How to validate your product idea
What is idea validation?
Idea validation is the process of proving out the feasibility & success of your business idea, before investing the time/energy/money necessary to bring the business to the stage where it can support customers.
There's no sure thing when it comes to validation, especially since markets & customer needs change from time to time. What is a sure thing though is that taking the time to validate your business idea is a small price to pay for the confidence & peace of mind you get before you embark on this journey.
In my own process of validating + building GummySearch, I have personally talked to over 100 early stage founders who are validating, building, launching, and growing their own products.
Time and time again, I've seen 2 stories unfold. The founder that is so excited about their product idea that they build it without talking to anyone, only to be disappointed when nobody uses their product upon launch. And the founder that took the necessary steps upfront to validate their product and is rewarded with happy customers that are willing to purchase the product the second it becomes available.
This post contains all of my learnings & tips on this very crucial phase in any product marker's journey.
What happens if you don't validate your product idea?
It doesn't always end in tragedy. I've seen many products created from an inspired weekend of coding and launched into the ether. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head and are a smashing success. Yes it happens, but it's unlikely and you shouldn't rely on it.
A lot of the time, lack of validation leads to crickets and a trip to the "Valley of Despair". That's like the opposite of Disneyland for startup founders. It's a sad place filled with sadness & self-doubt, as the product maker slowly realizes that what they have spent their time building isn't actually needed by the world. Often times this realization takes a while, and the feeling of sunk cost causes the maker to continue to will the product into being useful, investing even more time into something that could go nowhere.
Should you validate your idea? In most cases, yes. The only times I'd recommend skipping this step are if you have existing experience in the market you're building for and the MVP could be built so quickly that you would spend less time making the product rather than finding potential customers to talk to at this stage.
Idea validation checklist
By now, you hopefully see that validation is a good idea if you're seriously considering bringing your idea to life.
The good news is that it probably won't actually take that much time to validate your idea. You just need to talk to the right people and ask the right questions.
There's no one process for idea validation, but here's the process that I've found to work based on my own experience, as well as the experiences from other product makers that I have spoken to.
1. Define the problem
Identify the problem you are solving and customer types you are solving for. It's really helpful to write this down, especially if you're evaluating multiple ideas at the same time because you know you're going to make something, but you just don't know what it is yet.
There could be multiple types of possible customer types that have the same problem, and that's fine as long as you can define who those customers are. It's better to niche down early and expand out later, rather than choose a customer segment that is too broad for you to be able to target consistently.
When documenting this, you should be focusing 95% on the problem you're solving and 5% on your solution, as the solution might change after you talk to people. If it does, that's actually good thing!
I fill out a problem/customer statement for every idea I seriously consider. Feel free to use it! Here's the template, and here is an example of it filled out.
2. Determine your biggest risks
When defining your idea, be honest with yourself about the risks by writing them out. Your main goal during idea validation is to disprove these risks with research & user interviews.
Product risk is the risk that you can't build your product. For example, building your product would require technical expertise that you don't have, or your product requires an API integration that isn't available to you. Hint: too many founders focus on product risk by building their MVP before talking to customers. Yes, product risk is real, but in most cases, you'll be able to build your product with enough time and should really focus on Market risk & Channel risks instead.
Market risk is the risk that nobody wants to pay for your product. This could be because the pain point your product solves isn't painful enough to toss money at it. Alternatively, the user could expect it to be free because Google offers the same product for free and there is not enough incentive for someone to use your product over Google's.
Channel Risk is the risk you won't be able to find the people that want to pay for your product, or those acquisition channels won't be cost-effective enough to make it worthwhile. This type of risk is often overlooked, and founders sometimes assume that if you "build it and they will come", but that's not really how it works, is it?
Take a big think about the biggest risks of your business idea. They will determine the questions you ask during your validation interviews.
3. Find your target audience
You're going to need to talk to some potential customers to make sure your solution solves their problems.
The customer type definitions from #1 are crucial. Where do they hang out? Find their online communities and get comfortable, these communities will be a very helpful resource at every stage of your startup journey.
I've been keeping a curated list of the internet's best online communities. Check out the Hive Index for some inspiration of communities to join. For Reddit communities, you know the best tool for that ;)
The neat thing about using online communities to perform validation interviews is that you're not just validating your solution, you are also validating eventual distribution channels.
For now, you're going after conversations with your target customers. Eventually, these communities will bring you customers.
4. Request for interviews
Alright, you defined your problem, target customers, and you know where to find them. Great progress.
Now it's time to go talk to them! But how do you ask for something more valuable than money, how do you ask for someone's time?
Post in the community and ask for 30 minutes of their time. Don't mention your solution, but describe the problem you're solving and ask to talk to them if they encounter this problem in their day to day.
The "4 Make's" of requesting interviews:
- Make them curious
- Make it about them and not you
- Make sure they know it'll be worth their while
- Make them feel like experts
I see a lot of founders struggle with this, but really it's not terribly difficult if you're solving a real problem, and you've found the right target communities. If you're not getting interviews because one of those two isn't true, don't build, go back to your problem/customer definitions.
Here's the request for interviews I put out for GummySearch. I filled up my 10 interview slots in 6 hours, had some wonderful conversations with fantastic people, and still keep up with a lot of them to this day!
5. Do the interview
You've got your target customer on the phone and you want to validate that your product is worth building.
Rule #1 - don't mention your product! You won't get honest feedback.
Instead, ask them about their problems and how they currently solve them. Take each of the Product, Market, Channel risks you've defined, and ask the tough questions to disprove them.
For a great guide on talking to potential customers, read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.
You'll learn a lot about your customers's day to day, pain points, current solutions, and the things that matter most to them.
Your goal is to hear this: "I have this pain point, it's a huge thorn in my side, and I will pay handsomely for someone to solve this problem for me"
Some key question that I'd recommend including in your interview:
- "What are the emotions you feel when you come across this problem?"
- "How do you currently solve this problem?"
- "Have you tried __ (competitor name)? Why not?"
- "How would you quantify the money/time that this problem costs you?"
- "What kind of systems would you require an integration with to use a solution for this problem?"
6. Assess Feedback
Here's where the road splits depending on how your interviews went. I know one of them seems more appealing than the other, but if you've gotten this far they are really both good options.
Path A - Build, iterate, launch with confidence
You don't need to have 10 successful validation interviews to go down this path.
But you do need to see a pattern:
- The same pain points expressed
- Folks willing to pay to solve pain points
- They come from distribution channels you can rely on
Congrats, you've validated your idea enough to confidently build your product. There will still be many uncertainties with your business, but at least you know that you have a problem on your hands that people will pay you to solve for them.
More likely than not, you've picked up some new information about your customers that you didn't know before. This can help you determine your product roadmap, systems you need to integrate with, or additional distribution channels.
Path B - Solve another problem
So you did your interviews and it turned out that:
- The problem you solved isn't a real problem
- People wont pay you to solve that problem
- There's a certain risk you can't disprove
Aren't you glad you learned this before you spent months building your product?
You don't need to ditch your idea entirely, small tweaks make a big difference. Maybe you discovered another pain point to solve when talking to your customers. Maybe you should explore other acquisition channels.
Iterate on the problem & solution, and find 10 more people to interview!
Validation is a continuous process
Talking to customers is unfortunately neglected by some product-focused founders, and often leads to their demise. Don't visit the valley of despair, it's not such a great place.
This applies to not just your initial product offering, but future ones as well. You could be exploring a new product feature, positioning, or distribution channel, and doing so in a vacuum has it's risks.
Talking to customers at every stage of your product journey is a worthwhile investment to ensure you are keeping up with the market and investing your precious product development time well.