What does it mean to have a “good” startup idea? How about a “great” one? How does one assess an idea when it comes to entrepreneurship? Moreover, how can we define “good” in an ever-changing landscape and society, as we face critical challenges such as climate change and social inequality?
To try to answer these questions, which are by no means easy, we sat down with Maëva Tordo, director of ESCP’s European incubator, the Blue Factory, which supports ESCP students and alumni in the development of their business projects.
Entrepreneurship 101: to create something relevant, be receptive
“Creation is not something we decide; it is something that happens to us.” It is in these terms that Maëva Tordo begins to explain the process of entrepreneurial creation. In her opinion, the generally agreed-upon idea that “where there is a will there is a way” is a false construct of society:
“The way we see entrepreneurship today can sometimes be quite artificial. It often starts with a desire to create something, and to say ‘I want to create a company’, but to struggle to find the right idea. “In my opinion, entrepreneurship and finding the right idea is pretty much like artistic inspiration. We do not generate the need, the information or the environment that will give way to our idea, but we can be receptive to it. Entrepreneurs must be attentive to what is happening, welcome empathy with their environment, and be ready to bring something new and answer a real need.”
Entrepreneurship and finding the right idea is pretty much like artistic inspiration. We do not generate the need, the information or the environment that will give way to our idea, but we can be receptive to it.
The subtle art of testing your idea
Once a worthy idea emerges from acute observation, aspiring entrepreneurs can begin to test their idea:
“The first thing to do is to meet directly with potential users, customers or beneficiaries. If you have an intuition about a service or a product, you have to go to the people who might be interested. You must speak to potential customers not with the idea of confirming that your business idea is awesome but to really unveil what these people need.”
And as Maëva Tordo explains, this phase of testing is crucial, and can sometimes be a harsh callback to reality: “We have to accept that this step may bring a lot of doubt, but it can also confirm our intuition and allow us to find people ready to become our first users. Ideally, I recommend interviewing 50 people for one hour. This may seem like a lot, but it is an worthwile step. I’d recommend not using surveys because they are often biased by nature. Also, the people you interview should, preferably, not be related to you so that there is no emotional bias.”
Don’t rush the process
Excited to get started, an aspiring entrepreneur may be tempted to rush into launching their business. However, taking your time can actually be a good thing. It can save you from missing key information as you test your idea and confront it in the real world.
As our expert explains: “Generally, the first difficulty when we decide to create our company is that we tend to have a very complete and ambitious idea of what we want. But in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to agree to explore step by step and to distinguish the tree from the seed. Entrepreneurship is about being pragmatic. Ask yourself in which ways you can start solving a problem at your scale, right now, and pull the thread from there.”
Entrepreneurship is about being pragmatic. Ask yourself in which ways you can start solving a problem at your scale, right now, and pull the thread from there.
Once you have found people who seem genuinely interested or in need of your startup idea, you can improve and tailor your problem-solving. This is when you can work towards a prototype:
“Ask yourself how you can test or even sell a simple, low-tech version of your solution, a version that is easy to develop and that requires no investment,” says Maëva Tordo.
To get started, follow your idea and not your business plan
If many people still think about startups as being successful only once investors are in, Maëva Tordo sees things differently. To her, fundraising can be used as an accelerator but should not guide an entrepreneur’s will to create:
“In our society, the preconceived idea of immediate fundraising is very important, but you have to keep in mind that an investor will only invest in a specific person and their project. In fact, most of the time, they will invest in someone that has already proven themself, most often by launching other projects. They seek a background, a valuable experience, a market, and someone who has already proven to be a problem-solver.”
Moreover, the run for investment money can be detrimental in many ways according to Maëva Tordo: “Starting a company by raising money from investors is not how we should approach entrepreneurship. There is something out of place in having an activity based on chain investments with no profitability. Today, fortunately, we are coming to our senses and returning to a more tangible economy.”
The challenge today is to reimagine the relationship between entrepreneurs and investors so that they can be real partners building together sustainable solutions at the service of all.
There is something out of place in having an activity based on chain investments with no profitability. Today, fortunately, we are coming to our senses and returning to a more tangible economy.
But what about the business plan? Shouldn’t you work many hours on a detailed business plan before testing your idea in the real world? According to our expert, writing down a thorough business plan comes later in the process: “If you start writing a business plan first then you’re doing things backwards. The business plan comes after your confrontation with reality, to formalise what you have found on the ground, to introduce the company to potential investors, to your banker… But far from being a guide to follow when you start, the business plan must remain a practical tool for presentation.”
Approach entrepreneurship like a hike to see its fruits blossom
In light of the vast global challenges we face, finding a “good” idea may start by rethinking our approach to entrepreneurship as a whole. In Maëva Tordo’s case, she suggests we consider a slower, more considerate form of entrepreneurship.
“I am a big advocate for organic entrepreneurship: a way of working towards a goal with no preconceived agenda, that may take a little more time, smaller steps, but is just as rich and abundant, as well as good for us and others. There is real pressure on entrepreneurs to achieve big things in a short amount of time, and this sometimes leads to doing things unsustainably. This pressure to follow a certain speed of growth must disappear to leave space for exploration. Starting a business is neither a sprint nor a marathon, it’s a hike,” says Maëva Tordo.
“It’s all about accepting that we don’t know everything and discovering how things grow. Just like the planet, companies suffer from rushing things; we see more and more burnouts and people caught in the gears, unable to stop.”
To Maëva Tordo, entrepreneurship is a natural process. You must learn to listen to yourself and take time to observe and interact with the world around you if you want your idea to truly grow.