Keep on learning

After reading the blog ” Startup to learn, Learn to startup,” an entrepreneur wrote to me: “What will happen when I build a product, but the customers do not want to buy? How can I learn from this mistake? Should I go to another customer? Should I start everything new? I am confused about what to do here. Please advise.”

Answer: “Many “first-time” entrepreneurs believe that if they have an idea, be able to implement it into a product, sell it to customers then make a lot of money. The fact is that most startups failed because most ideas were wrong. If there are no customers, there is no startup. In that situation, many entrepreneurs frustrated and quit, and they do NOT learn anything.

To be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to learn from every mistake that you made and continue to CHANGE your idea into something that can meet the customer’s needs. The fact is you will change your idea several times until you get something that the customers are willing to pay for it. Your question is whether to continue with the same idea to different customers? Or start everything new? My answer is: You need to look into your value propositions to determine if your product matches what the customer needs or not? How did you come up with the idea and build the product in the first place? Did you identify the customers before building your product? Having the answers to these questions will help you to learn from your mistake.

In my class, every idea must be a “solution to a problem.” And the problem must come from the customers. At the beginning of the class, students must interview the customers to learn more about their problems and their need BEFORE even propose the idea to me for approval. That means based on the idea that they have in mind, they must go ask the customers. It means they have to identify the customers first and know about their problems in detail. Only knowing what their problems are, then they can develop the solutions. Only by following this process, they could meet the needs of the customers.

Even knowing what the customers’ needs, I do not allow them to build the product. They can only build a prototype then go back to the customers again to ask them to verify that what they build is what the customers are willing to pay for it. During this time, the customers may agree or not agree with their prototyping solution. If the customers like it, they can continue to develop the product. If the customers do not like it, they have to go back and start everything new (Restart). However most of the time, the customers ask them to modify or adding a few functions so it could solve the problem better (Pivot). Only by following this rigorous process, they can succeed.

For every successful company, there are thousands of failures because the entrepreneurs did not learn from their mistakes. I told my students: “You start something to learn, and you learn something to start.” During the starting, you will make mistakes, and you learn from them. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn.

A few years ago, there was a start-up company called Odeo. These entrepreneurs had tried many ideas and made many mistakes. They kept changing their ideas many times to meet what the customers need, but nothing was working. Many team members quit, but the founders remained firm because they believed in learning from mistakes. They borrowed money to build the product, but still not making enough money. Finally, they told the investors that they were willing to return whatever money left to investors because they did not want the investors to lose more money. The investors said: “You have tried many things, many ideas, and learned from many mistakes. Why don’t you keep the money and try one more idea? I rather work with someone who has at least learned something than someone who has not learned much.”

These entrepreneurs discussed came up with a simple new idea that business communication should be short and concise, no more than 140 characters. They changed the name of the company to Twitter. Twitter was a company built from many failures and ideas by a group of people who have committed to work together through all the ups and downs of the startup’s journey. That is what I mean by “learning from the mistakes and keep on learning, changing, pivoting, restarting until you succeed.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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