Opportunity Areas in Action

Why the TD Ameritrade leadership team celebrated a cofounder team invalidating an entire opportunity area that they had previously believed in.

The Challenge the challenge

In 2017, the leadership at TD Ameritrade, a brokerage firm with a 40 year legacy, made a push to increase their innovation capacity. They ran a series of innovation sprints with Bionic that granted participants wide-open boundaries to explore how TD Ameritrade could deliver on their purpose to "transform lives and investing for the better."

One idea at their first innovation sprint rose to the top — everyone agreed it was a game-changer. The team that came up with the idea explored possible solutions and created a data-driven digital tool that, when pitched to senior leaders, received unanimous support from the executive team. At one point during the pitch the CEO, Tim Hockey, asked everyone in the room, "Who would want to use this tool?" Nearly every hand shot up. Market research following the sprint confirmed the viability of this project, and when potential customers were asked if they wanted (and would pay for) the tool, the answer was a resounding yes.

When the sprint concluded, TD Ameritrade leadership decided to use this potential game changer as a test case for an Opportunity Area. A three-person team was formed to focus on it, keeping one of the sprint participants and adding two new cofounders with fresh perspectives.

With new minds and permission to pursue the idea “for real,” the cofounders took a step back from the solution itself and examined the underlying assumptions: Who was the customer, and what problem did they need to solve? How big was this problem, and what other solutions were these customers using currently? Was this problem growing or shrinking? And what were the new enablers (technologies, trends, etc.) that could be applied to solve the problem?

The Experiment the experiment

They started with the largest, most obvious customer persona and employed several rounds of experiments to refine their understanding of the need at hand. But their initial customer profile wasn't panning out — the customers they sought out were happy with the tools they were already using. So, the team looked at adjacent personas. After all, the customers in the initial experiments kept saying, "I don't need this, but I know someone else who does."

These adjacent customers did not feel they had a problem and they were not seeking a solution. Perhaps the tool would be “nice to have,” but when it came down to demonstrating how they would use it, they balked at the effort required. Over the course of five or six rounds of experiments that touched more than fifty potential customers, the three cofounders came up empty every time.


One of the cofounders, Matt, came from a data analytics background and was initially skeptical that they could invalidate an entire Opportunity Area with only a few dozen data points. "With my background, I typically want to collect thousands of data points to be sure of something. But I learned that you can talk to ten people and invalidate something. By talking with customers directly, I realized we could learn the answer fast and feel comfortable invalidating it and moving forward."

It took the team less than two weeks from kicking off the work to invalidating the Opportunity Area with confidence. But they also knew the CEO and entire senior leadership had raised their hands in support of the project back at the innovation sprint. So, they kept looking. What if they had missed something? They couldn't go back with their findings until they knew with certainty.

The Solution the solution

To be sure they covered all the potential customer personas that might be attracted to this tool, they devised a quantitative survey. Maybe the problem wasn't the obvious one they initially identified; maybe the tool could meet a more niche need. They pivoted several times, eliminating some needs that were too small to be viable and others that were already being well served by a crowded marketplace of solutions.

After five weeks, the cofounders were certain: The Opportunity Area was invalidated. Now they just had to tell the CEO. Cofounder Sarah commented, "We were confident in our findings, but nervous about telling the story."


The team gathered the evidence and learnings they had collected along the way. They had invalidated this particular tool and the broader customer problem it aimed to solve, but in the process, the team had uncovered a handful of new customer problems that looked promising. Cofounder Susan shared, "One of the things we did really well in that storytelling was talk about the unexpected needs we found. We uncovered needs that were really compelling and that we could address."

The Insight the insight

Tim Hockey and the entire executive team accepted the team's evidence, even though it directly contradicted their gut reaction during the initial pitch and celebrated how quickly and cheaply the team had invalidated the Opportunity Area. If the team had explored the viability of this tool using a market analysis to calculate the Total Addressable Market (TAM), the executive team could easily have decided to make a big investment and built a product nobody would actually buy or use. By choosing to focus on the problem rather than the market, they averted this spend in favor of something more viable.

Addressing the broader company just a few weeks later, Hockey shared the team's invalidation of the original idea as a win. "Folks approached us after hearing that story and said, 'Wow, you really told the CEO that this was a bad idea?' It seems to be changing how people think about sharing findings like that," cofounder Matt recalled.

John Hart, the Opportunity Area team's executive sponsor during the work, shared why this was so important to the company's growth, "We absolutely see this as a critical element in creating the environment to do meaningful innovation."

Cofounder Sarah agreed, "We know that we have a culture that is willing to take a risk. But actually experiencing it on this scale was really cool."

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