Dear advisor: I have a startup idea, what Should i do next?

How to validate your idea before building an MVP

Post was originally published in September 2020 and has been updated in March 2021 for relevancy.

Having mentored over 25 (very) early-stage founders, I get asked this question a lot. Here's my industry-agnostic advice for those that are just starting out.

TL;DR: Understand who your customers are, what pain points you're solving for them, and who will pay for it (and how much) -- before developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Part I: Identify your target customers

You have an idea for your start-up (!). To help you see if the idea has potential for product market fit, you'll need to know:

  • Who your customers are -- be as specific as possible here.

    • Note: If you’re developing a 2-sided marketplace, you have two sets of customers: buyers and sellers.

  • There are over 30 customer pain points. What pain points do your customers have? How are they solving them now?

  • How will your business will make money? How much are your customers willing to pay for a solution that solves their pain point?

  • Marc Andreessen advises that market size is the key to success, not the team. What is your market opportunity?

Here's a framework to help you: JTBD.

Part II: Meet your customers to refine what value you bring

Before you spend any money on developing a solution, talk to your prospective customers to narrow down who they actually are, really understand their needs and value you bring to your customers -- and see if they’d be willing to pay for a solution to their problems. Sometimes it feels like a catch-22, you need customers to find more customers. How do you get started and find your first one?

  • (Part I) What value do you bring to your customers?

  • Designing customer surveys is a big topic. Some highlights:

    • Can you provide them something valuable during the interview/survey?

      • e.g. Are there publicly available (or paid) resources you can leverage to provide insight(s) they didn't have?

      • e.g. If you're considering developing a 2-sided marketplace, what will you offer the supply side to convince them to join before the demand is there?

    • Is your survey as concise as possible? Asking about existing and past decisions to establish context, and not asking hypotheticals [Gary Livingston]?

    • Consider offering (paid) studies on social media, especially if cold emails and follow-ups are getting no response

  • Where do your customers go?

    • Industry and vertical conferences (free or $$$)

    • Meetup groups by vertical, expertise and/or industry (free)

    • Somewhere else?

  • Join start-up communities, such as 805 start-ups to meet other founders (free)

  • If developing SaaS, consider offering consulting services or partnerships to prospective customers, to help you prove out and fine-tune the idea

Part III: Iterate on Parts I and II

Following Eric Ries' idea of the build-measure-learn cycle from his book The Lean Startup, you'll want to build a questionnaire to help you listen to your customers, see if:

  • measure/identify themes that come up; and

  • learn if there are themes that come up again and again -- and any words/phrases your customers are using to describe their pain-points.

    • By using their words to describe your idea, you'll be able to resonate with future customers.

Part IV: Wireframe and Iterate on Parts I - III

If you found promising themes around your customer pain-points, consider developing your product as interactive wireframes (over paying for app development before quantifying market need), for the next stage of idea validation -- to help you see if people would be willing to pay for an MVP/service.

Are you looking for ways to improve your product ideas, let's walk through it, in a flat-fee 90-minute call.

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