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First Steps Pt. 4 - Defining Success

Hey everyone,

This is the fourth and final piece in our “On Starting” series, and it builds on last weeks conversation about Inflection Points. Next week we’re going to be moving on to other phases of the entrepreneurial process, starting with how to decide what sorts of things you should be spending your time on at each stage in your business journey.

Before we jump into this week’s post, we’ve got some quick news.


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Idea Validation Course

In keeping with the tone of the last few weeks, we’ve just finished writing a free email course on Idea Validation, designed to help you work through the beginning stages of an idea.

This course is a lightweight version of the process we walk all our new clients through at the beginning of each new project. It’s perfect for three kinds of people:

  1. People who have an idea for a new product or service but aren’t sure if it’s worth pursuing.
  2. People who are already working on a startup, business, app, or creative project but don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. People interested in taking on a new business or creative endeavor who don’t yet know what they want to do.

The course launches this Friday. If you’re interested in receiving it as soon as its available, just click here and we’ll add you to the waiting list.

With that said, let’s continue onto this week’s essay.

Defining Success

Last week we spoke about inflection points; moments where all of our planning and preparation comes together into a single test of success or failure. We discussed how shifting our goals towards these inflection points makes them realistic, and puts their achievement entirely within our reach.

Sometimes, success and failure aren’t determined by finishing alone. Launching a new project isn’t necessarily enough to call all of that work successful; as a business, we have to define what success means. When we’re plotting the end of our roadmap, it’s essential to consider this definition.

Success criteria are often left for far too late in the planning cycle to be useful. By the time we get around to considering them, too many decisions have been made for us to take them into account. These late, loose definitions of success are the primary sources of projects that arrive late and over-budget.

Let’s stop talking theory and look at an example.

If you’re currently building an app, and you want to raise venture capital after your launch, there are three metrics that VC firms are going to want to see: growth, retention, and engagement. If your primary definition of success is whether or not you’re able to raise funds after launch, these three metrics should be a core focus of your planning from day one. It’s not enough to consider them a few months or weeks from launch. Your product has to be built for shareability, stickiness, and engagement.

At SANE, we build an initial launch and marketing plan before we start designing a new application. Why? Because the design of the product must reflect our growth plan, and not the other way around. Too many new products are designed and implemented in a vacuum, and then thrown over the fence to have “marketing” figure out how to sell it.

Success criteria are influenced by the type of business you run. If you’re in the services business and you’re considering offering a new service, the only kind of success that matters is whether or not you can continue to afford to provide that service: i.e., is it profitable for you or not. This metric, profitability, is one you have to consider when you’re designing your service, not just when you’re selling or performing it.

Too often, success gets defined tautologically (“we’re successful if we succeed”) and then the metrics come out later. But this is usually too late to make any worthwhile change to our product or service that will allow us to track and verify those metrics. Or worse, we focus on vanity metrics that don’t result in real success, such as Facebook likes, page views, or app downloads.

Sometimes, our definition of success is hard to measure. Even then, we’re almost always able to describe the difference success would make for our business. If we can describe this change, we can observe it. And if we can observe it, we can measure it, even if this measurement is rough and abstract. We can measure happy customers by counting good reviews and strong referrals—an otherwise “soft” metric made hard through numbers.

Take another look at your roadmap. Do you have to meet any specific criteria to unlock success? If so, does your roadmap plan for designing and implementing ways to measure and validate those criteria? If not, you need to go back through our steps and make sure we’re tracking any metrics we’ll need later.

How ever you define success, always try to quantify it. Even if the measurements you’re quantifying are soft, assign numbers, yes/no, or true/false states to your criteria. “5 satisfied customers,” is a better definition of success than “improved customer satisfaction,” even if the idea of “satisfaction” is abstract. You may not be able to measure it with a ruler, but if you ask someone whether or not they were happy with your work, they’ll always be able to give you an answer.

Go back to your roadmap and consider what “success” means for this project. Define criteria and do your best to make them quantifiable. Then, make sure your roadmap contains adequate preparation for measuring and evaluating those criteria. If you don’t plan for success, you’ll fail by default.

That’s all for this week. If you liked what we wrote today, please share the newsletter with someone you think might like it too.

See you next Sunday,


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