Why we chop onions with knives and why it matters to startup founders

Consider the problem of common onions. Most people face these bulbs daily because common onions are part of most dishes. The problem is that they are tricky to cut into the neat small squares made by chefs. It requires multiple difficult cuts on several dimensions of the onion. And the risk of getting hurt is significant. But perhaps the worst part of cutting onions is the gas they release. It hurts and makes you cry.

For most people, cutting a single onion requires between 2 – 5 minutes and causes physical pain. Not to mention the embarrassment of crying in front of children.

But there is a better way. Imagine a machine that can cut an onion in 10 seconds with absolutely zero physical irritation. That would be a game-changer. And it is called a blender.

The blender was invented in 1922. While the blender chops onions remarkably faster than the knife skills of most people allow, few people use a blender for chopping onions. And the reason is obvious. Rarely do one just chop onions.

The efficiency of processes
Onions are an essential part of most dishes. But they are a part, only. The thing is that cooking is a process. Put differently, cooking requires multiple steps. And the efficiency of a process is a function of the smoothness of the transitions between the various steps in the process. Some say that a good process flow.

Many aspiring startup founders are equipped with some technology and on the lookout for problems to solve. Sometimes, these founders identify some inefficiency that seems ripe for fixing. Something that their technology could solve. But if the founders are outsiders, they risk identifying a problem that only exists in isolation. Like someone with little experience in cooking looking at people chopping onions

These founders build a product to solve the problem. But they build the equivalent of an onion chopping machine. VCs call it: a feature not a product.
The problem is that the product does not solve the problem. Because the problem is to cook the dish. And the onion is just a part of this process. Even though a blender improves the step of chopping onions, it introduces friction in between the steps.

Instead of smoothly going from cutting meat and smashing garlic into onion chopping, one must open the cupboard, remove the toaster that is in the way, take out the blender, find the blender lid, plug it into the power socket, chop the onions, clean the blender, put it back into the cupboard behind the toaster. The friction is simply too great to justify the saved tears and extra knife movements.

A great example of such a product came from Accelerace alumni startup Pixelz. Initially, the company was called ‘Remove the Background’. As the name abundantly indicated, the company offered background removal from product photos.

But the founders soon realized that webshops do much more than just remove the background. Surely, that was one of the more unpleasant tasks. But it was only a part of a process of general photo editing. The process also includes retouching, color matching, depth correction, and collage creation.

Sending the photos to Pixelz for just background removal and then waiting for them to come back to continue the editing was like sending onions to chopping mid cooking and waiting for them to come back before one can resume the dish making.

Luckily, the founders were quick at realizing their lacking product-market-fit and adjusted their product to solve the entire problem. That of photo editing. Consequently, they renamed to Pixelz and currently serves the world’s biggest apparel brands.

But how do founders avoid making an onion chopper?
Founders must understand how their customers do their work today. And not just on a conceptual basis. They must understand the minutest detail of their workflow. That includes what tools they use, how long time they spend at the various steps, and who else is involved. Furthermore, they must understand how the customer perceives each step. Which parts do they enjoy and what parts do they dislike. Only by understanding the details of the workflow, can founders define the endpoints of the process and design a product that offers a radically more enjoyable process.

Conclusions made
• Onion chopping is unformattable.
• Onion chopping is only part of the process of creating a dish.
• The efficiency of a process is a function of the smoothness of the transitions between each step.
• The use of a blender to chop onions introduces friction and delay in the process.
• Successful founders understand the processes of their customers and design products that improve the process and not just a step in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to do startups right, then join Accelerace or Overkill Ventures where I serve as General Partner .

Why time is not money, and how founders should spend their time

Some say time is money. It is not. Money is time. And when startup founders run out of money, they run out of time. 

Time is Opportunity. And startups are defined by Opportunity. When Opportunity disappears, so does the startup. But every day the startup lives, Opportunity lives on.

But what exactly is Opportunity?

Opportunity is the freedom to perform actions of your choosing. Some actions will make great use of the time. And some actions will be a waste of the same time. 

Imagine being given chips to a casino valid for one night. One could spend the night posing in the bathroom mirror. Or one could spend the night playing the blackjack table. Or perhaps seducing the waiter.

The chips provide Opportunity. But the value of Opportunity is defined by the actions of the player. 

Great startup founders understand the value of Opportunity. And when startups fail, it is often because the founders wasted Opportunity. Like posing in the bathroom mirror rather than laying down chips on the blackjack table.

In the context of early-stage startups, one use of time is more valuable than anything else. To obtain original insight. Insight about future customers, the psychological makeup of their users, and their future needs.

When Templafy entered Accelerace in 2013, the founders had spent the past year obtaining original insight. And it was this insight that led to the product-market-fit that made them the global leader within template management SaaS. 

The founders knew that enterprises were considering switching from desktop-based Microsoft office to cloud-based versions such as Google Docs and MS 365. But at a more granular level, they knew that this change would leave the brand manager with no chance of controlling templates across the organization. At even further insightfulness, they understood that brand managers hate to police their colleagues about the correct use of templates. In effect, the founders had obtained insight into the very psychological makeup of their customers. 

At the same time, the Templafy founders had refrained from other things. When they entered Accelerace, they did not have a pitch deck. They had no incorporated entity. They had no brand t-shirts. They had not been to a single startup conference. They had no website. Eventually, they did turn their attention to these things. But they understood how to spend their time.

When startup founders allocate time, many look to successful startups for clues. And today many new SaaS startups would look at Templafy. But that would be a mistake. Today, Templafy knows its customers to the minutest and most intimate degree. Put differently, they already have original insight. This means that they can focus on other and more visible things. Such as experimenting with pricing models, doing content marketing, and employee branding. 

Mistakenly, many founders think such action courses success. They do not. Such actions amplify success. Instead, success is coursed by having original insight and then acting on it. But obtaining original insight requires the founders to focus their time on this activity.

How? By living with your customer. To see what their day is like. To understand which pages that open upon the start of their browser. To understand what the agenda in internal meetings are like. Understand what decision they can make, and which require approval. To understand their fears and their pride. Joys and sorrows. To understand what will happen to them in two, five, and seven years. And then understand how you can play a role in shaping this future.

Spend your time wisely, it may cost you Life.

If you want mentorship in spending your time right, then apply to our acceleration programs Accelerace and Overkill.