The Spark is Your Product

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Remember the old "Mission: Impossible" show? Each episode started with someone striking a match to ignite a fuse. It's a pop culture image that is sparked (pun fully intended) in our minds every time someone mentions lighting the fire of their business.

We thought of that particular image recently when we read this article by strategic advisors Karl Stark and Bill Stewart. They make some good points about igniting the flame of a startup. But a lot of those points are centered around a business model, or strategy, such as "what are your biggest strengths as a business" or "who is likely to copy your business model or enter your market."

Which are all valid things to ask, what should eventually be asked once the gears of a startup are going. But Karl and Bill dance around and really fail to address the very basic problem that needs to be solved first: what is the spark of your product?

Here's what they say:

So often we find entrepreneurial leaders are focused on the quality of the idea rather than the quality of their own strategic assets. That's akin to focusing on the idea of a roaring fire than creating the spark to get it going.

Product First

True, an idea in of itself isn't enough. It's the execution of the idea that counts. Yet, how does that idea form and how does it turn into a product. Something has to spark it. It doesn't conjure itself up from thin air. To do that, we need to seek opportunity and find solutions to problems.

Take for instance, Airbnb.

The idea for the service, as co-founder Joe Gebbia told us at his soapbox, was sparked out of two problems: a need to pay rent and every hotel room in town being booked. Joe and his eventual co-founder Brian Chesky had both left their jobs in 2007 and had dwindling bank accounts. That meant they could no longer afford the rent on their San Francisco apartment after it went up.

The same week their rent got hiked, a design conference came to town, booking every hotel around. Soon they realized they could rent space in their apartment by throwing down a couple of air beds. In that moment, Airbnb was born. A product that solved a problem for their potential customers.

The idea for Joe and Brian's product came out of solving a need and a problem for customers not from dwelling first on a business plan or strategy.

To be fair, Karl and Bill do mention "what do you know about the needs of these customers," but they don't frame it as a means to figure out your product or how it is differentiates itself in the marketplace.

Yet there will come a time when you'll have to address the strategic questions that will keep the fuse of your startup going, as Karl and Bill point out. However, if you don't have a product that meets a customer's needs then you don't really have a spark that will keep your business going.

All that to say, product first, strategy second. Without the product, you don't really have a startup.

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