Strategy is Not a To Do List

I had breakfast with two of my ex-students from Singapore who were building a really interesting startup. They were deep into Customer Discovery and presented a ton of customer data on the validity of their initial hypothesis – target customers, pricing, stickiness, etc. I was unprepared for what they said next. “We’re going to do a big launch of our product in three weeks.” I almost dropped my coffee. “Wait a minute, what about the rest of Customer Development? Aren’t you going to validate your hypotheses by first getting some customers?”

Without any sense of irony they said, “Oh, our investors convinced us to skip that part, because our customer feedback was all over the map and our schedule showed us launching in three weeks and they were worried that we’d run out of cash. They told us to stay on schedule.” Now I was confused, and I asked, “Well what do you guys believe – Customer Development or launch on a schedule?” Without missing a beat they said, “Oh, we believe both are right.”

I realized I was listening to them treat Customer Development as an item on their To Do list.

Suddenly, I had a massive case of déjà vu.

Can You Pull This Off
I was VP of marketing at Ardent, a supercomputer company where a year earlier I had a painful and permanent lesson about Customer Discovery. I was smart, aggressive, young and a very tactical marketer who really hadn’t a clue about what strategy actually meant.

One day the CEO called me into his office and asked, “Steve I’ve been thinking about this as our strategy going forward. What do you think?” And he proceeded to lay out a fairly complex and innovative sales and marketing strategy for our next 18 months. “Yeah, that sounds great,” I said. He nodded and then offered up, “Well what do you think of this other strategy?” I listened intently as he spun an equally complex alternative strategy. “Can you pull both of these off?” he asked looking right at me. By the angelic look on his face I should have known that I was being set up. I replied naively, “Sure, I’ll get right on it.”

25 years later I still remember what happened next. All of sudden the air temperature in the room dropped by about 40 degrees. Out of nowhere the CEO started screaming at me, “You stupid x?!x. These strategies are mutually exclusive. Executing both of them would put us out of business. You don’t have a clue about what the purpose of marketing is because all you are doing is executing a series of tasks like they’re like a big To Do list. Without understanding why you’re doing them, you’re dangerous as the VP of Marketing, in fact you’re just a glorified head of marketing communications.”

I left in daze angry and confused. There was no doubt my boss was a jerk, but unlike the other time I got my butt kicked, I didn’t immediately understand the point. I was a great marketer. I was getting feedback from customers, and I’d pass on every list of what customers wanted to engineering and tell them that’s the features our customers needed. I could implement any marketing plan sales handed to me regardless of how complex. In fact I was implementing three different ones. Oh…hmm… perhaps I was missing something.

I was doing a lot of marketing “things” but why was I doing them? I had approached my activities as simply as a task-list to get through. With my tail between my legs I was left to ponder; what was the function of marketing in a startup?

Strategy is Not a To Do List, It Drives a To Do List
It took me awhile, but I began to realize that the strategic part of my job was two-fold. First, (in today’s jargon) we were still searching for a scalable and repeatable business model. My job was to test our hypotheses about who were potential customers, what problems they had and what their needs were. Second, when we found these customers, marketing’s job was to put together the tactical marketing programs (ads, pr, tradeshows, white papers, data sheets) to drive end user demand into our direct sales channel and to educate our channel about how to sell our product.

Once I understood the strategy, the To Do list became clear. It allowed me to prioritize what I did, when I did it and instantly understand what would be mutually exclusive.

Good Luck and Thanks For the Fish
My students were going through the motions of Customer Development rather than understanding the purpose behind it. It was trendy, they had read my book and to them it was just another step on the list of things they had to do. They had no deep understanding of why they were doing it. So they were at a crossroads. Since their investors had asked them to launch now, what happened if their initial assumptions were wrong?

As they left I hoped they would be really lucky.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs get lots of great advice.
  • Most of it is mutually exclusive.
  • Don’t do it if you can’t explain why you’re doing it.
  • Or else it all becomes a To Do list.

About Steve Blank

Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. Steve is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual -- and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement.  He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps -- now the standard for science commercialization in the U.S. His Hacking for Defense class at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency, and its sister class, Hacking for Diplomacy, is doing the same for foreign affairs challenges managed by the U.S. State Department. Steve blogs at

Funding Basics: Customer Development

Entrepreneurs take note. More startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development. That’s why I believe strongly that every new product company should have a methodology for developing customers.

I’m a proponent of Steve Blank’s startup stack methodology for customer development, which features the following steps:

  • Customer Discovery – Begin with a business model canvas, a summary of how you’re going to serve customers and earn money

  • Customer Validation – Make assumptions, then test them to develop a repeatable and scalable sales process

  • Execution –  Fine tune your model to get to a market fit that is tight and profitable; pivot, as needed

As an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, I recently had an opportunity to share some perspective about the customer development process and how to maximize success. The first thing I told the group in front of me—a large percentage of whom were engineers—was that they should focus everything on finding the right customer segment, rather than building or modifying a new product concept to fit initial discussions. I think I heard a collective sigh of relief before I began my presentation.

Completing Your Canvas

Research has proven effective customer discovery begins with a business model canvas, so the first part of our discussion, framed in that context was designed for them to hear one thing: You are making a best-guess at first. There will be plenty of time for refinement, when you know more.

A strategic management and lean startup template, your canvas should reflect initial assumptions. To begin, you must understand the market you’re targeting—total addressable, served available, and/or target market. You’ll also need to define the type of market you’re hoping to penetrate. Is it existing with incumbents, but a known problem; new with no competition, but steep education requirements; re-segmented where you’re offering a lower cost or niche alternative; or are you cloning a concept from somewhere else?

Your canvas should also identify key value propositions. What is the job your customers are hiring you to do? How will you do it, and most important, what one-to-three benefits will customers get from using your product or service?

In the customer relationships section of your canvas, you’ll need to outline how you plan to

  • Get customers

  • Keep customers

  • Grow customers

In addition, your canvas should highlight any other key activities, resources (e.g. required equipment), partners and costs (fixed and variable), as well as your anticipated revenue model (e.g., one-time scale, subscription, etc.).

Finding Your Fit

A completed business model canvas ensures your team has fully immersed itself in the customer problem. As such, it can serve as a foundation as you define tests for customer validation.

Testing can begin once you’ve identified subjects. Who are they—end users, influencers, recommenders, decision makers, or others? What do they do all day, and can you create an organizational or influencer map around them? Plus, don’t forget to acknowledge any saboteurs because they have no interest in your success.   

Next, only founders should conduct customer validation meetings, and they should be face-to-face for added visual cues. Don’t outsource the job. Ask open-ended questions and avoid trying to convince someone he or she needs your solution. Test your theories to determine if you’re on the right track. If you don’t get a good signal, reframe the problem. Test again.

In general, ask questions that help you learn more. Lead with

  • Tell me more about…

  • What do you mean by…

  • How so…

  • Why is that…

  • What are your thoughts on…

  • How would you quantify…

  • How did you measure…

  • How did you come up with that…

  • What was your thinking behind…

The goal of every customer validation meeting should be the same: To understand the problem space and the current solutions available.

Pivoting and Execution

During customer validation, your team may uncover some startling truths. Your product doesn’t fit the market it was intended to serve. Prospects already have a solution for x, but have you considered this other opportunity, y? Do not panic.

Instead, apply your development methodology to your customer discovery process. Be agile. Don’t build a new product. Find a new set of customers. Pivot into a new space and test again.

By following a customer development process, you have a tremendous opportunity to deliver what people will pay for, improving your product along the way. Moreover, you’ll have high-quality data to answer the question “who is your customer?” when potential investors ask.

About Alan Chiu

Alan Chiu is a Partner at XSeed Capital, with a strong background in enterprise software startups. His investment areas include mobile enterprise applications, data analytics platforms, enterprise infrastructure, and fintech startups. He serves on the Board of Directors of Breakaway and previously served on the board of StackStorm (acquired by Brocade – NASDAQ:BRCD). He has provided support to other portfolio companies including Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis of the RELX Group – NYSE:RELX), AtScale, Dispatcher, Teapot (acquired by Stripe), Pixlee, SIPX (acquired by ProQuest), Zooz, BrainofT,, Inklo, and My90. Alan is currently Co-President for Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an alumni association that seeks to strengthen Stanford’s startup community by fostering relationships among entrepreneurs and alumni investors.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley -- including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.

This blog is the second in a financing series with topics designed to help entrepreneurs be better prepared for venture capital conversations.