There’s an old saying about how overnight successes usually take years. On the flip side, every bet that is made on the sheer gut instinct of a product idea is just that — a bet. History only remembers the winners, and we remember them as overnight successes. The failed product ideas — of which there are exponentially more — never get a second thought. That’s why it’s a “dustbin” of history.
Every good entrepreneur is a bit of a maverick. Every good CEO is a bit of a gambler. But there are several ways to figure out if you’re trying to invent the next big product thing or just churning out a future pile of ashes for the historical heap.
Validate the product, not the trend or the market
An entrepreneur came to my website with this question — Is it a good idea to seek out an emerging business trend and build a fake website to see if people will buy a product built out of that trend?
Holy crap, I don’t know. Maybe? But that sounds to me like all it will do is validate the trend, not give you a green light to build a product people want.
Understand, she wasn’t asking me if she should do this, she was asking if it makes sense to follow the money trail at the idea stage to see if the idea is worth pursuing as a business.
But even then, I don’t think the fake website is the right way to go. Much like I’m not a fan of Kickstarter or any of the pre-release purchase programs disguised as investments, the money those programs generate just validate the marketing, not the product.
I do have a way to begin to validate the product if I can access the market, and I do this with potential new features every once in a while. I’ll throw out some pre-release information about this new feature to the existing or potential customer base and ask them for their thoughts and input into the new feature. About half the time, I’ll get silence back, absolutely no response whatsoever.
When that happens, I know I’ve got a loser on my hands, and I don’t move forward, at least not right away. Sometimes this lack of response is telling me it’s too early, but it might be valid down the road. But either way, I know it’s not a winner today, so I move on. The good news is when there’s that kind of disinterest, no one remembers that the new feature never went live.
Talk to potential customers as if the product was available soon
The best data you’re going to get on a non-existent product is to talk to potential customers of that product. Again, with a new feature on an existing product, this is not that difficult, although you’d be surprised at how few companies actually do this.
You know that moment when one of your favorite products rolls out a new feature that’s terrible and you ask yourself, “Who actually wanted this?” The answer is probably some VP at the company who could make it happen without talking to customers.
When you don’t have an existing potential customer population, you need to tap someone else’s. If you’ve got an idea for something truly new (or even not that new), you’re going to have incumbents, and those incumbents will have customers who are probably dissatisfied with that incumbent’s product. They’re probably dissatisfied for the very reasons your idea seems like a winner. Go find them and talk to them.
And here’s an added bonus, the more quickly you can put together this group and the more interested they are in talking to you, the more likely it is that you’ve got an easily addressable market.
This is where you can put some of that “fake site” validation to work, but in a good way. Be transparent, but talk to them as if your product will indeed exist very soon. You want to do this because unseating an incumbent is probably the hardest thing to do. If you ask me to swap out my music app for a better one, I’ll gladly tell you that I would do it in a heartbeat. But if you put a real choice in front of me, I’ll actually be honest and tell you all the reasons why I just don’t have the time to consider your magic new music app.
Listen to those reasons. The answer to your product validation question is buried in those reasons.
Make a market of enthusiasts
This takes a while and it’s not easy, but if you do it right, you’ll be light years ahead when you do actually build your product.
Create a campaign to collect enthusiasts around your solution. It could be some of those dissatisfied incumbent customers. It could be people who love the thing around the problem your solution tackles. Present them with all of the research you’ve done and are doing around your product and why it’s a good idea and the right time. Let them talk about it.
This could be a Facebook group or some other kind of social group. It could be a blog or a newsletter. It could be a virtual meetup. However you put it together, what you’re creating is a slice of that potential customer base that you can tap to validate the product using either method I’ve just talked about.
What’s more is this group, and people like them, will be your initial early market. And you’ll already know what they want.
Build a pilot MVP
You don’t have to build all of your product, maybe you can just build a little bit of it.
I talk about the pilot MVP a lot. It’s my own term for a product that is 90% or more manual on the back end where the customer isn’t concerned.
For a simple example, let’s say you wanted to test Uber as a product today. You could use no-code to build an app that just sent a customer’s location to you via Slack, where you and a bunch of your friends are waiting to send them a Venmo request to collect money, and then get in your car and go get them.
Without getting too far into the details of a pilot MVP, this method will help you validate your product core without having to build all of the machinery to market it, sell it, execute it, and support it.
This should never be the final version of your product. In fact, you have to be really good at building to be able to evolve a pilot MVP into a real MVP and then into a real product without stopping the whole program and starting over. But the pilot MVP will give you the signals you need to understand if you’ve got something worth building.
Start a partnership
This is the hardest to pull off, but if the situation calls for it, think about working with a third party to produce part or all of your product on demand. Again, this works best if you already have a market to address with a new product.
A while ago, at one of my startups, we actually started offering another company’s product pre-partnership, with their permission. We offered it to our customers “powered by [other company]” to see if it would sell, then engaged with that company to serve our customers in a white glove manner. When we realized that worked, we formalized the partnership with the other company and shared revenue. Then eventually we offered a version of that product ourselves.
It’s hard to pull off because you could wind up in direct competition with the partner. But like I said, sometimes the situation calls for it. In our case, it worked out because the product we ended up building was markedly different than our partner’s and more suited to our customers, but we still brought our partner a ton of new business that they kept.
We could have taken on our partner, or even acquired them, but the partnership was also an opportunity to realize we needed to build something different.
There are a few more of these pre-build validation methods, and you can (and should) come up with a version that’s uniquely suited to your idea. The main thing to remember is that none of these methods allow for overnight success. But what you will get is lasting success.
Joe Procopio is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. He is currently the Chief Product Officer at Spiffy, on-demand vehicle care and maintenance startup. In 2015, he sold Automated Insights to Vista Equity Partners. In 2013, he sold ExitEvent to Capitol Broadcasting. Before that, he built Intrepid Media, the first social network for writers. You can read more and sign up for his newsletter at www.joeprocopio.com