How to NAIL your 'discovery mode' (with case study)

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Published on Jul. 06, 2013

Are you still figuring out your product and market, or are you truly ready to grow?  


On Monday, Howard, chair of StartEngine, wrote an article urging startups to understand what mode their company is in at the moment. This, he says, has nothing to do with how much money they’ve been able to raise.   

Let’s quickly review the article, then I’ll give an example of a company who I think has nailed the art of ‘figuring it out.’

Howard says that many companies confuse their place in the business lifecycle. They think that an influx of cash from investors is the go-ahead to start spending money and scaling a business. But money gives you no such permission to do that.  

The truth is that early stage tech companies can either be in ‘discovery mode’ or ‘scaling mode.’   

What stage are you in?

Discovery mode is where the company is spending money trying to establish product/market fit. In discovery mode, it’s not always clear what you need to do.   

Scaling mode is when your company spends most of its resources trying to gain more users. Before scaling, you must ensure with some data that more users will lead to a profitable outcome. If you spend $1, more than $1 must come back in ‘scaling’ mode.    

Then there’s the dreaded ‘chicken and egg’ mode, where your startup needs money to build a product but needs traction to raise money. Just be glad you’re not there, unless you have a reality distortion field to help with raising your initial money.

If I had to bet, I’d say most of you reading this article are in discovery mode, even if you’ve successfully convinced investors otherwise.   My and Howard’s advice would be to stay in discovery mode for as long as necessary.   

Discovery mode is sometimes about grinding it out

Staying in discovery for a long time can feel like grinding it out. And that's exactly what it is.

New entrepreneurs in discovery mode need to be willing to pivot their models and see how their users react. That means they’re willing to get a few hundred users, talk to those users, see what’s important to them.  

This begs the question: how can a company ‘do’ discovery mode properly?   To fall back on what I said last week:  “I don’t know, but I’ll know it when I see it.”  

Luckily, I think I have seen 'it' in action as I watch one of our companies, TruBrain. They are a member of our recent graduating class, and they are absolutely nailing their discovery mode. Bonus points: they qualify as a team of people who know how to 'grind it out.'

More about them below.   

Why does TruBrain do what it does?  

“There are 168 hours every week.  We want to help you get most out of those limited hours.”  said Chris Thompson, founder of TruBrain, to a group of 80 mentors gathered in our 10th floor suite during a StartEngine mentor mixer.   

TruBrain provides a monthly box of brain support which is caffeine and stimulant free, as well as legal.   Luckily for all of us who use it, it’s not ‘celebrity curated.’  Its efficacy is actually backed up by research - the blend was selected with the help of the world’s leading neuroscientists.  

TruBrain's minimum viable product seems to be piggybacking on several major trends. Sure, there were always people who wanted to be smarter.  But after ‘the seed was planted’ in our collective mind by movies like Limitless, people began seeking en masse safe and effective ways to achieve better brain performance.  Add to that a rise in interest in movements like Paleo, Quantified Self, and “Bulletproof Coffee”, and it feels a home run.    

The company's traction appears strong, with $8K revenue in its first month private alpha, spending $0 on advertising.

But it almost didn’t happen.  That’s because Chris entered our program with a compeltely different idea.   TruBrain is renamed and rebranded from his original company TriplePulse, which offered a monthly box for use by Triathletes who had no time to select their race supplementation.   

Chris often jokes that before he pivoted to TruBrain, his ideal customer was ‘the lazy triathlete.’   

Here's some background: For Triathletes, it isn’t unusual to experience a pulse of 180 BPM during a race, where 60 is resting heart rate.  Shockingly, the aforementioned ‘lazy triathlete’ doesn’t exist in the wild.   

When I asked earlier him earlier today why he didn’t quit after TriplePulse struck out, he texted me back saying “Because I’m insane.”   I can neither confirm nor deny.   I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Here’s what he did right:

1. Instead of giving up after his first failed assumption, he selected a new hypothesis and tested whether it works.   The product offered and the branding has completely changed since StartEngine funded his company in October and they demo’ed for the first time in January.   


2. Communicating closely with his users.  His first few paying customers receieved a friendly phone call from him and his team of Neuroscientists. In these conversations TruBrain and learned a lot of valuable info about their customers.  TruBrain also features a ‘text the CEO’ button on the bottom of their website.   


3.  Bringing a gun to a knife fight.   What I mean by this is crushing default expectations and overachieving.  When most of the competition simply packages up a blend and uses flashy marketing, Chris brought in the world’s leading authorites to curate the blend.  


4. With TriplePulse he never committed to 'scaling mode.' This is key. He always acknowledged that he was in discovery mode, and so he gave himself permission to pivot.


What other lesson can we learn from TruBrain’s pivot?   

I asked Howard for his take.  He said, “As a founder, you should never give up.  You should always keep going as long as you can, because if you quit there’s a 100% chance of failure.”   

Simple enough.


Questions for you

Are you currently in scale mode or discovery mode?   How do you justify that appraisal?  And how is your brain fitness?

Leave a comment here, promote this post, or tweet me @JohnNeilConkle - I read every single one.



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