Validating Your Startup Idea

Having an idea for a startup can be really exciting, and sometimes you want to dive right into producing your product and launching your company.  But before you do that, you have to make sure your idea is actually a good one, by validating the idea, or making sure people will actually want your product before producing it.  This way, you can make the decision to launch your startup knowing people will want what you’re making.

It’s easy to assume that people will want your product before you make it.  For instance, at Pufferfish Software we were sure people would want an app that helped their children learn to identify the fifty states of the USA.  We went right ahead in producing it, confident that we could just put it up on the app store and sell to our existing user base of parents and to parents on the iPad app store.  Much to our dismay, we received no sales on an app that cost, if I recall correctly, $800 to make – because foolishly, we didn’t make sure people wanted it before we made it.

Unfortunately, having a few friends say “yeah that’s cool I’d buy that” doesn’t really count as validation.  Think about it – there’s lots of stuff you say you’d buy, especially after an afternoon wasted shopping online.  But you don’t actually go buy any of those things.  The only thing that really counts as validation is a commitment to purchase.

A commitment to purchase comes in two forms – providing contact information for a future purchase, or pledging money for the purchase in the form of a pre-sale.  Since you’re not even sure you want to go ahead with your startup idea yet, you can collect the contact information of people who want to buy your product.  This is easy, free, and only requires a couple steps.

1.  Set Up a Website.

Making a simple website has become amazingly easy in the past couple of years.  Anyone can hop online, and get started for free.  For this, you want to make a website using LaunchRock.    LaunchRock is a service designed exactly for what you’re trying to do, which is build an early customer base to prove your idea is something people want.  They’re free, so if you never get that traction it didn’t cost you a thing.

2. Set up a Twitter.

This is so you can make it easy for people to share your product or idea online.  Make sure to hook this up to your LaunchRock website so people can easily share.  Twitter isn’t meant for broadcasting promotion about your product, but for having conversations with your followers.  It’s called social media, because it’s meant for socially engaging.  But whatever you do, don’t buy Twitter followers.

3. Promote!

Tell your friends about your website, first of all.  Post on your personal accounts saying you’re investigating this idea.  Secondly, get on Reddit, find the subreddits were your potential customers are, and let them know what you’re making.  If it’s tech-y, post on HackerNews.  If it’s crafty, post on Pinterest.

Wherever you post, don’t come off as a broadcaster.  Remember to be a person; ask for feedback on your idea, ask people what they want out of such a product.  This isn’t about you and your awesome company, this is about making a product for your customers that your customers want.  It’s about your customers.

If you want to get more engagement with your product, give them a little taste for free.  Take up to 10 hours producing some content for your customer base, be it writing or a free tool or a free chart or a small game or whatever you can think of, and then give it away in exchange for an email address.  This is a great way to get people on board with your product idea, because they will already know you are going to deliver on what you promise.

4. Assess

After you’ve done this for a month, assess the traction you have.  People might be interested and love your idea, or they might hate it.  They might think it has potential, but would rather you make something different.  Make sure to assess all of the interaction you got, and decide on the course of action best for you and your customers.  Because it doesn’t matter how many customers you have if you’re not making something they want.

Megan Holstein is a junior in the fisher school of business at The Ohio State University, the CEO of Pufferfish Software, and the Global High School Entrepreneur of 2013.

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