Ideas are dangerous. Look for painful problems instead.

Lessons learned from our failed shoe startup

Before we started Shoes of Prey, we were heavily inspired by Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow.

The basic premise of that book is that the majority of businesses are boring. They’re not unlike ordinary black and white dairy cows on a typical farm paddock: run-of-the-mill, a dime a dozen. Now, imagine instead a cow that is completely purple. You’ve never seen such an animal. It’s something so unusual, so remarkable, that people can’t help but tell their friends. Pretty soon, word spreads and the cow is Instagram famous.

The trick, says Seth, is to try to design products and services that stand out like purple cows— because, if you succeed, they’ll market themselves.

We loved this idea so much. Inspired, we carefully compiled a list of potential purple cow ideas. The company we eventually founded, Shoes of Prey — a website where women could design their own shoes — quickly rose to the top.

And, in truth, we succeeded — Shoes of Prey was a purple cow. Women loved the idea. The press loved us. Investors gave us $26m USD. There was only one problem: we struggled to make it work. (And, sadly, we closed up shop earlier this year.)

The error I think is we focused too much on our original idea, in other words our purple cow solution — requiring women design their own shoes — rather than addressing a specific customer problem.

It turns out that the vast majority of women didn’t need to design their own shoes (though they did like the idea). Early adopters gave us a chance, but, more often than not, they’d struggle to find design inspiration, or the self-confidence, necessary to pull the trigger. Our customers didn’t need to play the role of a shoe designer (almost zero women were designing their own shoes before we existed), but instead they just needed to look good in a great pair of heels. In that sense our solution actually introduced a new problem to their life — now they had to do all the hard work, including overcoming the paradox of choice, only to risk looking foolish once the shoes arrived.

It was much easier for our customers to just go and buy a hot pair of Jimmy Choo.

My advice: go and find painful, repeatable problems. Problems with big addressable markets. Then, and only then, should you start thinking about solutions (and purple cows).

The tragedy is we could have focused on a specific problem. For instance Shoes of Prey was amazing in the bridal vertical. Since we owned our own 200-person factory, and made all the shoes on demand, we were also able to perfectly cater to non-standard sizes. We could have also manufactured for other brands. We could have done lots of things. However, we stuck to our guns and clung to original idea for too long. It killed our business.

[If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the books Running Lean and Lean Customer Development. These books will teach you the skills of talking to real customers to really focus on a problem worth solving.]

Just a guy stumbling through life. Views here are mine alone.

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