Have a startup idea? Here are the first things you should do

People say that ideas are a dime a dozen, but many entrepreneurs—even experienced ones—struggle to come up with promising product ideas. The fact that you have an idea that excites you is a great milestone, and even though the startup journey is long and arduous, you at least have got a ticket to the show now. However, starting to build your product at the outset can be extremely risky (unless you are working on a breakthrough platform technology such as blockchain or quantum computing).

There is still a lot that you need to learn to refine your idea. The second most common reason for startups failing is that they run out of money, so one of the most critical things that you can do is be ruthlessly efficient. Turning your idea into a functional product is likely going to be the biggest resource drain in the very early stages of your company, so you absolutely can’t waste your resources building something that is not needed or wrong. Even if you are doing the engineering yourself, you don’t have infinite energy and time to sacrifice, and you too need to prevent wasting your efforts technical debt that you can easily avoid. So what exactly should you be doing?

Know thy competition

Learn everything there is to know about competing solutions. Far too often, aspiring entrepreneurs come to me thinking that they have an idea for a product that does not yet exist—an erroneous notion that is easily dispelled by a few minutes of Googling. Do not fool yourself into thinking that your idea is so unique that you don’t have competitors.

For your startup to succeed, your product needs to help customers accomplish their tasks much more effectively and easily than other solutions can. You need to know, in great detail, how other solutions succeed or fail because this knowledge will allow you to efficiently create something that is significantly better than status quo. It ought to be easy for most startups to come up with at least ten competing solutions and list ten things that they do well and another ten things that they do poorly.

Know thy customer

Your idea is going to help people do something better or more enjoyably that anything else that is available to them. However, success is in the details. Facebook certainly wasn’t the first social network, Slack wasn’t the first business communications app, and Apple didn’t create the first smartphone. It’s the little things that end up being decisive differentiators of your product, and the only way to get those right is to know your customers needs, preferences, and challenges in exacting detail.

The most effective way to gain superior customer insight is through dialog with individuals rather than via impersonal surveys. Ideally, you should sit down with those that are likely to be your customers and probe about their task, challenges, wants, and needs. Also, few things are as informative as watching your target customers use competing products and providing their feedback on the experience. Learning from your customers in person has the significant advantage that you can see their emotional response to questions and as they describe using available solutions.

It is sometimes excessively difficult to meet with your target customers in person, but rather than turning to a structured survey, you should still seek to talk with them to give yourself the flexibility to dive deeper into certain themes that might be of particular relevance to your innovation. Video conference and even a traditional phone call provide a channel for engaging discussion and incisive exploration. It may take a great deal of effort to overcome your aversion to a phone call, but I can almost guarantee that you’ll learn a lot more through a conversation than with the aid of a static survey.

It may seem backwards to start with learning about your competition rather than your customer, but I’m assuming that you already have basic knowledge about the people for whom you are developing your product. Plus, I have found it to be more efficient to research your customer after you have gained a deep understanding about competing products because it’s usually much easier to do some virtual intelligence gathering than get busy people to talk to you about their needs. However, it’s certainly possible to first do a deep-dive on the customer and then investigate your competition. Doing things in this order simply means that you might have to have a second dialog to ask specific questions about competing solutions.

Refine your idea

As you learn more about your customers and how competing solutions meet and fail to meet their needs, you should be continuously refining your idea and how you promote it. Pitch your idea to your customers and listen to their feedback, which you can use to improve your innovation even if it is theoretical at this point. Plus, you can get meaningful reactions to your idea without even presenting a prototype.

At the most basic level, you can describe how your product will be different from other options to get high-level feedback on the concept itself. Perhaps you’ll find that you are focusing on the wrong features. Delving deeper, you can present product designs, which articulate the specific implementation of your innovation. Designs will help folks more accurately visualize your product and will allow them to provide feedback on the user experience, form factor and anticipated implementation.

Each round of feedback that you get will allow you to fine tune your product in the design stage, so you are not wasting valuable time and resources in the engineering phase. Remember that the second most likely reason why you will fail is that you’ll run out of money, so efficiency is paramount at the earliest stages of your startup journey.

Validate your product’s potential

After you have gone through a number of iterations and feel pretty good about both your solution design and how to pitch your product to others, it makes sense to ensure that customers will want to buy it or users will use it. There are a handful of clever tactics ensuring that you don’t necessarily need a functioning product to gauge market potential. Here are some of my favorite validation hacks:

  • List your product on an aggregator site such as Product Hunt;
  • Pitch your idea on a social network (preferably a topical group) such as Reddit, Hacker News, Facebook, or LinkedIn;
  • Make a pre-order page and drive customers to it;
  • Sell your product as a service.

Even better than getting a reading on your product’s market potential is getting multiple data points or input on variations of your product. Let me explain. First, you can implement all four tactics and assess the resulting data as a whole so you don’t get false negatives. Perhaps one channel will be much more effective at reaching your target customer than the others. Second, you can pitch different versions of your product and see which one generates the greatest interest. Perhaps you can vary which features you highlight or swap our product designs. The more you can figure out before spending a lot of engineering resources the better.

Key caveat

As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, the above advice is much more suited for a product that packages existing platform technologies in a novel product design rather than for fundamental platform technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, and 3D printing as well as performance-enhancing innovations such as edge computing. As one of my favorite innovation authors, Luis Perez-Breva, notes, the specific applications for such technologies may be both manifold and not immediately apparent requiring you to build a product with less competitor and customer research.

Going beyond this article

I have laid out a general plan of action above, but as with your product, the devil is in the details. In subsequent articles, I will dive deeper into best practices for evaluating competing products as well as learning from your target customers. Stay tuned, and if you have any questions or topics that you’d like me to cover, please let me know!

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