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

How to validate your idea before building an MVP

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?

    • Note: Really try to understand why they would purchase your product and how soon to they expect your product to solve their problem(s).

  • 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: Understand your customers and 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?

  • 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, 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 survey, let's walk through it, in a flat-fee 90-minute call.

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