My toothbrush is better than yours

Even if your toothbrush is newer, cleaner, fancier, more colorful, electrically powered or emits ultrasonic wave, I still prefer mine. After all, why would I want to use someone else’s toothbrush. Yuck!

This is fine if we are just talking about toothbrushes but in reality, we have the same concept towards other peoples’ ideas. We tend to prefer ideas we came up with rather than those from others. This is known as the Not-Invented-Here bias or the Toothbrush Theory.

The Toothbrush Theory — Everyone wants a toothbrush, everyone needs one, everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else’s

In the book The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, he talks about how we value ideas we came up with more, even if it is exactly the same as someone else’s. He crafted experiments where people were asked to generate a solution from a pre-determined set of words. He seeded these words in such a way that every possible solution have the exact same meaning. As you probably guessed, people still prefer the solution they crafted themselves.

Entrepreneurs are prone to this bias because they are inherently optimistic about their ideas. Why else would they quit their job and pursue some crazy untested venture? These are people who fall in love with their idea and decide to dedicate their life to making it a reality. They really do think their toothbrush is better than yours.

In many cases, they are right and their ideas turned into multi-billion dollar empires. However, for the rest of us, we may have over-estimated how cool and awesome our toothbrush really is. But fret not, there is a way or rather ways for us to really make sure our toothbrush is as great as we think it is.

Share your toothbrush

First we have to accept that we will have to share our ideas with others. As the saying goes, ideas are worthless, execution is everything. An idea can’t change the world unless it is brought to life. Since we want to make sure our ideas are worth the time and effort, we will have to get some feedbacks and validation.

Talk to your family members, friends, colleagues or potential customers of your idea. You’ll be surprised how many ideas are founded on wrong assumptions and can be invalidated by simply talking to someone else. Don’t be sad if you found out your toothbrush was nothing more than a regular piece of plastic. At least you didn’t bet your life on it and if you are lucky, you may get some new insights for your next killer toothbrush.

Make sure they really need a toothbrush

We also have to be wary about how we are pitching our ideas to others. We don’t want to shove our toothbrush down their throat. It’s not a very pleasant experience and we actually want them to do the talking.

Most ideas are really just solutions to non-existing problems. We may think our toothbrush is the one our customer deserves but unfortunately it is not the one they need. Be open to their suggestions and feedbacks. We may learn a thing or two about them and maybe next time, we’ll have the toothbrush they need.

Pre-sell your toothbrush

If you are lucky enough to talk to people who actually need your solution for their problem, try to make sure they put their money where their mouth is. We don’t want to waste our time on problems they aren’t willing to pay to solve. Remember, we want to sell them the toothbrush, not give them away for free.

It may not need to be actual cold hard cash but at least some form of currency like their email address or phone number. Some way for them to show interest in your idea. But of course, nothing beats cash, so always aim for that whenever possible.

Brush their teeth without the toothbrush

Once you have confirmed they have a problem you can solve and is willing to pay for it, then there is one final step to make sure that your toothbrush is the toothbrush they are looking for.

You will need to figure out a way to deliver the promised result of your solution without actually building it. To put it another way, you have to make sure their teeth are clean without using a toothbrush. Manufacturing a toothbrush requires significantly larger investment so you want to make sure you got the right design and features before making your order with the factory.

For example, lets say you want to start a toothbrush subscription service. You asked around and manage to pre-sell to some customers. Before you start building a website, coordinating logistics and setting up billing plans, start by manually delivering toothbrushes to a few customers first. You’ll learn what type of packaging works better and if your customer prefers monthly, quarterly or yearly plans. 

The point here is to learn as much as you can before committing more resources and time into your idea. Having a website, premise or trading license doesn’t make your idea real. It is real when the business model is sound and to make sure it works, do a test run first.

The Minimum Viable Toothbrush

Those who have read The Lean Startup book by Eric Ries will probably realize all these talk about toothbrushes was really about idea validation methods described in the book, namely The Interview, Pre-sell and Concierge method.

If you are serious about your ideas and want to make sure they are worth your time and effort, read the book. But if you, like most people, learn best by applying and practicing the methods then I encourage you to participate in Lean Startup Machine workshops organized around the world. You will be working in teams to validate ideas using the 3 methods described above. 

I’ve attended and mentored at Lean Startup Machine Kuala Lumpur back in June and it was an amazing experience. This isn’t your usual workshop. You will be getting out of the building trying to convince strangers to buy your toothbrush.

So unless you have talked to and interviewed others, gotten some currency from them or even better, demonstrated how your toothbrush is the best, mine is still better than yours. 

We are bringing the Lean Startup Machine to Kota Kinabalu on 23–25 Oct 2015. Leave your email here to be notified when we start the limited early bird discount sales. 

For those in other parts of the world, look for one in the city nearest to you.