I went to Bend for a few days last week primarily for one purpose: to hear Steve Blank speak. If you are not familiar, Steve wrote a book called Four Steps to the Epiphany, which had a huge influence over me.
In 2002 the handheld market was shrinking and we were looking for a vertical market. We had a number of calculator products, including a graphing calculator that had gained some traction in math education. In order to gain broad adoption, though, the product needed to be accepted on the AP Calculus exam. No software product had ever been available for it before and the rules for acceptance were specifically designed to eliminate handhelds and other computers.
Over the next few years we did the impossible: got powerOne Graph into trials for the AP exam. Then disaster happened. Right as we gained acceptance Palm fired their education team, focusing on smartphones instead, and we lost the deal.
By this time it is 2005 and we are trying to figure out where to go. The College Board said they were looking at laptops instead so we hunkered down with our now really small team (three of us from 11 or 12 before) and worked on a toolset that would run across the web. There were some interesting ideas in there but we didn’t stop to think about the product or business or how the alternative environment would impact the service. I spoke to a handful of educators, all of whom were encouraging, but that was as far as I took it. We charged ahead with a complete product.
Two years later we were ready for beta, released it to the world, and no one cared. Even the teachers who had been encouraging didn’t use it. I was devastated. All that work ended in failure, all that wasted time and money. We were done.
At this point I started consulting at an incubator, helping other start-ups, hoping to get a spark for what I wanted to do next. Shortly after this failure happened I was consulting with one of the companies in the incubator when I told him the story I just told you. He reached into his pile of books and threw Four Steps at me. He said read this and maybe it will help.
I couldn’t put it down. I remember reading and re-reading it, especially the sections on customer discovery and customer validation. Suddenly I understood where I failed.
That set me on a path to figure out what makes start-ups start-ups. I wanted to understand why they were a big mystery, why some succeeded and some failed. I found the Lean Startup movement, read a lot of the stuff happening there, and came to understand it well enough to know what I wanted to keep and what I didn’t.
Steve’s work has been extremely important in the start-up world. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak I hope you will take advantage.