Early-Stage Product Development Can Feel Like A Pile Of Mashed Potatoes

Early-Stage Product Development Can Feel Like A Pile Of Mashed Potatoes

The other day, I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my kids. I remember watching it a lot growing up, but rewatching it as an adult, one scene struck me given my professional journey as a serial entrepreneur. The scene goes like this:

Richard DreyFuss’s character, “Roy,” is having dinner with his family. He starts helping himself to massive amounts of mashed potatoes and then begins scraping the sides of his mashed potato pile with a fork, sculpting it into a shape.

Roy’s family looks on with bewilderment and concern. Once Roy realizes what he’s doing with his mashed potatoes, he says to his family, “I can’t describe it…. what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking… This means something, this is important.”

As viewers, we realize that Roy is sculpting the mountain-like structure that keeps running through his mind after his contact with the aliens. The encounter has (understandably!) been consuming him and since no one can understand what his mind sees, playing with his mashed potatoes is a subconscious attempt to process and communicate a tremendously big idea to himself and others.

This is exactly what early-stage product development can feel like for market-defining products – products that are just beyond everyone’s experience. YOU can see the product in your mind and YOU know that there is a truth to it that will make sense to everyone once it’s revealed.

But in the early stages, your creative process rarely makes sense to anyone else. It feels like you’re a crazy person playing with mashed potatoes! And that can be rather lonely.

I’m so fortunate to have a crew to think, communicate, build and refine with. We all believe in the power of creativity and expression to bring forth the best ideas. And everyone’s medium is different. Much like in Close Encounters, where Roy expresses his big idea through sculpture yet other characters prefer to draw or paint, our team communicates big ideas in different ways, too. Some of us prefer to write, some are better at talking, some need to sketch and others must code. AppMap meeting

My partner prefers to articulate his ideas by coding them first and verbalizing them second. Although he’s a talented writer, sometimes words are too fuzzy to capture the concept. Code gives him the opportunity to play with his idea, come back with a skeleton of the concept and then articulate to others what his “pile of mashed potatoes” could look like one day.

Something wonderful starts to happen when you keep showing up every day and grinding out the work of thinking, communicating, building and refining: Your ideas start to take form. You’re no longer the one person with the big vision and you’re able to start building a common artifact that other people can relate to and help you refine.

I wanted to write this post because communicating early, deeply technical ideas is something I see a lot of founders struggle with. Here’s what I’ve found helpful:

  • Find partners who can help bridge the areas where you’re weakest. Let them add detail and design to your mashed potato sculpture.
  • Share only a bite-sized version of your vision in the beginning. As the inventor, you’re always going to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issues you’re trying to solve, and you don’t want to overwhelm people.
  • Remember that communicating your vision in words AND via a product is the most challenging aspect of early-stage product design and market development. It’s not going to come together overnight!

If you’re curious about what exactly my “pile of mashed potatoes” has become, shoot me a note. And if you’re a fellow inventor and entrepreneur, I hope this post makes you feel less lonely in the inception phases of your product development work.

Have faith, keep pushing, and trust that your team will help craft your vision into something tangible and meaningful. When your “pile of mashed potatoes” starts to resemble something other people can understand, relate to and be excited about, well that’s when you get to ride the rocket ship – just like Roy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Close encounters

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