So you’ve got this awesome idea for a new product or service that’s a game changer. EVERYONE is going to love it, right? All you need now is the funds to build your first version and users will naturally flock towards your new idea because it’s so godamned awesome… A couple of people said they’d buy it, so you’re set!
I’ll stop you right there. Get off your high-horse.
Not to put a downer on an exciting startup idea, in fact I’m stoked you’re reading this article because you’ve obviously had the holy mackerel, this is a legit business idea moment – nice!
It’s a great feeling, but unless the odds are ever in your favour I highly doubt that your idea as it is today is the right one your future customers want. It’s just a natural gap between your assumptions and your users actual needs, that no matter how right it feels you’ve probably still missed the mark on a few things. Those few things are pretty vital – they’re often the pieces that your customers want (or don’t) that will ultimately be the difference between them staying as a customer or leaving for good.
It’s 100% OK to have a few assumptions when you start out, but my advice (from experience) is to hold off on raising thousands of dollars worth of investors money on a hunch. We wanna prove our assumptions were correct using data and real people, not gut feeling. You need to pump the old brakes and have a quick wake up and smell the coffee moment. Trust me, doing this will save you years of heartbreak, a ton of your investors hard earned $$, and quite frankly will bring your ego down to where it needs to be – reality.
Your idea needs to be punched in the face before you start even thinking about raising funding. Read on if you want to take the necessary steps towards success.
Why you don’t need funding (yet)
Ok picture this. You raised $100k a year ago to get your idea built and in user’s hands. Now you’re sitting there, lost for words staring at your co founders as you all realise your burn is quickly coming to an end.
You’re at that moment where you realise you weren’t able to figure out traction fast enough, nothing is turning the dials. You realise that the idea was probably flawed in the first place, but how can you now tell that to investors who threw their hard earned cash at you? They believed in and trusted you to succeed. You told them you could, you believed you could.
Now you’re sitting there feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, empty with nothing left in the tank to hold it up. It’s the day you realise your startup is going to fail, and it fucking hurts.
That was me. That is also most startup founders who ever had the balls enough to get funding before they validate their idea properly, and that’s exactly what I don’t want others to experience.
Looking back now, we didn’t need $100k to build our first version – simple as that. There is ALWAYS a smaller, more compact and basic version of what you’re ‘blue sky’ idea is that will still be useable and will allow you to find out if people want your idea. Do it BEFORE getting funding.
How to get user validation before building anything
There’s a step you need to take before designing or building ANYTHING and I guarantee it’ll be invaluable to your success. It’s really simple to do but is often overlooked, boring, and forgotten. Don’t make that mistake.
The magic sauce to finding out if people want your idea is to simply talk to them. Seriously, it’s that simple. You can shave days, weeks, months and even years off finding out that no one wanted your idea in the first place by simply asking them before you start. And it’s not hard at all.
It doesn’t even have to be on the phone, just over email or Twitter is fine! Yes, it is better to chat on the phone, but at this stage you just need anything that says some other human being out there has the exactly problem your product will solve. Side-note: I assume you are solving a problem in the first place, if not you might want to review your idea… It probably won’t fly.
To give you a real example of how this works, here’s two email templates that I used recently to get feedback about an idea that we had.
You’ll need to:
- Go out into the world and find people who are in your ideal target market (trawl Twitter, Google, Reddit, Linkedin, platforms they are on – anything)
- Make a list of them (we used Capsule which is free)
- Get their email addresses
- Contact them directly from your personal email
The key here is to not ask them if they want your idea. You want to ask them how they currently deal with the problem you reckon you can solve. You’re looking to see if they even have the problem in the first place, and if so, how are they getting by at the moment – is it painful enough for them to want to pay you solve it. You also don’t want to sound like a company, who wants that shit in their inbox! Get real, get personal, be friendly and people will happily help you out.
Here’s the first email, which kinda had a sucky response:
How are you? Hope you’re having a good weekend :).
So, I found you via Google (searching for freelancers) as I’m doing a little bit of research into how freelancers manage their workload. If you’ve got a minute or two, would you mind helping me with these two questions? I’d really appreciate it!
1. Do you use any software to help you manage your projects and/or leads?
2. If so, what do you use?
I’m a freelancer myself, so I’m curious to see how others manage their day-to-day when there’s more than one project going on at once! No worries if you don’t have time to answer.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Our product aims to help freelancers manage their projects, task and clients all in the one place. See how I didn’t steer Tegan anywhere towards what our solution was and focused solely on the problem. I wanted to gauge whether or not they even had the problem at all. I mean, I did and that’s how the idea started, but did others?
Interestingly 90% of the people we contacted did use software and it was usually a combination of different software for really basic stuff. Perfect! For us, that validated:
- That freelancers do use software to manage their workload
- That freelancers are using multiple software to manage their business (our core value proposition)
+ A bonus from that exercise too – we identified our main software competitors from the software they’re already using, winning!!
Now, just imagine if the response had actually been the opposite – no one uses software at all, and they aren’t busy enough to need a management tool to freelance effectively. Boom, our idea would have been BUSTED from day 1 saving us years of heartbreak. If this happens to you it doesn’t mean stop everything and give up. It just means you need to reconsider your core value prop. I would email them back and find out why they don’t use software. Why why why! Listen to what they say, and find common patterns in things that annoy them – that will be the heart of your business one day.
Ok, so here’s a second email we sent out. This time we knew that freelancers already used software, so we wanted to see if our idea was on point. We wanted to see if our ‘all in one’ value prop was good. You’ll notice I was a little more ‘leading’ in this email, but that’s cool. The main thing here as that we’re physically talking to real people!
I’m Andy and I’m emailing you because I have a few quick questions I’d love your thoughts on. No worries if you don’t want to reply, but if you wouldn’t mind – read on!!
In short, I’m trying to assess whether there’s a need for a standalone management platform tailored specifically for solo freelancers. I’m a freelancer myself and I find I use 3-4 different systems for my leads, tasks, projects and invoicing… For me, I’d love one system that was able put those all in one place – really simple and does the basics right. What about you, what do you currently use on the day to day?
Hope to hear from you :)
Life isn’t perfect and even now looking at this we shouldn’t have been so direct about the idea itself, but still we did address the problem and the overall response to this was an overwhelming yes. Bam, we’ve hit the nail on the head. Just to give you an idea, here’s her response:
I am so with you on this one! I’ve thought the same thing as well and think it would be a HUGE hit with freelancers. It would obviously need to be quite a robust product, but man, if someone got it right….it would save the world lol.
Amazing, right? Best. Feeling. Ever. Our sample size was only 50 emails, but that is still:
- Enough to get a good idea of whether people want it
- Only takes a few hours to find users in your target market and get their emails (harder than you might think)
So we’re getting closer to validating the idea and there’s another really easy step to get to the next stage of validation. This is one is much more real, requires more effort but aims to much more real and authentic. We’re getting closer to true validation.
Get a landing page up
For this article I’m assuming you’re offering an online product or service as that’s where I have my experience. For anything online your hub for how pople will find and read about you is likely to be a website. Smokescreen websites are bestest thing ever.
A smokescreen website is basically a single long webpage that you put up on your web domain along with some light branding and engaging copywriting. The idea is to sell your idea as best you can through showing website visitors how it will work, the features of your product and communicating those problems you think they’re having. This will allow you to (cheaply):
- Expose your target market to your idea, without you spoon feeding them into wanting it
- See for yourself whether people want to pay for it
- Start working your traction funnels
If you have any development knowledge you’ll be able to get a basic WordPress site up with a free theme you can populate with copy and a few dummy designs if you have them. For the less development savvy you could use a website builder, or go to Upwork and find a freelancer who will build you a basic website.
The main thing you need is the ability for people to be exposed to your idea and then like it enough to leave their email. You can either spin it like We’re launching soon or if you’re a bit more guerrilla you could word it like Sign up today.
The more real, the better.
If you’re going to charge money for your service, show it on this page. If you’ve got any testimonials or comments from people who resonate with the idea, show it. If you’ve been in the media about the idea, show it. Basically you want as much proof of concept as possible so that you visitors feel like they’re getting the real deal, then, ultimately they will give you their email address – that’s the bad boy we want.
Check out LaunchRock, they offer a hosted solution you can spin up in minutes which you can use to get signups before putting up a properly customised and lengthy smokescreen. Something is better than nothing!
In terms of cost I wouldn’t pay any more than $500 for this step and do try and do it yourself first. Just a quick google will give you plenty of actionable articles to work from and you can save lots of $$ getting it done yourself. But if you have the $$, get a professional to whip something up which will probably be more compelling than your MS Paint job ;).
The key here is, get something up and get people seeing it. You can use the same technique you used in the email validation stage. Find people, get their emails and ask them to check out your site and sign up if interested. Hustle, hustle, hustle!
How to get a prototype built
Ok, so you still haven’t approach any investors yet but what you do have is verbal validation that people have the problem you’re going to solve, and they want what you’re offering. If you’ve got some organic signups through your website then you’re even further on the way to this idea being a success – people are actively putting up their hands for it.
Now it’s time to try and get a prototype in their hands. There are two ways you can go about this:
- Find someone to build the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) of your idea
- Find someone to design your idea and bring it to life with a prototyping tool
Your decision here kinda depends on your available resources. In my situation, I’m a user experience and interface designer by trade and I can also code websites and apps. Lucky me, but it’s a no brainer that I should take the few extra weeks and build the first version myself or with a co founder. That way, it’s a few more weeks of personal investment but at the end of it I can invite those people who signed up to my app and them hands on using it – perfect.
This isn’t so easy for those who aren’t developers. I bet those of you in this situation you’d have to go to the nearest app development company and get it built for $20-200k – ahhhh! Alas, there are ways to achieve (not quite the same) a similar result without throwing down much more dosh.
All you need to do for this method of validation is to find a designer (preferrably an interface designer) who can work with you to first understand your idea, and then convert your brief into a bunch of screens that make up your app. A good UI designer will be able to understand your idea and think up how all the screens will fit together on the spot, however if you’re on a budget you will have to do more of the brief / specification work before handing it to the designer as the cheaper priced ones will need a lot more guidance. The easiest place to find people is by posting a job on a freelancer platform like Upwork or Freelancer. Another more unique approach is to find and contact freelancers on Behance or Dribbble where you have first hand examples of their work to make sure they can do the job.
Once you have your designer and you designs, stitch those together using a program like Marvel or Invision into a working prototype that will more or less feel like the product you’ll eventually build and sell. Make things clickable, show interactions and definitely make you show off how you solve their main problems. You’re about to get people playing with this, you want them to get to the ‘Wow’ moment very early on.
Invite those signups and users you originally emailed for validation to your Marvel or Invision project and get them to play around with it. Ask them to give you cold, hard feedback and don’t ask whether they like it. That’s number one – no steering them or biassing their decisions. The goal here is be as authentic as possible so that we can find out for one last hoorah whether it’s truly worth your blood, sweat and tears to go ahead and build your idea. The more people you can throw through this step the better. Ultimately you’ll find these people help shape your first version of the product, and will go onto be your first customers so treat them like absolute gods.
When funding calls
I won’t cover how to get funding here, nor will I at all as I only believe funding should be used for traction – not the initial build. In Australia, funding is a lot tighter than it is in places like San Francisco so we have to prove a lot more via first concepts and prototypes before we can roll on into big VC’s office and ask for a buck or two. But, if you’re so inclined you now have a much stronger pitch than you would have had you not taken the steps above. You have, at the very base level:
- Validated that people have a problem worth solving
- Validated that people want what you’re offering
- Have a bunch of early adopters who want your product
- Have a working prototype that the target market have touched
And that (other than your mission, values and you as a person) is what Angels and VCs want to see. Validation, validation, validation.
So if you were to summarise this entire article into a few sentences I would roll it a lil’ something like:
When you first have a startup idea, Kanye can’t tell you nothin’. But it’s the people that throw their ego and assumptions out the door that ultimately end up welcoming themselves to the good life. It’s the people that find out whether their target market even want to listen to Kanye before they start blasting it through the boombox. It’s the people that find out what lyrics resonate with people before assuming ‘dear mama’ is what everyone wants to hear. It’s the people who realise it takes time to be a Kanye, and you gotta do the due-process or all you’re gunna be is that washed up folk guitarist playing the local on Tuesday nights when you could’ve been big Yeezy rocking Madison Square – had you listened.
I hope you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with other entrepreneurs you know.