Bad startup advice you should ignore (and what to do instead)

If you’re anything like me, you follow your startup heroes on social media, and try to learn everything you can from their journey.

But sometimes… let’s face it, you get advice doesn’t make ANY sense for your situation. It might be outdated… out of context… or even downright harmful.

Let’s debunk 5 common startup myths that are often delivered as gospel — and look at what you should do instead.

MYTH #1: Focus on TAM (Total Addressable Market)

Every investor is gonna want to see your TAM slide — the total addressable market your product can reach.

Envisioning a huge market is a great way to get investors excited — and look — if you can’t even imagine this, you have no business talking to investors in the first place.

But trying to design for a large market upfront — when you are first bringing your idea to life — can be a DISASTER. Successful innovators like Apple, Netflix, AirBnB, Facebook, Tesla & Pinterest all started by delighting a small, high-need group of early adopters.

The smartest entrepreneurs know that delighting a narrow niche of best-fit customers is a better path towards explosive growth. As AirBNB founder Brian Chesky says — “Build something 100 people love — not something 1M people kinda like.”

MYTH #2: Get out of the building

Years ago, Lean Startup guru Steve Blank famously said, “Get out of the building” — a phrase that’s now widely quoted. And sure — for product creators and engineers who didn’t EVER talk to customers, this was a revolutionary and impactful statement.

But this is blunt-hammer advice that can easily lead you astray.

Far too often, startup founders surround themselves with enthusiasts and cheerleaders who love the ideas they’re developing — but avoid doing the hard work of finding hot-core customers with a burning need for the product itself.

You need to talk with the RIGHT people for your development stage. Otherwise, getting out of the building will lead you in circles.

MYTH #3: Polish your onboarding early

Nobody can deny the importance of onboarding in product design. Onboarding sets the stage for everything that happens afterwards — and if you fail to engage people upfront, you may lose them forever.

HOWEVER… when you’re bringing a compelling new idea to life, onboarding is NOT the first thing to design and polish. Because when you do this without thinking through your re-engagement loop, you risk building a leaky bucket.

That’s why the smartest entrepreneurs and game developers start by addressing re-engagement, and leave the onboarding polish until later in development.

Don’t confuse what you do to raise money with early-stage product design.

If you polish your onboarding — but don’t bother to create a compelling re-engagement loop — you’re doing it backwards.

MYTH #4: Build fast & launch to learn

Who needs market research or deep-dive customer discovery? Why not just roll up your sleeves, throw together your ideas & launch as fast as possible?

You’ll hear this advice from countless investors — many citing the Lean Startup as an inspiration & playbook. And for engineers-turned-founders, it’s a tempting path that can sometime works out.

But this advice misinterprets the foundation of Lean Startup:, which is testing your assumptions as early as possible. It turns out there are many ways you can validate your ideas long before you can launch, without writing code or producing detailed UX.

Investors love it when young companies launch quickly — and you CAN learn a lot by getting your product into people’s hands as soon as possible.

But if you don’t have any clue who you’re designing for — and haven’t gathered a group of hot-core Superfans who are eager to try it — I gotta tell you, it’s NOT in your best interest to launch quickly.

Don’t be fooled. There are faster, cheaper, smarter ways to validate your value prop.

MYTH #5: Drive engagement with external rewards

One of the most persistent myths in startup-land is the idea that external rewards are the secret to driving engagement.

If you already have a compelling customer journey — sure, sprinkling rewards on top can juice your results. But if your journey is flawed… or non-existent… rewards aren’t gonna solve your retention problems — they’ll actually make it worse.

For example, a recent longitudinal study of dieters from the UK found that financial incentives for weight loss actually lead to faster regain in weight after the initial program was finished.

Or take my client — a smart chat-bot app that added points and badges to fix flagging retention — and ended up more confused than ever about WHO they were serving.

If your journey isn’t strong, don’t waste your time dicking around with external rewards. It’s an expensive band-aid that won’t drive long-term retention — and it’ll distract you from fixing the REAL problem.

Summary & Next Steps

So there you have it: 5 startup myths busted — and what to do instead.

  1. Don’t focus on TAM when you’re first testing your idea — instead, find and delight your early hot-core market FIRST
  2. Don’t get out of the building and talk to customers without carefully selecting and calibrating who you’re talking to
  3. Don’t polish your onboarding early if you haven’t created a compelling reason to return
  4. Don’t build fast & launch to learn without first validating your ideas with people in your early market — otherwise you’re wasting money & time
  5. Don’t drive engagement with external rewards if your customer journey is weak or non-existent — that’ll distract you from fixing the real problem

And here’s one more BONUS piece of advice: pay attention to the background and incentives of whoever is offering you advice — including me!

Make sure to take that into account whenever you’re applying someone’s advice to your situation. That type of contextual awareness will give you clarity and help you be smart and thoughtful about startup advice.

Want more innovation tips — tailored for your specific situation? Take our free quiz and discover YOUR entrepreneurial style at gamethinking.io/quiz

And if you want to put these ideas into action — join our FREE Superfan Challenge, happening Sep 14–16 2021. This is a rare opportunity to work directly with me and level-up your Customer Discovery skills.

CLICK HERE to save your seat in the Superfan Challenge

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io