that criticism and rejection from customers is not a bad thing. In reality it is an essential piece of information as you go forward.
Step back for a minute and put your eye on the end-goal: helping a lots and lots of people solve their problems, enough so that these people will reward you for it with “certificates of appreciation” called money. And you have to receive enough of these certificates of appreciation in order to make it worth your while for you (or a licensee) to turn it into a sustainable business. If you’re not solving enough of your potential customers’ problems in the way that they will ultimately want, they’re not going to buy your solution. So this information, i.e., criticism/rejection/etc., will become some of the most critically valuable information you need to modify, change your direction, or even stop and move on to your next idea. And if you can gain this wisdom early enough in the process, it can save you a lot of time, money and frustration.
Remember, you don’t want to define your invention or business as a Schrodinger’s Startup: because it will exist as both a success and failure until you open the box and interact with customers. And if you continue to want to keep it in the box, then you don’t have an invention or startup. You have a pet.
So open the box, get it out of the building, get that valuable intel you need to ultimately be a successful EntreInventor.