The Scientific Method, Startup Style
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Science for Entrepreneurs
If you ask someone on the street to name a field of science, you’d likely hear physics, biology, and chemistry—the “hard” sciences. What surprises people, however, is that several other forms of fields of scientific studies, such as psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, are often overlooked when people think of science as a category. It may be strange to think that the study of the human genome of the laws of physics has similarities to the study of human language or behavior, but all fields of science share the same core: the scientific method. The scientific method provides a clear-cut, consistent way to turn observations into hypotheses, hypotheses into experiments, and experiments into conclusions.
Let's discuss what it means to apply the scientific method with an entrepreneurial twist.
A Quick History Lesson
The scientific method, as we know it today, dates to 17th Europe and marks a significant shift in how humans began to process the world around them. Before the inputs and sacrifices of many well-known individuals, such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, to philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, humans explained natural phenomena through metaphysical means. For example, Greek mythology described the sun's movement as Apollo’s chariot moving across the sky, and medieval medical ailments were attributed to “the four humors.” The early scientists above began challenging beliefs explained by religious and societal doctrines by seeking empirical explanations for natural phenomena. Thus begins modern science.
I mention the history behind the method because the contributions of the broader scientific and philosophical communities contributed to a fundamental and long-standing shift in how human beings obtain knowledge and explain the world around them. The introduction of a theoretically and empirically driven means of explaining the world around us has become a mainstream aspect of academic knowledge, political and societal decisions, and business development. Unsurprisingly, there are applications in the startup space as well.
The Scientific Method
The scientific method is the pursuit of knowledge using a set of procedures that combines observation and experimentation to explain the world around us. While there is a robust philosophical debate over the existence of a universal set of steps, we will assume a 6-step approach that I frequently used in my scientific career.
2. Ask a question
3. Create a Hypothesis
4. Generate predictions
5. Test your predictions
6. Run Experiments
These steps are so ingrained in how humans process information that we often apply the steps without much thought. Let’s imagine a situation where you’re in the middle of a zoom call and your internet suddenly goes.
Observe: Observation is a natural part of the human experience. In our situation, the observation can be as simple as “the Wi-Fi isn’t connecting to my laptop.”
Ask a question: Creating a question takes your observation and builds the foundations of an experiment. The question for us would be: Why isn’t the Wi-Fi connecting to my laptop?
Create a Hypothesis: A hypothesis is a falsifiable explanation of the relationship between two variables. Using the Wi-Fi example, one hypothesis is the router got unplugged. Hypotheses cannot be directly tested; rather they are supported by predictions and experiments.
Generate predictions: How are predictions and hypotheses different? A prediction is the explanation of the hypothesis - the reason it happens. In our Wi-Fi example, one prediction generated by your hypotheses is that plugging in the router will allow your laptop to connect again.
Run Experiments: The experimentation stage is my personal favorite. For the Wi-Fi, Head upstairs, plug in the router, and see what happens. Did it solve the problem? Was your prediction supported? If not, are there any other potential explanations that need to be tested?
Iterate: When your experiments are over, dig deeper. You may be curious to explore your hypothesis further, or you may need to revisit your predictions to understand why they didn’t work.
The Entrepreneurial Twist
I imagine you’re starting to see similarities with how you have already approached problems related to your business in the past. Let’s add an entrepreneurial twist (sticking with the Wi-Fi example).
Observe a problem: Wi-Fi disconnects too quickly for homeowners
Ask questions (in the market): Learn about the market and your audience. What is the real problem that people are having?
Create your “assumptions.” In the business world, the scientific hypothesis (the “how” or the “why”) is usually called an assumption. It’s something that must be true about our business for it to thrive.
Turn your assumptions into hypotheses: Assumptions need to be supported by experimentation and proof points, like a scientific hypothesis. It’s not enough to say, “People love my product.” You must show that “people will buy my product instead of a competitor.” That’s validation.
Test your hypotheses: Get out there and run some experiments. Show people your product and a competing product. What do they choose? If that doesn’t work, figure out why.
Iterate and pivot when necessary. Learn from your results and go back to the drawing board when necessary. What needs to change?
While the terminology changes slightly, founders can easily apply the scientific method to their businesses at any stage. At the Scientific Startup, we focus on implementing this scientific spin to all stages of business development: discovery, design, and validation.