In the first stages of a startup or a new product development process, founders and innovators can be tempted to keep their cards close to their vest—waiting to socialize an idea until the concept is fully formed and finely tuned.
But Aman Brar says they should be doing just the opposite: seeking input early and often.
The Indy-based entrepreneur just led a successful round of funding for his newest venture. The startup, Canvas, is a text-based interviewing platform designed to help recruiters easily vet job applicants. In this exclusive interview, he shares his insights about first generating a compelling idea, then refining it through prolific socializing.
As Aman sees it, your startup’s big idea is like a ball of clay. It takes shape over time, and your hands shouldn’t be the only ones molding it. “One belief might be that just your sheer intellectual brainpower could form this blob of clay into the sculpture that you want it to be,” he says. “The real trick is that it's actually the world that will help you shape it.
How do you find the right ball of clay to start molding in the first place? There’s no magic formula, but if you’re serious about innovation, you can—and should—take concrete steps toward first finding your big idea, then honing it. Aman shares seven practical tips for doing just that:
Although “creative thinking” may sound like an ambiguous, uncertain process, it’s a skill like any other. It can be developed through habit and discipline.
“I think people don't actually understand that they're creative,” says Aman. “Everybody actually is to some degree, but we don't practice it enough.”
“There are simple exercises I'll tell people to do,” he explains. For example, he suggests picking out an object to examine. Consider it from every angle, and as you do, begin to question its assumptions. “I'll walk around the house and I'll be like, ‘Oh, there's our toaster.’ Then you question the assumptions of the toaster,” Aman says. “Why are toasters opaque? … It should be transparent, so you can actually see the toasting level.”
The same process can be applied to virtually anything: a household good, a B2B service or just the way a company does a particular process. By developing a habit of look at the world through a different lens, you put yourself in the right mindset to happen upon an idea worth pursuing.
Your creativity can be trained and strengthened. Make it part of your rhythm as you go throughout your days.
An overly practical mindset can impair your ability to question assumptions. Aman advocates generating ideas without immediately considering how practical they are—something he’s been doing since childhood.
“I think I always had goofy ideas,” he says, recalling an assignment in his sixth grade science class. While other classmates presented modest but practical ideas, Aman dreamed up a device, the “Solar Plexus 2000,” that would draw energy from the sun. “It was this big ring that circled the sun, and we captured its energy,” he says. “I had no idea how we’d build it. That's a moot point.”
His ask-how-later approach might seem counterintuitive, but it makes a lot of sense. After identifying a pain point, you can consult experts and explore ways to remedy it. But if you only solve problems you already know the answers to, you’ll never disrupt an industry.
In the concepting phase, don’t limit yourself to ideas you’re sure you know how to execute. First identify the what, then concern yourself with the how later.
Of course, you shouldn’t schedule coffee with a VC or seek a business partner every time an idea strikes you in the shower. Instead, Aman suggests keeping track of ideas as they come to you, then letting them percolate.
About his recent exit from Apparatus, Aman says, “As I started thinking about my next move, I would keep a journal of ideas.” The project he’s working on now is one he jotted down in that journal, but it evolved over time.
You never know what may become useful, so don’t throw away an idea just because you’re not sure where it leads.
It’s like “the classic scene in a movie where you're writing, and you're crumpling up the paper and throwing it away and writing and crumpling up the paper and throwing it away,” says Aman. “There's no requirement to crumple and throw away and retype.”
Write your ideas down—all of them. And hang onto your notebook even if you’re not sure yet whether any of the ideas are viable.
“Socializing your idea” shouldn’t be code for “convincing other people that you’re right.” If you enter the process thinking you already know the answers and are only sharing your idea to gain buy-in, you’ll create an echo chamber. Instead, Aman believes true leaders have open minds and a willingness to listen to others’ ideas. “People running companies wake up every day with more questions than answers,” he says.
A bit of good news: If you’re truly seeking input, socializing your idea doesn’t have to be a formal or overly polished process. In fact, Aman says, “If you sit down and write a 50-page thesis, that can be a waste of time at this stage.” He practices what he preaches. In his latest round of funding for Canvas, Aman secured funding through sharing his pitch deck over casual conversations.
You’re not always right, and that’s a good thing. You’ll find it’s much easier to get other people on board with your idea when you’re also listening to theirs.
To develop a well-rounded business model, you need to involve people who balance out your strengths and weaknesses. Your advisors should be able to provide diverse perspectives drawn from different backgrounds, experiences, and/or geographic locations.
“Instead of just circulating our ideas here [in Indianapolis], that means jumping on a plane before you even have a company and talking about it out there in the real world,” says Aman, adding that as he has developed the idea for his upcoming endeavor, he’s been consulting advisors spanning all the way from D.C. to Silicon Valley.
“That's something I would tell someone trying to start a company to think really deeply about,” he says. “I don't care if it means you can't afford the plane ticket. Just jump in your car and drive to New York and start talking to people. There's a lot of stuff happening outside that will give you a better understanding of the world.”
New perspectives strengthen innovation, while homogeneity can kill it. Whether they live in your city or beyond it, select advisors whose life experiences have been different from your own.
Socializing and refining an idea is a gradual process. And developing the premise may actually be less challenging than making the seemingly-smaller decisions about day-to-day operations moving forward. “It's easier to figure out what the ‘big brain’ thing is,” says Aman. “But then the harder thing to figure out is: What's the first thing? What's the point of attack?”
This is where Aman relies on Jim Collins’ principle of “bullets before cannonballs.”
In other words, take small measures before making big leaps.
Once you’ve tested your assumptions with relatively low stakes, you can scale up. And if you’ve formed a habit of socializing your ideas as you go, you’ll be easily able to seek input as you make first small changes, then big ones.
Not every change is a step in the right direction. Always test the waters before diving in, and take time to evaluate the outcomes of a decision before doubling down.
Seeking input should start early. But it doesn’t stop there. Aman believes innovators always have more questions than answers. That continues to be true, from initial concepting into idea refinement and scaling up.
“Every day you wake up, you dream of a world where you have all these answers. You just have all these questions,” says Aman. This can be scary to acknowledge, but as you share with your ball of clay with others and let the world help shape it, questions are a pretty good place to start.
You can’t learn until you admit that you don’t already know everything. Make peace with uncertainty and stay curious.
It’s not hard to see why many innovators are hesitant to socialize their ideas. No one wants to pitch a half-baked concept or bring what appears to be the MVP to market, only to discover that it’s not viable. And even in a less public context, floating an unfinished idea can be intimidating.
But Aman says tech industry players have to get over their fear of losing face. “We don't really embrace failure,” he says. “We should learn how.” Instead of avoiding failure at all costs, Aman encourages tech industry players to see it as part of the process. After all, many of today’s most successful business leaders witnessed defeat at some point in their careers. These were formative experiences that provided invaluable lessons.
Once you embrace the possibility of failure, you can overcome your fear of socializing your idea. And in doing so, you may actually prevent the failure you fear.
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