I've read a bunch of Steve Blank's blog posts and articles. Great stuff, really (and his history with the air force is quite interesting too).
His biggest point is that most start-ups fail because they don't know what they are doing. In the past, start-ups were based on an idea that was then made into a business plan. The plan was sold to venture capitalists based on merit, intuition, and charisma. Then the plan was executed (sometimes at gunpoint, held by the venture capitalists) until it either succeeded (a small number) or failed (most of them).
Venture capitalists are a lot more wary now, and the tools to create and produce ideas are becoming more accessible (the internet, turn-key solutions, etc). And the biggest point of failure for most start-ups in the first year or so is that the idea turns out to be mostly (or entirely) wrong or mis-founded. The expected market just isn't there. No one knew this, of course, because no one asked before making the business plan.
Mr. Blank's suggestion is to re-order the first few years to build the business and then grow it based on asking first and then responding quickly to the answers you get.
Step 1 - Idea, and initial (small) plan
Step 2 - Ask your potential customers about your idea and gather as much feedback as possible
Step 3 - Change the plan to lineup with the information you just gathered.
Step 4 - Repeat steps 2 and 3 constantly as you build your product.
Step 5 - When you have a viable and sustainable business, then sit down and make the business plan that will grow you from small to medium to large business.
Step 5 (alternate) - If there is no sustainable business, kill the idea and start again with something new. Know when to fold 'em.
And yeah, it is marketing. It's one thing to innovate or invent something. It's another thing to try and get anyone to buy it, use it, or care about it. Without marketers we'd just be making things for ourselves.
There is certainly an element of "marketing" in this approach, but the key is to get startups to stop worrying about a business plan, which is little more than a marketing document, and "get out of the building" and talk to real customers with a problem in search of a solution. Maybe Blank and NSF's approach will work, perhaps not. We are going to continue tracking this initiative to find out which teams succeeded, which failed and why.
Marketing - the last refuge of former technical contributors. Go be a marketer and give up your aspirations to invention. Redefine innovation as business planning. Cover up real creativity to meet the demands of investment bankers.
If this is "real life", imagine a landscape devoid of Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.
Someone once said that the "world can only tolerate a few real innovators". The rest must be suppressed. Sure looks that way!
Blanks' philosophy makes a lot of sense to me. Too many startups never seem to get off the ground and hit their stride. It's pretty interesting to take a look at the I-Corps. awardees. Not a lot of info about them, but some very interesting sounding projects.
Startups start with a premise of solving a problem which needs to be solved given a certain price. It's very critical that they interface with prospective customers early in their development phase to avoid the heartburn later when there is misalignment. Understand the customer is the first mantra of any successful business.
Mr. Blank has been "around the block" in Silicon Valley for many years. Eight startups later, he is trying to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs by getting them out of the conference room and into face-to-face meetings with potential customers. This, Blank argues, is the best way to determine whether you have a technology that will solve someone's problem.