How to validate an idea

How to validate an idea

Introduction

So you’ve got an idea.

Congrats! Now what are you going to do about it?

Billionaire Mark Cuban popularized the term “wantrepreneur” to describe people who think ideas are the hard part and that all it takes to succeed is using someone else’s resources to build a team and make it happen.

But while raising cash and building a team of experts may indeed be part of building a company, the validation of that company’s premise takes nothing more than sweat equity.

This 10-part series is intended to teach you a methodical process that can be used to validate any type of idea before spending money or quitting your day job. Some of the most profitable businesses are run part-time. 

You’ll learn things like…

  • Is my idea a vitamin or a painkiller, and why does it matter?
  • What kind of problem does it solve, and for whom?
  • How do I conduct market research at scale, for free?
  • How do I identify the ideal customer?
  • Will I sell to businesses, consumers, or both?
  • What is the ‘aha’ moment?
  • How do I get my first 10 customers?

What this series is not about:

  • This series isn’t “lean startup” propaganda. We aren’t going to use manufacturing metaphors to describe ideation. After all, we’re validating concepts, not building widgets.
  • We won’t be talking about raising money or hiring developers. Not every business requires high-tech infrastructure or ample cash in the bank

Developing a business plan

We’ve heard every criticism on the planet about business plans. Are they a waste of time? Do you need one? Will investors care?

The point of a business plan, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not to share it with spectators. A business plan is for the entrepreneur. More specifically, it’s a tool to help the entrepreneur decide if they should start.

Below are a few critical questions to consider for your new business idea. Answering them should take no more than a couple minutes, and we’ll reference them throughout the rest of this series.

Get the Worksheet Here

Completing this exercise is critical. For inspiration, here’s a pre-filled example answered imaginatively from the perspective of Facebook:

Speculative Business Plan – Facebook Circa 2004

Hopefully you haven’t cheated yourself, and you’ve worked through the questions. If you prefer to ignore this assignment, perhaps being an entrepreneur isn’t for you. There will be many more occasions where sincere introspection is required to make intelligent business decisions, and the above exercise is just a sample of that process.

We’ve all observed the myriad of features Facebook has deployed over the years, but the core aspect of connecting people has not changed. So while many of these answers may change significantly over time, the ‘aha’ moments and the ‘why’ behind your concept should remain the same.

For extra credit, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “Start with Why” to learn how the best businesses in the world think about their customers, product, and solution very differently than the rest of the market.

The need to find ‘strangers’.

By now, you might have shared your idea with friends and family. I bet the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with most everyone saying you should go for it. Not so fast.

Sometimes our friends and family are our worst critics, because they’re willing to blindly support our endeavors. We all know someone who is pursuing a silly dream, but we often don’t have the heart to tell them. Thus, we’re all part of the problem.

To avoid becoming that entrepreneur yourself, resist the temptation for positive reinforcement from family and friends for your business idea. (You should also resist hiring them, receiving investments or loans from them, etc, but we won’t cover those in this series.)

But how are you supposed to get feedback from people you don’t know?

Introducing the Strangers At Scale approach to market research.

Your task is to create what’s known as a customer development survey. In it, you should ask 5-7 questions about customers’ pain points and how they’re currently solving them. The survey should not pitch a specific solution, but ask neutral questions.

Rather than sign up for a 3rd-party service, simply head to Google Docs and create a Google Form. As you create this content, be sure to reference your one-page business plan.

Next we’ll learn how to freely and scalably distribute this survey to your target audience. You’ll get a step-by-step guide that will teach you exactly how to find and communicate with prospects, completely free and 100% anonymously.

Stay tuned!

An opening view on market research

Today is a big deal. We’re finally going to venture outside the inbox and see how your idea fares in the wild, sans expense and the clouded judgment of beloved friends and family.

You were promised an actionable template for completing this task. Below is that strategy, but first, some perspective.

We all hate advertisements. Or do we? Have you ever gone on YouTube to search for a commercial from your childhood? Do you look forward to the Superbowl just for the beer ads?

You see, we don’t actually hate advertisements. We just hate bad advertisements. Victory is awarded to brands that strike a chord, who share something meaningful, who have big ideas.

Most people are familiar with “Got Milk?” and Apple’s 1984 commercial, but do you remember the ad you saw last night after work? Neither do we.

Sharing a tweet or post on social media is kind of like advertising. The two ingredients? A message and an audience. But whether it’s received positively or negatively is dependent on the chemistry between each of these components. Is it the right message? Is it the right audience?

Since we already know who our target audience is (our survey from Point Three) and have at least a hypothesis of the pain points they experience, we’re now better suited to both a) find them and b) craft the right message. This way, it’s easy to collect customer feedback without annoying people or spending any money.

Introducing: Market Research on Twitter

Twitter is an ongoing conversation between everyone in the world. With a quick search, you can find businesses and people discussing nearly every topic imaginable, and it’s all real-time.

We’re going to exploit Twitter’s real-time protocol to collect feedback for our business idea. If you don’t already have an account, no problem. That’s probably better anyway. We want to accomplish this step anonymously.

Below is a great method to conduct this market research. It’s more manageable than it looks. Give it a try:

  1. Create a fake Twitter account (setup tips and strategy here)
  2. Find prospects in your target audience (template and instructions)
  3. Use Zapier to automate survey distribution (instructions here)

After following these instructions, you should have at least 10 survey respondents who a) match your target audience and b) have no incentive to encourage a bad idea. You can likely do all of this in <1 hour.

Bonus: if your survey includes an open response text box, you may uncover critical feedback you hadn’t previously considered. Be sure to add this feedback to your one-page business plan (Point Two) for future reference.

Next, we’ll turn this data into actionable steps for creating an MVP (minimum viable product) of your idea.

Understand your North star

By now, you should be fired up with feedback. While it’s likely you received positive and negative criticisms, do your best to consider all of it as constructive.

At the very least, ignore the haters. But not too much—they might be trying to save you.

Alas, this is the challenge of entrepreneurship. There are no clear answers because there is no boss in the other room telling you what to do. It takes courage and vision to make tough decisions on limited information.

To mitigate this reality of endless unknowns, today we’re going to determine a singular data point by which to measure success for your new business idea.

We’ll call this our North Star Metric.

Here are a few examples of north star metrics:

  • Real estate agent: number of open houses
  • Restaurant: average meal check size
  • Email marketer: click-through rate per email
  • Car salesman: test drives per day
  • Tow truck: cars towed per month

You’ll notice that each example shares two things: a hard number and a scope of time. In the beginning of a business, per-day metrics can be misleading, while per-month can be agonizing and lagging.

In the early stages, report metrics on a weekly basis. This will account for a blended average of slow days and weekends, and the data collected within a single month should be enough to identify trends and insights.

Naturally, there are dozens (even hundreds) of metrics you could consider while pushing your idea into the market, but it’s common to get trapped in “analysis paralysis” by spending too much time chasing vanity metrics and not enough time focused on the right things.

So pick your North Star Metric and add it to the bottom of your one-page business plan.

The slow launch

So when do we launch this thing, anyway?

A lot of folks think “launching” is a pivotal moment where press releases are distributed, fireworks shoot up into the sky, and customers rush to buy in droves.

Fortunately for us, we don’t need a grand opening to get our first customers.

What we’re going to do is commonly known as a soft launch. When a business has a soft launch, all the offerings of the product or service are available, but they’re not marketed.

This paradoxical strategy encourages the right customers to become early adopters, versus future prospects who may find your first version inferior to their existing solution. Going back to our one-page business plan, remember that your target customer is the one you can close within 30 days from today.

But grand opening-style launches don’t consider this and instead opt for inviting everyone, including customers that won’t close with your current offering.

Lesson of the moment: Don’t launch. Just start serving.

As we mentioned on the first Point of this series, we won’t be teaching you how to build a landing page or run an ad campaign. However, below are a few resources for doing just that: 

Instapage: build stunning landing pages in <5 minutes. 45-day free trial.

LaunchKit: create a “coming soon” page for a mobile app.

QuickMVP: launch an ad campaign without learning how to do ads

If web pages aren’t your thing, no problem. Read how Silicon Valley startup Product Hunt began as a manually curated email newsletter here.

Note: If you do create a landing page, revisit the cold Twitter strategy from Point Four. If you collected contact information from your respondents, let them know you appreciate their feedback and would love for them to check out your new concept.

If you did not receive contact info from the folks who completed your market research survey, simply redo the steps from Point Two but point prospects to your new destination instead of a survey.

Time to assess

We’re going to discuss key learnings.

If you’ve been following along, by now you’ve created a one-page business plan, gathered customer feedback from your target audience, formulated a key metric by which to measure the success of your new endeavor, and deployed a v1 offering of your product or service.

That’s a lot of progress for just 6 steps of part-time idea validation.

So what’s next? Well, it’s actually time to go back to the drawing board. And I know what you’re thinking—we’re just getting started! But a critical juncture you should visit at this point is what we call “Fill or Kill.”

In fact, you should visit this topic often while growing any business, working for any company, or generally spending time and resources on any endeavor, for profit or otherwise.

If you watched Sinek’s TED Talk “Start with Why” from Point Two, you know that great businesses are built on a foundation of meaning and purpose, not just margins and profits.

So ask yourself these questions, based on feedback received from the previous soft launch:

  • Do I still feel like I’m solving a real problem?
  • Am I motivated to continue pursuing this idea, even if it means sacrificing my limited free time?
  • Would I invest my own money into making this idea successful?

To be honest, the third question is the most important here. In the life of an entrepreneur, there will be many days where you question the viability of your idea and potentially even lose motivation to continue working on it. And that’s perfectly OK.

But what isn’t OK is if you aren’t willing to put “skin in the game” to bring your idea to fruition. We discussed in Point One the “Wantrepreneur” mentality of expecting external help without putting forth the personal resources to prove something works first.

You are now at a crossroads for you to make that decision.

If the answer to at least two of the three questions above is a resounding “Yes,” keep reading for insights on how you can intelligently invest resources into your idea without breaking the bank.

If you do not want to pursue your idea further, that’s OK too. Great entrepreneurs cut their losses early and move on to the next venture. You only need to be right once.

Investing in yourself

A lot of people dream about becoming a CEO, but they haven’t been properly introduced to what that role actually entails. Great CEOs pride themselves on being the “dumbest person in the room” and know that the key to a successful organization is firing yourself constantly.

Seven, we touched briefly on the concept of investing in your idea as an investment in yourself. We’re going to consider a few ways you might be able to do that in order to fire yourself from the wrong things and focus on the right ones.

Basic

Do you need a logo? Don’t waste time teaching yourself Photoshop. Get one on Fiverr for R80-R150 or design it on canva for free!

Do you have a custom website domain? Google search “99 cent domain” and click the GoDaddy ad. Create a new account and get your domain for a buck.

Are you using tools to communicate with customers? Could you pay R200 per month more to remove the 3rd-party branding or gain access to more features or analytics? Skip your next pizza and make it happen.

Some approaches which we think could be valuable:

Intermediate

Research an influencer who lives in your area. And be liberal with what “your area” means. If they could be helpful and you can add value to their endeavors, ask to buy them a nice meal. It could be the best R1000 bucks you’ve ever spent. 

Advanced

Is there an upcoming industry conference you could attend where hundreds of prospective customers are looking to make deals? Potentially carve into your vacation budget for a cheap Airbnb and economy airfare. Or just hack the lobby for free.

This is a small list to get you started; hopefully you’re already devising several ways you can improve your workflow, increase focus and time for the most important aspects of your business, and reduce the noise from your day to day as a newly minted founder.

Below we’ll discuss another tactic that could double your output but comes at a different cost than money.

Help is Around the Corner

How do you feel? Are you overwhelmed? Have you been sacrificing personal time to pursue your idea? Could you use a little help?

If you’re still expanding your business concept, gathering feedback, and potentially hooking a few customers, you might want to consider onboarding a co-founder. You should at least begin thinking about where someone else might be able to bolster the areas of your business within which you are weaker. Similar to the mantra of firing yourself, a co-founder can be an excellent trade of illiquid resources (equity ownership) for tangible value (increased throughput).

Much has been written about how to find and compensate co-founders, but what’s most important is understanding that at this point, you have all the leverage. The customer development, name, domain, and early users are fruits of your labor. So if you choose to seek help in the form of a business partner, keep in mind that you’re most qualified to dictate the terms.

Also keep in mind the one-page business plan from point 2.

I know, we’ve mentioned this a lot. That’s because the answers to those questions—the “why” behind your business and the pain points you’re solving—must be understood thoroughly by a potential business partner and they must tie into a similar North Star vision for where the business may grow to. Without a mutual understanding at the lowest level of your concept, it won’t work. Great business partners are in it for the same things.

A few benefits of having a business partner:

  • Revisit the Fill or Kill conversation frequently
  • Double the size of your sales force
  • Get more sleep or get more done
  • Encouragement when it gets tough—because it never gets easier

We discussed earlier in the series that introspection is a big part of being an entrepreneur. So spend today examining your deficiencies and the things you need to make this idea more successful.

Do you think another person could fill that gap? If so, finding a co-founder might be a good decision.

Next Steps Toward Launching Your Idea

As we bring this series to a close, it’s only fair we leave you with tactics to move your idea beyond mere validation and into the growth stage.

By now, you’ve thought deeply about a specific audience, their pain points, and how you can help. You’ve created some sort of presence for your idea, whether on the web or otherwise, and you’ve gotten raw feedback from strangers.

You’ve also made key investments into your workflow, whether that means hiring help, subscribing to tools, or seeking advice from a mentor. You may have even begun the hunt for a business partner who will significantly increase the throughput of your operation.

So what now?

Well, this isn’t exactly a marketing course, but here are a few ways to extend your reach as you continue to build upon your idea:

  • Share on 10+ community websites and see if you can acquire some feedback
  • Write and continue contributing to a guest blog post
  • Answer subject-matter questions on Quora
  • Speak to businesses in your area / community 
  • Find customers who are willing to provide product testing and insight

We hope this has been helpful and that you’re thinking about creating, iterating, and launching ideas in a new way. Remember that as entrepreneurs, we only have to be right once so keep ideating, keep validating, and keep growing, personally and in business.