April 12th, 2021

How to validate a startup idea and find potential customers


So you have a great new idea for a service or website. Maybe it’s novel or niche or going to be the next billion dollar company. But right now, it’s just an idea. A raw, exciting idea that still has yet to be fully flushed out.

Before you jump into building a new prototype, as is so often my knee-jerk reaction, take pause. Before you spend hours clacking away at your keyboard, try a few of the techniques outlined below to see if it helps inform what features you should build. Or perhaps answer the often overlooks aspect where to actually find customers. Or just really double-check if the idea should be pursued at all.

It’s important to note however that your mileage will vary with the advice below. There’s no silver bullet to discovering if an idea has legs. But regardless of how you validate your ideas, be mindful to keep things simple, be patient, and trust your gut. A little patience and discipline now can save you a lot of time and effort in the future.

Scratch your own itch

A saying goes “if you have an issue, chances are other people have the same issue too”. If your idea or solution solves a problem you’re experiencing, that’s good enough to start building right then and there. Because even if no one else uses whatever you’re building, it solves your own issue. And therefore is worthwhile enough to continue. Since you’re your own customer, you know what the pain points are that you’re solving for, and how you’d like best to have them solved.

Chances are, others will appreciate your creation as well. When I built the first version of the Improv Tonight app, it was because it was difficult for me to find improv and comedy shows around Chicago. Theatres had websites with the show schedules, but they were slow and clunky, and terrible on a mobile browser. So I built a simple 1.0 version of the app, crawling all the different theatre schedules around the city and presenting them in an easy to use app. It was just what I wanted, and made finding shows so much easier.

After I told a few friends, they found it useful for themselves as well. Then they started telling friends. I slowly made improvements, adding new theatres, improving the app, and various other quality of life improvements. Pre-pandemic, the app was being used worldwide daily by thousands of folks all with the same issue I had. But even if no one else was interested in the idea, I still would have built it because it was useful to me.

So if you have an idea for something to improve your own life, that’s good enough to start building!

Ask!

So what about an idea that doesn’t necessarily solve an issue you’re experiencing, but you think has potential to solve other people’s problems? Or, perhaps it’s an idea that instead of solving a problem, improves someone’s quality of life, like a subscription service for instance. The easiest way to find out if it’s a good idea is to ask!

Post your idea on Twitter and ask for people’s thoughts. Reach out to friends and family (although I tend to find they always give bias positive feedback). Or best of all, if you have a gauge for who your target customer might be, give them a call or an email explaining your product and a little about it. It’s a great way to get some initial feedback from a potential customer (or discover they aren’t potential customers at all).

Some people take pause at this approach. “What if someone steals my idea?” is one of the most common reactions. And certainly not an invalid concern. There are lots of opinions about this, ranging anywhere from “ideas don’t equal success, execution does” to “people are too busy working on their own ideas to care about yours” to the always uplifting “your idea probably isn’t as great as you think it is”.

Of course, if you truly feel like your idea is at risk of being stolen, file for a patent. It’s not for the faint of heart, and I would only recommend it to someone who is very sure it’s an idea worth pursuing, but that’s why patents exist.

However, I say lean into sharing and discussing your idea. I’ve found the more I share, the more perspectives and insights I receive, which in turn only helps strengthen the final concept. If no one seems interested, or I find the concept isn’t quite as useful as I once thought, I table it and move onto the next idea. But I’ve never found any harm is seeing what others think of your idea (although occasionally you do need to have thick skin).

A word of warning

It's important to note that not all advice is equal. Be open to all feedback, but don't be afraid to discard suggestions that don't fit with your idea. You can't create a solution for all things, so take notes, say thanks, and use what you think is valuable, ignoring what doesn't help strengthen your core vision.

This is one of the most important skills of an entrepreneur, the ability to recognize what will and will not improve the overall product or business.

Join their community

If you’re not sure where to find people to ask about your idea, seek out the communities where they reside. Facebook groups, Slack or Discord channels, website forums, outside grocery stores, your parents’ friends, wherever!

If you’re looking to create a product that will eventually be used by people (so almost every product), this is an extremely crucial step. You need to know where to find potential users. The old saying “build it and they will come” doesn’t necessarily hold true when building something like a SaaS platform. So spend some time discovering exactly who and how you’ll reach those people.

Perform a survey

Another great method for validating not just your idea, but your customer demographic, is a survey. Create one for free on a service like Typeform and share it various places, ideally where your target demographic reside.

Run Ads

This idea I’ve only done once, but it yielded some mildly worthwhile results.

The idea is to create a landing page that briefly explains what solution you’re solving or improvement you’re developing and allow people to submit their contact info (typically an email) to stay updated.

Then, figure out the one or two phrases someone might search for who would be looking for your product. Something like “print intagram photos” or “sms campaign platform”. Toss some money at an ad platform (Google Ads, Facebook Ads, etc) to drive some traffic to your landing page and see if anyone signs up.

I have some mixed feelings about this solution as it can get pricey, but depending on what you’re building, might be a cheap validation method in the long-term.

Build in public

A popular trend is being transparent throughout your building process. It’s essentially live-tweeting everything you’re step you’re taking. Certainly not for the faint of heart.

The nice aspect is you get feedback at every step of the process, and build interest which hopefully coverts to customers down the line when you launch.

It can also keep you accountable when building something that isn’t able to be finished in a few hours.

Ask for money

An opinion I heard a long time ago was an idea isn’t validated until someone pays you for it. Meaning that talk is cheap, so have your customers put their money where their mouth is.

There’s a few ways to practice this concept, but one I’ve used is to explain the product to someone, before I’ve built it. Then ask them to pay for it right then and there. If they do, I know it’s worth pursuing more.

Conclusion

Overall, the important thing to remember is that there are multiple paths to decide if an idea if worth your time. Feel free to adapt, combine, or ignore any of the suggestions or techniques I’ve outlined above. However, the key takeaway I hope you do walk away with is that validation can be a very useful, timesaving technique.

Taking just a day or two to validate some hypotheses can save you lots of frustrations and wasted hours down the road.

Do you have a technique you really like? Or any other comments or feedback? Please feel free to reach out to me at hello@matthewhoelter.com. It really does mean a lot when I hear back from readers.

Thanks, and happy building!