The timing myth

12 Jul 2019    3 mins read.

For most successful companies or products you hear about these days, you hear stories about similar ideas that failed.

My idea was way ahead of its time. If I only waited a few (months, years, decades…).

The “bad timing” justification is given by pundits with little skin in the game or by the folks whose idea failed. Timing has become a trite excuse and, at the same time, a pompous puffery to support self-serving bias.

Short of ideas that depend on technology that is yet to be invented (e.g. building a car before the combustion engine is developed), timing is rarely the culprit.

Rather than timing, you can usually attribute the failure to one of these: failure to understand the consumer struggle and design a proper solution, failure to execute, or failure to acquire the necessary growth capital.

Failure to understand the consumer struggle and properly solve it

Products and companies exist to solve problems. They compete on different ways of doing it. But before you set out to solve a problem, you have to deeply understand it. Instead, many start with a shallow understanding, or worse, they start with a solution and then contrive the problem in support of their illusion.

This is what Steve Jobs meant when he said, “You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Failure to put the customer and their struggle at the center of the product is one of the main reasons companies and products fail.

One example from the Lean Startup book is a meal planning company called Food On The Table. They knew that their initial assumptions were most likely wrong. So, before they invested a single penny toward building a solution, they spent time at the grocery store talking to shoppers about their meal planning problems. They nailed the problem and the user experience first, and only then worked backwards to building a product.

No amount of meetings, white boarding, or coffee shop conversations will ever replace the deep understanding and empathy you get from talking to and observing actual customers (or struggling with the problem yourself).

Failure to execute

Even after you’ve done the hard part of refining your understanding of the problem and designing a good solution, you still have to execute. This is the differentiator between a great idea and a successful company.

Take Uber as an example of a ride hailing service. Many companies had similar ideas and built a product around it. Why did Uber prevail?

Besides building the necessary technology, they employed an army of field sales folks to sign up and onboard a critical mass of drivers. They also invested in lobbyists to influence municipal transportation laws in their favor.

Execution is not just a technological solution to the problem. It’s the hard work required to bring all the pieces together. It requires patience and perseverance. This is where most juicy problems with great ideas come to die.

Failure to acquire capital

In today’s world, technology allows many businesses to grow organically and require much less capital. However, some businesses require rapid scale to grow or need to acquire expensive capital assets. Inability to do this when needed is a common cause of business failure.

For example, if you’re a hardware company that makes wearables, you have to design and manufacture the board and the accompanying device. You then have to produce enough to ship. This requires much more capital than a purely software business. In most cases, you’ll have to raise or borrow money before you realize revenues.

Timing is a red herring

Timing is almost never the real reason a company fails. You’ll be much better analyzing the failure using the three culprits described in this post: failure to understand the consumer struggle and design a proper solution, failure to execute, or failure to acquire the necessary growth capital. Being aware of the true mechanisms for failure can help you avoid them.