How to Know When It's Time to 'Kill Your Darlings' and Refocus Your Entrepreneurial Energy

Follow these steps to put sentiment aside and pinpoint your best ideas that meet customers' needs.
How to Know When It's Time to 'Kill Your Darlings' and Refocus Your Entrepreneurial Energy
Image credit: Portra | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and CEO, Bray Innovation Group
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Everyone knew Google+ was dead on arrival.

Heck, 90 percent of users stuck around the doomed social network for a paltry five seconds, per Search Engine Journal's report. Still, it took eight years and two data breaches before Google began a sayonara countdown, set to end next Tuesday, April 2; and the search giant spent several hundred millions of dollars in the process. 

Could it be that the would-be Facebook competitor was someone’s ... darling?

And what does that mean? "Darlings" is my term for the bugaboos of passionate, motivated entrepreneurs who suffer from streaks of stubbornness, veiled as perseverance. I should know: I myself have fallen for darlings multiple times. Fortunately, my darlings did not turn my company into a Xerox-, Blockbuster- or Polaroid-size failure. Yet they did chew up resources and time that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Want to avoid the "darlings" trap yourself? Here's how:

Fall in love with testing, not your darlings.

We use the term “darlings” for a reason. As entrepreneurs, we love our ideas. Even when they are bombs, we see them through a distorted lens. That's when trouble happens.

Here's a real-life case: In my early TV days, I wanted certain video scenes to be perfect before turning in my cuts to the client. My perfectionism cost me valuable budget resources, time and energy -- and then I had to watch while my darlings were hacked up by the client anyway.

Think I learned my lesson? Nope.Seeing the success of Pawn Stars, I thought I could replicate the format of a previous show to make a new hit. Replicating that format became a darling that I arrogantly and stubbornly clung to. Needless to say, the shows I forced that format onto were not a success. I held on to my darling too tightly, and it stabbed me in the back.

Related: Advice From the Greats: Deciding When to Retire a Product

My new mantra is to embrace innovative experimenting, not darlings. In other words, I use data to guide decision-making. Sure, I still value gut instinct, just as 62 percent of business executives do, according to a study from Fortune Knowledge Group. However, I don't allow feelings or ego alone to make choices.

How to put your customer's needs above those of your darlings

At the end of the day, customers matter more than darlings. Viewing darlings through a consumer-centric lens involves separating emotions from the product. This allows you to experiment, test and ultimately make the best choices for customers without letting ego get in the way.

At our company, we distance ourselves from darlings by concentrating on data. If customers are happy and viable data supports any particular darling, we keep it around. If customers stop loving a darling and its data tests poorly, we kill it. With no emotional attachment.

Related: Want to Build Better Products? Own Your Customers' Pain.

Does this sound familiar to you? Believe it or not, you can do the same as I did by adopting a few strategies.

1. Follow a strict time line.

Per research by Kabbage, more than half of the businesses in one study started with $25,000 or less, and about a third of them bootstrapped for sums under $5,000. To stop a darling from taking up too much of your own limited finances, you must make timeliness or risk-slashing your run rate. Expect each time line to be project-dependent, too, of course.

For instance, you might determine that if you cannot figure out a darling’s market feasibility in three months, you will most certainly kill it. Whatever realistic time line you use, remain consistent and objective. And, if your darling shows data-supported traction, consider it worthwhile to extend your test period. Just be practical.

2. Elicit third-party feedback.

Admit it: You are too close to your darling to be objective. Context is key, and it's up to you to get that information. Stitch Fix regularly requests information from its clients in order to build a wealth of data points. The company then uses the data to make future moves without getting locked into its own darlings. This decision-making strategy is paying off for the company, which has reported positive-growth quarters consistently since going public.

So, ask for feedback from trusted advisors or experts, and don't forget to get input from customers. Be sure to conduct market research, social listening or other data-gathering opportunities with customers. Not sure you're getting enough meat from surveys alone? Try ethnographic research. Ethnography involves researchers examining participants’ interactions with services and products in real-world settings to gain access to a trove of observational data.

3. Make every darling prove its worth.

Remember what happened with Segway? Although the motorized scooter was novel, it was not what society wanted. Had that expensive darling been checked for feasibility early in its estimated $100 million development, its core technology might have led to a better outcome, not a punchline. 

Before you present a much-ballyhooed feature or product to a customer, run it through some internal metrics. Those metrics should include feasibility data points. For example, does the darling give customers what they need and want based on information you've gathered in the past? Does it add value? You can't bring all your darlings to market, so make sure they all run a gauntlet before you let them loose. 

Related: 6 Tangible Steps to Launch an MVP Product

Some people argue that when you fall in love with data-driven experimentation, you're at risk of killing off a great idea before it has a chance to succeed. I disagree.

Those people are thinking backward about providing market solutions. Nothing should become a darling until it has been tested and has passed the test. Even then, it should be constantly retested. By following the steps listed above and prioritizing testing to prove value, you'll find the optimum ideas and avoid the flops without letting sentiment get in the way.

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