I talk to hundreds of entrepreneurs every year. It’s a privilege that provides me with extraordinary perspective on how ideas are making it to market. One of the consistent themes in startups struggling to make it out of the idea/concept phase is that they can’t get out of their own way.
While the stereotypical inventor is purported to be secretive, distrustful and reclusive, many of these behaviors—intentional or incidental—can now be observed in startup founders of all stripes. Because of the ease with which you can now reach vast audiences, doing nothing to promote or expose your idea can now be interpreted as an act of secrecy. You owe it to your idea to expose it to a potential market to determine viability.
Your idea might be great, or it might be awful; no one has ever figured this out with only a whiteboard as company. So before you end up sitting shiva solo, mourning an idea that died before it saw the light of day, get your concept out there where you can get meaningful feedback. Feedback is universally useful, as fertilizer for good ideas, and weed killer for bad ideas (those without a market). The earlier you apply it, the better.
Many (most? all?) startup founders are initially hesitant to put their ideas in front of strangers (people who will be honest) at scale, for fear that the ideas are half-baked (of course they are) and will receive criticism (useful feedback). So they spend a lot of time iterating on a lab bench, or a test server, or a notepad thinking that they can somehow psych out their audience and nail product market fit the first time they draw the curtain back. I’ve never seen this work.
Instead, if you feel like you need concentrated feedback prior to market exposure, seek out experts with experience in your chosen market. They can provide a proxy to the market in addition to giving you advice about how to proceed with the idea.
LinkedIn and Quora are both good resources for identifying people, but for the easiest access to experts with a track record of helping startups with tough questions, Clarity provides both a Q&A (like Quora) as well as the ability to engage experts directly via the phone (some free, some for a per-minute fee).
Prepare a solid elevator pitch so that you don’t spend a lot of time fumbling around trying to help them understand your concept. Focus your questions on determining product-market fit – not blue-sky hypothesizing on the size of the opportunity, or future extensions of the model. You want to end the conversation understanding more about how your product does or doesn’t solve a problem within the market.
The more of these conversations you have, the more you’ll be able to dial in on a go-to-market version of your product with some (albeit minimal) validation. Pay as much attention to the criticism and hard questions as the comments and feedback that validates your current thinking. It’s easy to ignore great insight in favor of staying the course by being selective in your listening.
A byproduct of these conversations is that interested experts can become ongoing advisors or potential partners in development, distribution, etc.
Hint: Ask pointed questions and then keep quiet. I do a lot of startup advising, and I’m amazed at how often the bulk of the talking is done by the people looking for answers. If you learn by talking out loud, try it with a mirror – don’t waste an expert’s time (and your own) by musing endlessly on the path forward.
Talk to Strangers at Scale
Not since the gladiatorial games has it been easier to get a bunch of people with a common interest in one place. Thanks to the existence of communities for everything you can think of (and a host of things you can’t) and the ability to buy traffic with specific interests, you no longer have to struggle to find, foster, and fulfill your audience.
Even better, you can start to connect with them while you are still in the idea phase by using landing pages or social network pages well before your MVP (minimum viable product) is complete (or conceived). You can tap into existing communities by posting links within discussions related to your idea, asking for feedback in Q&A forums, or drive deliberate traffic using paid social advertising (Twitter and Facebook) or paid search traffic via Google Adwords. For an investment of several hours or a few hundred dollars you can drive hundreds or thousands of potential customers to a landing page that exposes them to your idea, and helps determine interest with a specific call to action. Many entrepreneurs have used Launchrock to gather this critical information.
At the idea stage, you are trying to determine how much appetite there is for your proposed solution to a specific problem, so orient your page(s) accordingly. Present the product and include a “learn more” or “buy now” button to capture intent – even if there is nothing behind the button. You can explain to those who do click that you are currently in beta and ask them to sign up to a mailing list for updates. You’ll accomplish two things: you’ll be able to see what % of visits result in some level of interest in your idea, and you’ll develop a list of potential early adopters.
Be specific in your messaging and in your call to action, because you can also test these elements at this stage. A word of caution: if you do choose to test, make single deliberate changes per iteration so that you can make causal conclusions, not correlations.
Talk to Existing Customers
If the idea you are working on is an extension of an existing business, you have the advantage of a built-in test market at your disposal.
One of the most powerful realizations to come out of the crowdsourcing / crowdfunding realm is just how motivating it can be for consumers to be given a purpose. If you invite them to be a part of your story, as self-aware enablers of growth, they’ll surprise you with their contribution.
Getting feedback from existing customers is one of the most valuable forms of feedback, because they’ve already demonstrated a critical characteristic of any potential market – the willingness to part with money for a solution to their problems.
Soliciting customer feedback is as easy as asking for it, and you can go about it in a variety of ways depending on your needs. For incremental product changes, a simple survey will most often do the job. If you are working on a bigger solution where qualitative feedback is important, creating a focus group out of your core users is a great way to cut to the quick and trim fat from the offering. You’ll be surprised how often people will react with pleasant surprise and pride at being tasked with helping you steer the ship.
Even if you don’t have your own customers, you can borrow someone else’s. I once conducted a simple experiment for a company I was advising using rack card-sized prints of two new product offerings placed at point-of-sale at a potential retail partner’s store. One of the product sheets was overwhelmingly preferred over the other, indicating a strong preference for that offering. This priceless insight was gathered without ever asking for direct feedback.
Now is the time to get in front of your market.
Stop reading articles about how to validate your idea, and get outside your office, lab, basement or garage and start talking to people. Talk to experts, talk to strangers, talk to your customers (or someone else’s), but make sure your startup idea gets in front of someone other than your mother and your best friend. Unwavering support is great, but honest feedback with total disregard for your feelings is going to come at some point. My experience says: the sooner, the better.
“How do I know when my idea is ready to validate?”