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The Hard-To-Nail Formula That Makes Building A Startup Easier

It’s a lot less painful when you think beyond just solving problems and focus instead on connecting with a “family” of customers.

The Hard-To-Nail Formula That Makes Building A Startup Easier
[Photo: zilli/iStock]

When I interviewed Jess DiDonato for my startup accelerator Tacklebox, I saw another smart entrepreneur who’d identified a problem. I meet lots of those. But what I wasn’t able to foresee was just how easy she’d be able to make the early-stage startup experience look–to the point where she frustrated the hell out of the other founders.

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Founders struggling through positioning or customer acquisition would talk about how they wished their startup was as “straightforward” as Jess’s. She moved in hyperspeed from day one and hasn’t slowed down, despite a demanding day job. DiDonato is a first-time founder. She’s not a developer. She doesn’t have a stacked team. She’s not even working on her idea full-time (yet). But so far, anyway, she’s nailed a difficult formula that many early-stage founders never get quite right, and it’s helped her lay a strong foundation for her startup in a short amount of time.

Don’t Just Solve A Problem, Find A Tribe

One reason I’d underestimated Jess was because I thought she’d identified a problem to solve–something that every founder needs to do.

Jess has super-short hair. To keep it looking “fresh,” in her words, she needs to get it cut a couple times a month. She’d cut it weekly if she could afford it. Salons typically charge the same rates for a quick, short cut as they do for women with longer hair who come far less frequently, and barbershops don’t do this cut well (and often aren’t especially inviting). So either Jess pays a ton, or she regularly subjects herself to getting a bad, cheap cut in an uncomfortable environment.

To solve this problem, she pitched me Cropped, membership-based salon services for women with short hair in New York City, offering unlimited cuts by people who know what they’re doing in a welcoming atmosphere. Bing, bang, boom–clean problem, simple solution.

As a result, I’d planned to focus my interview with Jess on validation and logistics–sourcing stylists, pricing, customer acquisition, brick and mortar–to see if it all made sense. But all Jess wanted to talk about was her customer, who she loved. “Short hair is a lifestyle. An attitude. A way of life,” she told me, explaining that she saw Cropped as a lifestyle brand. The decision to cut your hair short was about so much more than how it looked, Jess said. Cutting your hair that way was not a singular action, it was the result of a whole set of beliefs.

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She told me that she both stopped and was stopped by women with short hair every day on the street, and after our interview she emailed me an article in Refinery29, in which one woman says, “Short-haired women–we’re like a squad. It’s hard to explain, but we immediately compliment each others’ hair and ask where we got it done.”

I began to understand that Jess hadn’t found a problem. She’d found something way more powerful: a tribe. A family that was wholly underrepresented but already very much in existence. A tight-knit, cohesive group that was bound by all sorts of things but happened to recognize and find each other, in this case through their hairstyles.

I get asked a lot by founders, “How do I quickly build a community?” The answer I give is that you don’t. You find an existing community and help them with a problem they care about. Harley Davidson doesn’t sell motorcycles, Nike doesn’t sell shoes, and Jess won’t sell salon services.

Get “Famous To The Family”–Fast

In a 2011 blog post, Seth Godin discusses the race to become just “slightly famous”–to have 500 or 1,500 or 3,000 of the right people know who you are. As he puts it, it’s a matter of becoming “famous to the family,” the people who matter for whatever you’re building.

When you see things in that light, “barriers to entry” are really “barriers to the family.” Let’s say I want to launch a travel startup for parents with young kids. My barrier to building this product isn’t tech. That’s a commodity. It’s that I’ve got to become famous to parents with young kids who are booking trips. That means I need to be “famous”–recognized, trusted, relied on–at every touchpoint in their decision-making process. The family travel bloggers they read, their influential friends who recommend trips, the Instagram travel accounts they follow all need to know and speak approvingly of me and the product or service I offer.

For me personally, that barrier is insurmountable. I don’t have kids, and I don’t know much about the family-travel world, so it would take me years (or a key hire) to become famous to that particular family. The longer it takes you to become famous to your family, the slimmer your chances of success. Jess, however, is becoming famous to her family fast. Her tribe is accessible and extremely cohesive. The specific problem she’s solving for them is urgent and top of mind. And best of all? It’s easy for her to find them–she can literally spot them from a mile (okay, a few blocks) away.

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When the family gets behind you, you can move fast. So instead of selling salon services, Jess will sell connection to the tribe, which will let her move quickly.

Fresh cuts & cool stuff — a new concept for short-haired women.

A post shared by Cropped (@croppednyc) on

Inspired People Are Patient And Forgiving

Most founders, in my experience, make two critical mistakes:

  1. They overestimate how much action uninspired people will take.
  2. They underestimate how much action inspired people will take.

Cropped will be logistically difficult to pull off. But Jess’s tribe will help her build it. They’ll deal with a wonky MVP that’s not as convenient as their usual cuts –which in Cropped’s case is a Breather workspace where she has a stylist cutting hair on Sundays.

Early products are about engineering emotion, not flawless solutions. Your early product won’t be great, but if you connect on an emotional level, customers will stick with you as you develop. So whether Cropped’s haircuts are great or mediocre initially won’t really matter, because her customers will give her a chance to get better. They’ll treat her like family. They know Jess knows what “great” looks like for them, and they’ll trust her to get her business in a place to deliver it.

In the end, this is the formula for your best chance at building a successful startup–connecting with customers so deeply that they let you build slowly, helping out along the way. I don’t know whether Cropped will succeed, but I’m confident in its chances because I’ve seen how Jess, as a founder, has managed to make the really difficult early days look far easier than they are for most.

About the author

Brian Scordato is the founder of Tacklebox Accelerator, a four-week program in New York City for early-stage founders (many of whom have full-time jobs) to go from idea to validated product. He teaches at General Assembly, writes here, and loves Tar Heel basketball.

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