Does your market give partial credit?

Does your market give partial credit?
Photo by Jackson Simmer / Unsplash

"You're onto something profound. Yes, you're still a few changes away from picking the lock ... but you'll figure it out."

Hearing this from the seed investor I had spent the last three weeks pitching was encouraging. Even better, we had finally received the term sheet that would give us the time to ... wait, what did he just say?

The co-stars of every heist movie, locks have a defining characteristic: they don't give partial credit. 5 out of 6 may get you an 83% on an algebra quiz, but a six-pin tumbler will unemotionally fail you.

While some markets reward you for making progress, others behave like the padlock. If you're the type of founder that thrives on validation (is there another type?), the lock's stubborn resistance to each new tug of the shackle can be gutting. "But this was our best guess yet!"

A lot of high-risk, high-reward startups exhibit this essentially-nothing-until-something behavior: before the Long-Term Stock Exchange had listings, it wasn't a new stock exchange. Before SpaceX reliably sent materials into outer space, it was just a very expensive way to blow things up. These startups, and perhaps yours, needed one or more miracles just to be viable.

The startup rungs below 'World Changer' are becoming harder to reach, too. Consumer products need to be approaching-zero friction to succeed: "I've already tapped a button, why do I have to tap another?!" And many prosumer B2B products need a compelling UX on top of workflows-that-just-work in order to attract enough end users to create bottoms-up adoption. Phew!

In these markets, getting part of the product, sales motion, or messaging correct may result in just enough revenue to keep hope alive but not enough to unlock your dreams.

Our new investor could sense that our market wasn't going to give much partial credit either. We weren't entering a crowded market with a clear plan to steal customers away from a competitor. We were attempting to create a new category by educating and taking users away from spreadsheets. If we crack the code, we'll win big. If we don't, we'll win Blake's steak knives.

That made us a correctly-shaped bet for a VC. But it also meant we, like a band of thieves with our ears to the lock, had to learn how to detect progress. Did we have any of the numbers correct?

And not just for the sake of our investors. What about our team? Maintaining internal morale and momentum in these markets is a terrible trifecta of more difficult, less understood, and mission critical. We're at a revenue plateau from day zero. Will we ever break out?

The key is learning to measure progress in terms of inputs we can control: how many conversations have we had? What assumptions are we making? How many ideas have we tested? What ideas do we still have in the queue? What order are we going to test these in? On whom? What have we learned?

Yikes, these are all so ... squishy! So many words! So few numbers!

That's because breaking into a locked market is a test of how we work and who we are. Picking these locks isn't an outputs-based, dashboard exercise. It demands obsessive curiosity, brutal honesty, a keen eye for peculiar results, and relentless execution: a culture of scientists on a mission.