Find out if your startup idea is valuable over a weekend

Based on readtime this post should take 5.5 minutes to read.

Who would get the most out of this post

You are an entrepreneur that can prototype and agrees that testing product ideas as quickly as possible is the most valuable activity you can spend your time on at this point in your career.

What you get

At the end of this post you will waste less time pondering ideas because you will have a step by step guide that I’ve followed several times to test an idea at scale within a couple days.

Step #1: Determine your goal

My goal for any non-hobby project is to find an idea that is valuable enough that people will trade their hard earned dollars for.  So step #1 is to find your goal.  What question will you ask yourself while you’re testing out the idea to see if it’s actually worth your time?  My question is: “will people pay for this?”

Step #2: Write down your assumptions

Being aware of your assumptions about the product or market is important because as you discover more about the value of your product or market, your assumptions will change and you will need to keep on testing your assumptions.  One of the assumptions for my latest product idea is: “professional writers think it’s important to expand their written vocabulary.”

Step #3: Finding potential customers (go to the ‘watering holes’)

Identify the group of people that you think would benefit the most out of this product.  Find their watering hole.  A watering hole is a place (can be in person, but online is a lot easier) that brings a lot of like-minded people together where they can have conversations.  Like-minded people tend to have similar problems you can solve.  My goto strategy is to find subreddits that my audience belongs to.  Other places you can find watering holes are mailing lists and forums.  For mailing lists, look up LinkedIn or Meetup groups you can join.  Those groups usually have mailing lists.  Start an email or post on the subreddit and start asking questions to learn more about the potential customers and to test your assumptions.  Here’s the post I submitted on a subreddit: How important is it that you grow your vocabulary.

Step #4: Go and build the most minimal viable product (mmvp?)

Based on the initial feedback from the watering hole, go and build a prototype.  It just has to demonstrate the purpose of the application or service, it doesn’t actually have to work.  Step #5 tells you why it doesn’t actually have to work.  In my opinion, anything that takes more than 1 day to prototype is too long.  All you need is enough to find out if you’re on the right track or if you should change directions.

Step #5: Record a video of you walking through the product

The video should be short – get it down to 2 minutes or less.  Most people don’t want to watch long videos and if the video is too long then the MVP is too complicated.  Walk through and explain what the application or service does.  You shouldn’t be selling or pitching the product (this is the mistake I made as you’ll see in the video) because you want their honest feedback.  At the end of the video I like to continue the conversation by asking a question at the end like “would you pay for this?  and how much?”  Here’s the video I produced for my latest idea:

Step #6: Message the people that conversed with you at the watering hole

Ask them to watch the video and continue to ask questions to test your assumptions.  Since I want to know if someone will pay for a product I will ask them:

  1. Would you pay for this?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. What’s needed that will make this product valuable or more valuable that you would pay for it?
  4. Who do you know that you think will pay for this product? (if you can ask for a referral/intro, even better!)
  5. What is the most valuable benefit of this product?
  6. What problem do you think this product solves?  Do you have this problem?
  7. If you have this problem, what are you doing today to solve it?

Step #7: Keep talking, iterate or scrap

If you think there’s value in the idea, talk to more people.  If you think you’re on the right track, iterate and go through these steps again.  If there’s no value, scrap the project.  You need to make your decision within a few days though or else you might get too tied to the idea to think rationally – learn to ‘kill your darlings’.

What I learned

Video works great!

  1. It’s very passive and does not require much effort for the user to watch.
  2. It also makes it easier for you to build a prototype since you are the one clicking through.  When someone else needs to navigate you need to spend more time explaining or fleshing out the prototype so that they don’t run into dead-ends (links not going anywhere or buttons not doing anything).
  3. It’s scalable and multi-threaded.  You don’t need to wait to speak to each user one at a time, you can send out videos to multiple people.  I aim to send out the video to 10-20 people directly and will post it on forums, mailing lists or subreddits.

What idea I tested

I prototyped a Chrome extension that helps a expand a user’s written vocabulary.  The user puts together a list of words they want to learn, and as they type in Chrome (for example, on their blog) the extension looks out for words the user typed that can be replaced with a word they want to learn.  Watch the video, it’s easier to show than to explain 🙂

And here’s how the testing helped me refine my assumptions.  A product assumption I made was that it would be a freemium app where the user can put down 10 words they want to learn and if they want to learn more than 10 words they would have to pay for a subscription or one-time fee.

After sending the video to potential customers and talking to them, I discovered that I might need to change my assumption.  A user suggested that I might be solving the wrong problem.  He said that the most burdensome part is actually to come up with new words to learn.  So that I should offer an add-on service where I curate and provide users with new words that they can start learning and charge a subscription for new words every month.

A market assumption I made was that only professional writers would find this extension useful.  In fact I submitted the post on the /r/writing subreddit.  After speaking to another user, they suggested that I actually market it towards students like ones that are preparing for written tests like the SATs.

I hope you can use this step by step guide to validate your ideas moving forward.  Nothing wastes more time than pondering if an idea is useful or not for weeks or months on end.  Stop wondering and start testing.

I’d like to find new quick ways to make it easy to test.  I am considering moving from videos to animated GIF walkthroughs next.  Let me know what you think on Twitter: @felixthea.

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9 thoughts on “Find out if your startup idea is valuable over a weekend

  1. Shlomi says:

    I watched the demo, liked the idea and have a few quick comments:
    1. I would use the app and be willing to pay for it (however in the price range of iphone apps).
    2. In order for it to be useful for me I rather not type in the words I like to learn, but rather have a default word bank (as part of the app). The app will monitor what I’m typing and suggest words.
    3. In addition to words it will be very nice if the app can handle idioms. Can suggest idioms and have a “spell check” for idioms I attempt to use.

    Hopefully this is helpful,
    Shlomi (from FD)

    • felixthea says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Shlomi – I really appreciate it. Do you see this as a one-time payment application or can you think of any services that could be added on that you would pay monthly/yearly for?

      #2 and #3 definitely useful, but much more advanced, features that I would only be able to work on for later iterations. From my current vantage point they do seem like features that would be a part of the logical evolution of the app.

      Thanks again!

    • felixthea says:

      Mark – very happy that there are folks out there teaching others. I think if more entrepreneurs can put something like this into practice they would save a lot of time in 1. thinking about ideas and 2. pursing the ‘wrong’ ideas

  2. Mohit Kansal says:

    Thanks Felix. I really like your step by step approach.

    I’m working on creating a wearable sensor device that helps people improve their game (for a specific sport).

    Most of the potential customers are in another part of the world since that’s the only place where people play this game. I am going to visit for a week later this month and I want to make the most of my time.

    1. Would you suggest I create that video and send it to the people I will meet beforehand or show them when I meet them?

    2. Do you think it is still important for me to carry an mmvp before I visit so that they have some idea of what the device would look like?

    3. What if I want to partner with some of the people during the product building stage (essentially I’m trying to go for getting feedback before designing the product and incorporating it as I go about designing it).

    Thanks a ton for writing this article!


    • felixthea says:

      Hi Mohit,

      I think this style of validation (video walkthrough) is most useful when you want to reach many people in a short period of time. However, nothing beats face to face interaction with possible users if you have the time to do it. I think if you are going to spend time with your potential customers you should show them in person. What I think would be invaluable is for you to get their contact information (if you don’t already) so that you can stay in communication with them more without having to make physical trips.

      It’s hard to say what degree of prototype you need without knowing more about the business that you are in. If the aesthetics matter then you probably want to show them what it looks like because that’s what they’re going to trade their money for so you will want to build a “looks like this” prototype. However if it’s a product that’s valuable because of function then you should build a “works like this” prototype. Just enough to convey the value of the product and from there you can decide which direction to take the product. Keep in mind that this kind of lean approach is meant to save you from taking unnecessary steps when you’re not sure of the destination, yet.

      Partnerships is an area that I do not have much experience with. I think you should definitely stay in touch with these potential customers so that you can get their feedback and then so when you have something ready you can ask them to trade their dollars for your product.

      Best of luck!

  3. Adnan A M says:

    I watched the video , I would pay around the average price android/ios apps have, but only if the product suggested me new words and rather not depend on me for new words. So an ideal scenario would be I am typing and it recognizes I can replace a few words in the text with some synonyms and it suggests me those words. That would be pretty awesome

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