Want Good Business Ideas? Act Like a Scientist

What can business people learn from scientists? Actually, quite a lot. Scientists make breakthroughs by:

  1. Observing the world around them;
  2. Asking questions;
  3. Forming ideas;
  4. Conducting experiments;
  5. Assimilating new information.

Conversely, many business people tend to:

  1. Have random ideas;
  2. Be product/service-led;
  3. Make assumptions;
  4. Launch without a strategy;
  5. Struggle to sell.

It’s clear which is the more effective approach. In fact, many of the principles of good business – e.g. going into the field, primary research, conducting experiments – are taken directly from science because they work.

8 useful lessons from science for entrepreneurs

  1. Be curious about the world. Specifically, look for problems to solve. People buy something either to remove a pain or to acquire a benefit. Instead of looking for ideas, solve a problem for a specific target audience. Ask questions that are related to challenges faced by your chosen market. Here are just a few:
    • Why is it the way it is?
    • Why hasn’t someone done things differently?
    • What are the obstacles?
    • How can we remove those obstacles?
    • What would the ideal solution look like?
    • Can we work backwards to see what steps to take?
    • Who would be interested in our product?
    • How would we get it to them?
  2. Don’t make assumptions. It’s easier to think we know the answer than to conduct research to find out the truth. In days past, research was time-consuming and expensive; whilst it still takes effort now, it is much easier and affordable to all. The easiest way to find out what the market truly wants is to ask. Create a questionnaire and promote it on social media with a few prizes for the top three answers, say.
  3. Get out into the field. Leave your office and talk to people. Invite prospective customers for coffee and ask them about the problems they face on a daily basis. Ask them what’s good and what’s bad in the market. Why do they like X over Y? What do they wish existed? What would make their life easier? Have they tried other solutions in the past? Why did they choose it? What did they think of it? Why did they stop using it? Your goal is to gain a deep understanding of your target audience’s pain points. You’re not trying to sell anything or direct the conversation. Just listen and learn.
  4. Test ideas. Once you have an understanding of the problem you’re going to solve, start prototyping a solution. You only need to build a minimum-viable-product or MVP. As the name suggests, an MVP is a basic version of your product or service without the bells-and-whistles – to test if there is sufficient interest in your solution – before you invest serious resources. Build your MVP, put it in front of your target audience and get their feedback.
  5. Gather data. What do your prospects think of your MVP? Do they love it? Hate it? Or, most likely, they like some parts of it and not others. This is one of the most valuable part of the creation process – getting direct feedback from your potential customers. If you can address their concerns at this stage and deliver the solution they envision, you’re almost home free. One word of caution: don’t implement every piece of feedback or you’ll end up with Frankenstein’s monster. Be selective about which changes you will incorporate and which ones do not align with your vision. If every other person is raising the same point, chances are you should take it on board. If it’s just a few people wishing for a feature, don’t rush to implement it.
  6. Admit mistakes. Maybe the feedback is entirely negative. You thought the world needed your product but you were wrong. That’s actually great. Being a good entrepreneur is not just about creating successful businesses but also about avoiding starting unsuccessful ones. The feedback is in and no one is interested in your idea or the problem you thought needed solving, didn’t. You’ve just avoided wasting a tonne of time, effort and money pursuing a solution that no one wanted. It’s not a sign to give up but to start over with a new idea or to pivot and pursue a different, modified idea perhaps.
  7. Modify your position in the light of new evidence or information. Or perhaps the feedback is mixed. Maybe your audience liked an aspect of what you were doing, e.g. something that you felt was secondary or was a neat feature but not particularly valuable, and were indifferent about what you saw as the core benefit. (Instagram started this as a check-in app before pivoting to focus on the feature users loved, taking photos). Many successful businesses started in this way: entrepreneurs created solutions to fix what they saw as a huge problem but the market was more interested in a minor feature that the creators didn’t really consider. Don’t hold stubbornly to an idea if the market is turning its back on it and pointing you in a different direction.
  8. Embrace endless improvement. Incorporate the best feedback quickly and put the improved product back in front of your prospective audience. Expect to do this many times: launch, get feedback, modify, repeat. Kill perfectionism. In the words of LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” The goal is to take action, embrace mistakes (but don’t make the same one twice) and keep communicating with your audience, customers and community. Slowly, through a process of gradual, continuous improvements, you will build something remarkable.

Takeaway points

  1. As a business person, you can learn a lot from science’s approach to problem solving.
  2. Intuition, gut-feeling and emotion should be equal partners with systems, data, research and facts.
  3. Getting out in the field early and often is one of the most valuable and rewarding things you can do as an entrepreneur.

Action steps

  1. Specificallywhat problem does your product or service solve? Write down what you do, who you do it for and how does it help them, e.g. My recruitment service helps law firms save money by eliminating recruitment fees.
  2. Create a survey/questionnaire asking about the challenges your audience faces. You can create a survey on SurveyMonkey and promote it to your target audience using Facebook ads. Be careful not ask leading questions directing participants to your solution or which are biased in some way. This is a valuable exercise and you may uncover new ideas for products and services whilst disproving previous assumptions. The process can save you a lot of time, effort, money and heartache.
  3. Build your MVP. Create your prototype and give it to your target audience for their feedback. There are several types of MVP:
    • Software – a website, landing page, app… You can find good developers on Upwork.
    • Manual fulfilment of a automated solution, i.e. delivering a service by doing the heavy-lifting behind the scenes. (Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh, would go to shoe shops, take stock photos with the owners’ permission then promote the shoes online. When he made a sale, he would go back to the shop and buy the shoes. Zappos was acquired by Amazon for $1.2bn) Remember, you’re only testing the viability of your idea at this stage; you want confirmation that the market wants what you’re offering before you build the full version.
    • Physical prototype. Get a sample of your product made.

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