There is more of less a collective agreement among entrepreneurs that the idea is only a small fraction of a venture’s success.

This turns focus to the importance of executing on an idea. To work hard and to hustle. Numerous books are dedicated to this subject, and while I wholeheartedly agree with them, I want to drill down into why great ideas do not always turn into great products – let alone great companies.

Many advise fresh entrepreneurs to “build something you’d love to use yourself!” My argument in this post is that such advice is – at best – only partially right.

Focus and expertise paradoxically become an enemy – they distance you from the mass market.

Your organization will carry a lot of cognitive overhead

Great ideas aren’t always well-executed. Many of the most successful tech companies weren’t the first of their kind. Luck often plays a significant role, and so do the founders’ abilities to put their own thoughts aside – to build a company catering to their larger audience, rather than something that makes sense to the founders themselves.

The challenge for any organization born to solve a specific problem comes in the form of cognitive overhead. To solve a problem, you begin to develop expertise. You begin to understand how things work. Industry acronyms may become part of your vocabulary, and you forget that some of the knowledge you take for granted now may indeed have taken some time to pick up. This understanding is what allows you to navigate the field more easily and what I refer to as cognitive overhead (best defined by web designer and engineer David Demaree as “How many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you are looking at”).

Focus and expertise paradoxically become an enemy – they distance you from the mass market.

At Nova Founders Capital, most of our activities are in the financial industry, which – if any – overflows with jargon and TLAs (three-letter abbreviations). There is a lot of cognitive overhead for anyone working in the industry. When our companies try to guide laymen through the jungle that is retail finance, it is imperative to bridge the cognitive gap and speak in plain English (or Spanish or Cantonese, etc.).

As you gain experience in your industry, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember that ‘APRs’ and ‘household income’ aren’t layman’s terms (the latter is not self-explanatory in surprisingly many languages).

Don’t just ask your fans why they love you

The solution is quite simple but often missed: Speak to your target users. Almost all product development and usability books ever published advocate this point, but few organizations live by it.

Among the startups I see who do speak to their users, I see one common shortcoming – they only speak to their current, happy users. That poses two challenges:

Current – the easiest users to reach out to are current users of the platform. However, those users may not be representative of the users you need to cater towards if you want to continue to grow, especially for startups, which tend to have limited user bases. Most startups are classified as startups, at least partly due to their (limited) size.

You shouldn’t limit your source of input to the existing user base only: listen to the users you are targeting, rather than just those who use the platform today. Who will constitute your user base in 6, 12, or 18 months if you grow as you expect? For many organizations, the early adopters are not good representatives of the core user group once the market matures.

If you want to grow further, you may need to access a broader market where users may display a different behavior and understanding than your early adopters. In other words, your early adopters may share in your cognitive overhead. That said, if your full target audience has already adopted your product, you will probably not have any challenges in sampling users. This isn’t the case for most companies though.

The smartphone user base today is very different to the early 2000s. The same goes for Tesla, Amazon, Uber, and Google – the user bases today are different from when they first started. How should you build your user experience and product roadmap to attract and retain your future users?

For a founder of a successful company, this is the ultimate challenge. How do you stay close enough to the business that you can ensure the right execution while staying distant enough that you can question your own direction and correct if necessary?

Happy – it can be hard to get hold of users who left your website or deleted your app quickly because they didn’t “get it.” But the people who left your website, deleted the app or didn’t get to finalize a purchase are the very best source of insights and lessons. They have insights that aren’t obvious to you, the expert – because they don’t carry the same cognitive overhead that you do. Be aware of the potential for selection bias – the risk that you will sample users who will just confirm what you already know rather than tell you what you need to know.

Build something your mother would love

In our portfolio companies, we work actively to test usability for people without the cognitive overhead that our organization carries. Aside from being active in industries with high cognitive overhead, most people working in our portfolio companies are similar in demographics – they are roughly the same age and all quite tech savvy – which makes internal usability testing close to impossible.

Our favorite litmus test for usability is very literarily to show the platform to our parents and ask for their feedback. We are targeting mass markets for most of our products, so if our parents get it, more tech savvy people will most likely get it too.

The parent test has been very successful so far and yielded many useful insights. For financial consumer products, the most common feedback is most often on missing explanations of financial jargon, on why certain pieces of information we ask for are required; or requests to include information in our overviews that we – suffering from our mental overhead – may deem to be irrelevant or self-explanatory.

When not to listen to the experts

A friend recently shared the management principles of a hugely successful conglomerate. They said: “Customer focused. The most important step in servicing your customer is to communicate with them and listen to them. Do not listen to your organization. Never let engineers define a product. Never let sales people set prices.”

While the quote is a generalization, I do believe there is something to the quote. People who are very close to a topic are rarely the best at defining what it has the potential to become.

For a founder of a successful company, this is the ultimate challenge. How do you stay close enough to the business that you can ensure the right execution while staying distant enough that you can question your own direction and correct if necessary?

In my experience, the answer is a cocktail of constantly testing the product with new people I meet and getting their feedback (I’ve definitely annoyed my parents and numerous Uber drivers this way on more than one occasion), mixed with a healthy part paranoia, and thinking about whether you are on the right track or whether you should course-correct a bit.


A shorter version of this article has been published on

Image credit: Shutterstock