The Startup World’s Big Miss

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Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen the release of a stream of books like Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup that do a wonderful job of systematizing a near-maniacal focus on the customer. Especially assumptions about the customer.

Doing so makes it more likely that you’ll end up building a product and company that serves a genuine need, not just the founder’s own ego or attachment to a particular solution. That, in turn, makes it more likely you’ll “succeed.”

Here’s the formula…

Customer + pain = need.

Need + solution = value.

Value + effective delivery = revenue.

Revenue + bank account = yay!

Yes, I know, I’ve massively over-simplified the process, but you get what I’m saying. Do this, and success will be yours.

So, riddle me this…

Why is there an increasing sea of “outwardly successful” entrepreneurs who feel beaten, battered and bound by the very beasts they’ve born?

Turns out, something’s missing from the formula. And it’s big.

The whole approach to iterating around customer need that’s captured modern-day entrepreneurship is important. It’s something I spend a lot of time on myself. But, it’s all about what I call “downstream alignment,” or aligning your:

  • Product
  • Business model and
  • Mode of delivery…

…with the needs of those most likely to pay you. So, you’ve got a better shot at building a company that will be cash flow positive. Awesome.

But what about having a better shot at building a company you actually to want to run?

I’ve known and worked with so many entrepreneurs who’ve built outwardly successful companies that have become customer-centric, revenue-generating cages of the founder’s own creation. Ones they hate working at.

How’d that happen?

Because they never dealt with the equally important, but rarely considered “Upstream Alignment Metrics.”

Does the product, business and mode of delivery that customers are telling you they value enough to pay you to create align with the fiber of your being, your sense of meaning, fulfillment, your maker’s modus operandi and ideal life?

This is the step virtually everyone skips. Because:

  • The startup community either doesn’t realize or devalues how important it is, and
  • Almost nobody teaches upstream alignment on a forward-looking basis.

Instead, we wait until things start blowing up or we’re downright miserable. We try all the usual fixes, wonder why they aren’t helping us feel better and then, and only then, say, “oh, there’s something bigger going on here.” Some other “soft-factors” that are either shutting down growth or making us miserable successes.

It’s just assumed that if you build it and people pay, everyone’s giddy.

It’s nice to create something that’s generating cash and serving a need. But, for a lot of people, without a deeper sense of upstream alignment, that’s not enough to keep you engaged and happy over time. Because you’ve built something that serves everyone’s needs but yours.

Question is, what do you do if that’s you?

Here’s a 4-part Upstream Alignment Process that’s been adapted from the work and systems I’ve developed over the years. It’s necessarily shorthanded here and very general because, in this context, it has to be. But it’ll also give you a really good feel for what you might want to focus on beyond customer need and delight.

1. Create Your Upstream Alignment Inventory:

  • Core values – What key beliefs do you hold about who and what matters most in life
  • Strengths – What are your top 3 to 5 organic strengths?
  • Creative orientation – Are you more intrinsically drawn to blank pages or spreadsheets?
  • Risk orientation – How do you handle risk, uncertainty and ambiguity?
  • Social orientation – How do you perfer to move into and engage in social interactions?
  • Perfect day – What is your perfect work day and day off?
  • Legacy – What do you want to leave behind? What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone?
  • Contribution Preferences: For each of the below categories, what are the qualities that make you come alive/fill you up and what are the qualities that empty you out?
    • People – What type of people fill you up (look at everything from sex, age, interests, social dynamics, etc).
    • Culture – Look at pace, formality, openness, etc.
    • Setting – Look at both the immediate work location and broader geographic preferences
    • Tasks and processes – Look at the types of nitty-gritty things that fill or empty you
    • Mission – explore the defining traits of missions/visions that fill and empty you

2. Hold Your Answers Up To Your Current Work Reality:

We spend a lot of time identifying customer avatars, needs, models and modes of delivery that are most likely to be a direct hit for those we seek to serve (downstream alignment). But, will those things be a direct hit for you as well (Upstream alignment)?

If not, you’ll likely find yourself failing or building a venture that’s outwardly successful, but empties you out. Ask these additional questions to help explore your ventures Upstream Alignment.

  • Upstream customer alignment – Do feel a sense of deep connection and service toward the community of people you are building your venture around?
  • Upstream product alignment – Does the product you created not only solve a real need, but do so in a way that makes you feel deeply-connected to what you’ve created?
  • Upstream business model alignment – Does the business model that makes most sense for those you serve also align with the model that will give you the strongest sense of purpose and meaning?
  • Upstream mode of delivery alignment – Does the way the people who need your solution want to receive it align with a mode of delivery that also fills you up?

3. Identify Alignment Conflicts and Alignment Drift:

Alignment Conflicts are areas where what you’ve built or want to build conflict with your answers to the above questions.

Similarly, Alignment Drift is when there was great alignment in the early days, but not any more. This can be deliberate, as in when you evolve the business model, product or mode of delivery to accommodate changes in market. Or it can be inadvertent, the result of small changes that add up to big net shifts away from what matters to you over time.

Either way, it’s important to identify areas of conflict between upstream and downstream alignment, assign a level of conflict (1=minor, 10=oh hell no!). Then…

4. Resolve Alignment Conflicts:

A serious part of what I end up doing with folks who come to me wanting to launch or build companies is what feels like backtracking, but it’s really “back-FILLING.” Guiding them through a much more interactive version of the above process, then developing a “conflict resolution” plan.

The outcomes and plans of action will vary wildly, depending on the person and the venture stage. Some will see ways to “tune” themselves, their ventures or both to create the blended upstream and downstream alignment needed to unlock growth and fulfillment.

Others will end up realizing what they’ve created is outwardly successful, but in accommodating the market, it’s become so stripped of what drew them to it in the first place, they no longer find or are capable of finding joy taking it forward. At that point, exit or transition plans may need to be put on the table.

And, still others who’ve been struggling mightily, but not yet found success, either outwardly or inwardly will face the decision about how best to invest their time, energy and lives from that moment forward.

Regardless of the outcome, you end up with a far deeper understanding of what matters, not just to the world, but to you, and how best to contribute your energy to the world moving forward.

The really big take-away is this. Alignment with the needs of the customer matters. A lot. But so does alignment up the chain with the founder. Do the work BEFORE you launch your next venture and you’ll find yourself in a much happier and more genuinely successful place.

When your actions are an extension of your essence, providence cracks open the door to ease.

Curious, what do you think? As always, I’m open to learning…

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

With gratitude,


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27 responses

27 responses to “The Startup World’s Big Miss”

  1. Clay Hebert says:

    Great stuff, Jonathan.

    Yours is a much more detailed and eloquent version of a short phrase & test I use when working with entrepreneurs.

    “Plan for the best case scenario.”

    Everyone ALWAYS plans for the worst case scenario. Methodologies like Lean Startup are specifically designed to help identify and avoid the worst case scenario, but I like to walk entrepreneurs (and myself) through the visualized future of success.

    What does this look like if it’s a runaway train?
    What kind of company will you become?
    How many people do you have to hire?
    Can you run this kind of company where you live or do you have to move?
    Do you need to raise VC money?
    If yes, that means you run it fast until it dies or you sell or go public? Are those the two exit options you want? Or would you rather be like 37 Signals – bootstrapped and profitable?

    and on and on…..

    I love how you structured this and addressed it. Great post. Saving to review over and over again.

  2. Israel Smith says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    This is a really great post, and one I resonate with really deeply. I went through a serious depression about two years ago which was almost entirely the result of building a business that I hated. I am a photographer, and always thought I wanted a big business that had other shooters, employees, etc.

    Turns out what I really want is time with my wife and kids.

    I’ve since come back to a simple, basic business which is mostly me, my wife part-time and her sister part-time. It suits our family life, gives me time to go surfing, and makes for a much happier Israel.

    The ideas you’ve put forward are a far more detailed, more methodology-oriented version of what I went through, but really parallel nonetheless.

    Thanks, and good on you for identifying this, and sharing it.

    All the best,

  3. Jen Gresham says:

    Love this, Jonathan. As you know, I’ve struggled with this as well, taking “forbidden” blogging holidays, spacing out my course offerings so it’s not always a launch, and prioritizing time with family and friends over my to-do list. And so far, I’ve seen my business grow in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I believe that’s because I’m better rested, better emotionally, and thus better creatively. I bring my best to both my work and my family, and that for me is a recipe for success.

    Success–that’s a word I think we don’t define closely enough. I love what you’ve come up with in terms of business to life alignment. I’d argue this is useful not just for entrepreneurs, but anyone who works. You have to define success for YOU before you can feel successful, regardless of what the bottom line says.

    Hearting all over this post!

  4. David Horne says:

    The premise of alignment is so key. I think of companies like Treehouse, Olark and others who seem to be building the life and companies they want. It’s true many entrepreneurs end up building companies they wouldn’t even want to work for. And that isn’t the goal.

    Jonathan, thanks for the insightful post. Will definitely refer back to it for my own efforts.

  5. Jayne says:

    So glad that you wrote this.. Of course it is imperative that there is a customer focus/dynamic but in my mind business starts with you first. I have a similar process re alignment, although using less technical terminology 🙂

    If I’m working with anyone I want to see that they are in alignment with what I call their Beauty Mix (character + charisma + creative talent). I work mainly with women, if it was a guy I would refer to that as their Strength Mix. I could break that down further but then this would be a commentary instead of a comment!

    ‘Perfect Day’ is a great exercise but ‘legacy’, I feel goes so much further in uncovering intent. Most people (myself included) will craft a ‘perfect day’ from where they are. The ‘legacy’ exercise is much more of a wake-up call and there is a dawning realisation that a ‘perfect day’ can include what I refer to as ‘pleasurable discomfort’ a sometimes over-looked pleasure, as well as highlighting time(life)-wasting stuff. This will look different for each individual. Paying attention is key.

    Thanks for the conversation-starter. Love the quote at the end.

  6. Hi, Jonathan-

    Choice. It’s important.

    Is it what we do…or the way we do it.

    Zappos is a company I’d run through walls to work for and I couldn’t care less about shoes.


  7. Laura says:

    Refreshing to read this. I’ve read many blog posts that seem, you picked the right word, giddy with hype. We live in a time where individuals can easily start a business online. But just because it’s your business doesn’t mean it’s the one that feeds your soul.

    Life is about those moments that make your heart sing and your soul grow. With all the focus on business and growth, I think we need to remember why we work in the first place. I work so I can enjoy life. It’s great when the work is enjoyable too. Like Israel said in his comment, build a business that makes for a happier you.

  8. Mike Rudd says:

    Great post today Jonathan, I very much enjoyed this! As I continue to build my business and try to figure out exactly what I want to do with it I have been doing some searching and these are great “tackle and blocking” questions that will build my core further to be able to accentuate who I want to help and what I want to get out of it.
    Thank you!

    PS: I gave you a shout out on my blog today about your quote at your WDS workshop my wife attended…Sitting is our generations smoking. Wow was at a different workshop but it resonated with me enough to reference it and now I stand most of the day at work! Thanks!

  9. I think if more people understood this, not only would there be more happy entrepreneurs but also inside & out successes.

    I breathed a sigh reading this.

    I’ve found myself building something and waking up to the reality that it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do many times. Today I’m much more aware of what I create and launch, how I plan to go forward with it, and whether it aligns with me and what I’m meant to do (in the grander scheme of things).

    Thank you for so eloquently putting this piece of the puzzle together Jonathan!

  10. Molly Mahar says:

    When I say I run a lifestyle business, THIS IS WHAT I MEAN.

    Thank you Jonathan for putting it in such eloquent terms. Saving, sharing, studying.


  11. Lauren Rader says:

    Thanks Jonathan. I love your spirit. I am fortunate to have created a small business where my strengths and loves converge. I’ve always made art, and always taught art, but 8 years ago I started teaching adults for the first time, out of my home studio. What I’ve seen and learned has spawned my first book. I’m lucky because I still get to paint, and fill my soul that way. But I also help other people fill theirs. And to think of how I resisted it! Funny thing, that is.

  12. Bravo, Jonathan!

    Sometimes all we need is for someone to name the “thing” so we can recognize it and claim it for ourselves!

    Great post!

  13. Though it’s taken a few reads through to digest this,
    you’re really great at breaking things down to their essence. Thanks!

  14. Michelle says:

    Oh wow this came at a perfect time. I am so guilty of this right now. I’m running a social enterprise start-up for a foundation and everywhere I turn I’m told how wonderful of a thing it is we’re creating. Which makes me feel even more guilty when I bother to admit to myself that I hate every minute of it. It’s just not me anymore. In the past few months I’ve been able to recognize the disconnect and on instinct have begun to build a new business that feels right from both of the sides you describe, but hadn’t articulated so neatly what I was actually doing. So thank you for doing that for me. This post will be virtually dog-eared over here to remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing in my current transition.

  15. Evan says:

    Steve Blank has good stuff too: a startup is not a small big company; no business plan survives the first contact with a customer. Great stuff.

  16. Beth says:

    Thank you for this very thought-provoking post Jonathan. My sister and I are both considering starting our own businesses or possibly starting one together. The ideas you’ve laid out here will be a tremendous help to fulfilling ourselves and our customers. I can’t wait to share this article with her.

    Best wishes!

  17. Ophelie says:

    Great, thought-provoking post.

    It gave me a bit of a laugh, though — Step 1 sounds unassuming enough, but there’s a year’s worth of therapy in there! It’s easy enough to jot down what you’re drawn to (and you have a great way to put it, “fills and empties you”), but some of us have spent years trying to convince ourselves that our current path is the correct one, that what we are feeling is passion when, really, it might be apathy, or enjoyment, but certainly not passion.

    I envy the people who are able to fill out Step 1 without giving it much thought. I don’t know very many people who can do this.

  18. Keith says:

    Great post and so true. I am looking at starting up my own business and have been reading a lot of material on it. So much of it focuses on the customer and revenue/profits. It had me wondering why a lot of the advice that encourages people to quit their unsatisfying day jobs never actually tackles how to build something that is satisfying. Yes, customer focus is essential, but if the ‘me’ is not also given focus then it becomes a business that doesn’t nourish your soul: which was the trigger in the first place that led to you wanting to leave your job and go out on your own.

  19. I think you’ve done a great job of illustrating and defining where the confusion lays in running a “passion-based business”. There seem to be these two dissenting camps: one that says “Passion means nothing, go for the profit” and one that says “Do what you love and the money will follow.” This is the more realistic “happy medium” between the two extremes. You can’t just do what you love arbitrarily and expect money to fall from the heavens. Every business serves a market that will pay for it. Period. If it doesn’t, it’s not a business. But if it’s not in divine alignment, it can’t truly be a passion – no matter how much profit it makes.

    To me the concept is more like this: do what you are divinely aligned to do, serve a market with that gift, and the money will follow.

  20. Susan Kuhn says:

    Jonathan, I want to douse you with awesome-sauce after reading this. It is sooooo good.

    Aligning the worlds of inner truth and fit with the rapid pace of technology is my space too.

    I can feel how much work it took to become someone who could write something so wise and also implementable about this challenging and incredibly important topic.

    All I can do is salute your accomplishment. Namaste.

  21. At the end of the day, we can only be truly happy and fulfilled if our work serves a meaning for us and if this is something that we truly love and enjoy doing. Your post does a great idea in bringing it out, thanks for sharing.

  22. […] my mind: Jonathan Fields’ The Start-up World’s Big Miss (and four great solutions for what to do about finding “upstream alignment” in your […]

  23. Robert Chen says:

    Excellent post – it’s true that sometimes we can lose what’s valuable for ourselves when we’re too focused on providing value to the customer. Alignment is crucial and it begins with self-awareness.

  24. Ashley P says:

    Another brilliant post! You should always remember to love what you do or it will just suck the life out of you.

  25. Alan Rojas says:

    Insightful post. These ideas had been lurking shapelessly in the background of my mind and when I read this post it all came to the foreground in shape: I work to enjoy my life. End of the story. Thanks!
    And oh! I think you’ll enjoy this youtube video from a brazilian agency on the topic, I loved it.

  26. Andrea says:

    Jonathan, Deeply insightful post. Bow of gratitude for your brilliance. In point #1 “Create Your Upstream Alignment Inventory” you focus on the inner game which is hugely important in reaching a sense of self-fulfillment. I’d add one thing to your list “positive impact for the greater good.” It’s a failure proof way to check in with yourself that you’re not doing it out of “ego or attachment to a particular situation.”

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