How to diagnose your riskiest assumptions


Most startups fail because they run out of either time or money.  You can significantly increase your chances of success if you save your time and money until you are sure that you are pursuing a solid business model.  And the best way to make sure your business model is solid is to pick out at least 5 of your riskiest assumptions and objectively test them as if you were investing in your own venture.

So how do you find the riskiest assumptions in your business model?

First, you need to create your assumptions.  Whether you are using a lean canvass or a business plan, you need to lay out your vital assumptions about the business.  Here’s a brief list of questions you need to be able to answer about your business model.  Let me know if you think I should add anything.

  • Customers – Who are your customers? What do they do for a living? Where can you find groups of them? How many of them are there?
  • Problem – Have you identified a migraine level of pain for your target customers?  Are they currently doing something to try and solve it?
  • Solution – Will your solution solve your customers’ problem?  Are they willing to pay your designated price for your solution?
  • MVP – What is the Minimum Viable Product for which your customers will pay?
  • Competition – Who else is providing this solution? What is your competitive advantage?  What about your solution makes it difficult for your customers to leave?
  • Sales channels – How will you sell your product/service? Online? Inside sales? Outside sales? Distribution?
  • Supply – How will you produce your product or deliver your service?  What sort of infrastructure or inventory do you need in order to handle 1000 customers? 10,000 customers?
  • Human Capital – Do you or someone on your team have industry expertise in this market? Do you or someone on your team have the necessary leadership skills to lead this company in terms of product development, sales, marketing, financials, etc.?
  • Financials – How many customers do you need until you achieve target profitability? Is that a realistic number with your available resources? What are your key drivers of revenue?
  • Legal Issues – Do you have the necessary intellectual property rights to operate your business? Have you and your team come to an agreement on equity and responsibility distribution?

Next, list each of your assumptions as a line item.  Then, go through each one and write down two numbers.  The first number is on a scale of 1-5, rating the possibility that your assumption might be wrong.  This is like an inverse confidence rating.  So the less sure you are about it, the higher the number.  The second number is on a scale of 1-10, rating how detrimental an incorrect guess on this assumption would be to your business model.

Go down the list of each assumption and write down the two numbers.  When you are done, go back through one more time and multiply the two numbers to get your overall risk assessment.

Here’s a sample layout I created for a company that offers discount fuel cards for truck drivers.

Assumption Possibility of wrong assumption (1-5) Level of Impact if you are wrong (1-10) Total Risk Level
My target customer is the owner operator of a tractor trailer truck rather than the owner of a small or medium fleet 3 9 27
Their problem is that they need to buy as much gas for their truck as large fleets, but they don’t get the fuel discounts that group purchasing affords 2 7 14
There are no good options for fuel discount cards that allow owner operators to save 10 cents per gallon or more 5 5 25
Owner operators of trucks get information on new products from trade periodicals and online message boards 5 3 15
The average discount fuel card that owner operators use saves them 5 cents or less 4 3 12
Less than 50% of owner operators use any discount fuel card 4 8 32
We can sell discount fuel cards to owner operators through an inside sales force over the phone 4 8 32
We can sell discount fuel cards to owner operators through an online presence 4 4 16
We can partner with an existing fuel card underwriter to create our card and discount program 5 10 50
We have the necessary team to understand the trucking industry and deploy this product 3 4 12
We have the necessary team to supervise an inside sales operation 3 4 12
We understand what is required on the backend to process applications, approvals, and customer service 5 5 25
We need 500 customers to achieve our minimum revenue goal 1 3 3
Each inside sales representative will sign up 20 new accounts per month 4 5 20
Our team is on the same page about equity distribution, roles, and responsibilities 4 5 20
There are no regulatory hurdles for us to offer this product to truck drivers 5 8 40

Once you go through each of your assumptions to the categories outlined above, you can prioritize them based on the total risk level number.  Now you know which assumptions to test and validate.

Categories: Startup, Validation | 2 Comments

I run from danger, and other dumb assumptions entrepreneurs make

What does it feel like to have a terrible business idea? The kind where people laugh behind your back as you walk away? Take a moment. Think about it.
It actually feels a lot like having the world’s best business idea…right up until the moment when the market tells you that you don’t have anything anyone wants.
I meet with a lot of founders that don’t have any idea how to figure out whether they have the world’s best or dumbest idea.
After starting a number of companies of my own, and meeting with entrepreneurs at all stages of the startup journey, I’ve come to believe that the ability to differentiate good ideas from bad ones and massage bad ideas into profitable companies is like being physically fit. The vast majority of us aren’t born fit. We have to train, practice, and push ourselves to get good at it.

running woman

When I was in high school and college I completely ignored all forms of exercise. But I was lucky, I was a pretty skinny kid. People would always say to me, “are you a runner? You look like one!” and it happened so frequently that I came up with a funny quip back. I would say, “I run from danger!…and that’s about it”
So one day, I was walking my dogs, and I thought to myself, “Self, if there was danger on this street, could you in fact run from it?” I decided to test my assumption and I took off running. I sprinted as fast as I could. I sprinted for two whole blocks until I had to stop and throw up. And after I was done, I thought, “Man, danger would have kicked my butt.”
That day I learned that it’s pretty easy to make bad assumptions. Just because a lot of people tell you something is true — that you look like a runner — doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Your startup idea is no different than my perceived ability to run from danger. The only way to prove or disprove your idea’s likelihood for success is to test your assumptions. And whether or not this current idea makes it, you’ll be developing the muscle memory to validate future ideas.
Categories: Startup, Validation | 1 Comment

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