Your great idea for a product might not be so great after all.
Rather than pour butt loads of money and time you can’t get back after a bad product, you’d be better off knowing whether or not to even try. That’s what product validation is all about, and you can and should do it without spending any money.
Despite what Steve Jobs said about customers not knowing what they need until you show them, product validation is all about learning whether your product idea makes sense to potential customers.
Your product must make sense to at least those who are early adopters. When you introduce your product to your target customers, they should understand it and immediately be able to see themselves using it.
1. Are there others like it?
Lately, many apps are describing themselves as the “Uber of ___”, seeking understanding and validation by showing potential customers that their product has an Uber-like quality of crowdsourced on-demand service.
Pro tip: First off, if you people start describing your product as “the Uber of…” or “the Airbnb of…” it’s probably not going to be as successful as you might hope.
Look around. Does your product have competition? Are there other products similar to it, even if only through how they work even if not in the same exact industry?
If there are other products similar to yours, yes, the competition may be tougher. But the marketplace has already been familiarized to the concept and your product may not have to spend as much time fighting to get customers to understand it.
Start your product validation by seeing if there are other similar products, either in niche or functionality, already available. See if you can’t give your potential customers something better than what already exists.
2. What do the trends say?
You should be paying attention to trends, both in your industry and similar products, as well as in how people are using technology and their preferences that might affect your product.
For example, the rise of MOOCs has normalized a certain online approach to learning. You don’t have to convince people they can learn online — that’s been done, and that trend is established. What you can pay attention to are trends within that larger trend. Do people want to take online classes on a schedule, or on their own terms? Are videos or podcasts more popular for learning? What price are people willing to pay for online classes? How can you monetize, besides ads?
Your product is validated by how it fits into current trends. Pay attention to things like blogs or industry publications to understand what the trends are.
3. Have you told anyone about it?
Ideas are precious things that we don’t like to share with people because we’re afraid they’re going to throw a wet blanket on our enthusiasm, or maybe steal the idea. But when you keep ideas in your head, they always sound so much better than they really are. There are no naysayers in your head, poking holes in your flawed theories.
Talk to people about your idea. Interview potential customers, or those who would be in your product’s target market. The more you talk about your idea, the better it will become. It will become more refined, both through critique and suggestion.
By talking to potential customers, you’ll know pretty quick-like whether your product makes any sense. The trick to talking to customers (and anyone, really) about your product is to not take it personally. Really listen. Take notes. Don’t be defensive if your cool features seem confusing. Be willing to gut your idea if that’s what ends up happening.
4. Did you write copy before you wrote code?
Before diving into code, you need to get some copy down.
This copy might include:
- Landing page copy to create buzz
- Elevator speech of what your product is/does
- Small, middle, and long copy describing your product
- What need or problem the product solves
- Who the target customer is
- How it fits into its niche/industry
- How you will build the product
- How you will make money off of the product
This copy is both for potential customers and investors, and for you.
Before you start writing code, you must write copy. If you can’t explain the product in your own words clearly, you certainly aren’t ready to start coding.
5. Have you given out samples?
There’s a reason free samples make sense for new products. They reduce the barrier for customers to try something they don’t know. Samples, or smaller, inexpensive versions, remove the fear of investing a lot of money in something unfamiliar.
Blogger Pat Flynn uses food trucks as a great example. Flynn points out that many food truck owners actually want to own their own restaurant someday, but starting with a food truck is a way to both introduce customers to their food (and hopefully build a fanbase for the restaurant) as well as earn money and get a bit of experience and taste for what food service entails with low overhead.
CoSchedule, an editorial calendar app, released free downloadable paper versions of editorial calendars as they were building their app. These paper versions had a similar look and feel to the eventual app, and they both garnered goodwill and trained potential customers to start thinking of calendars in a way that the app was going to build on.
Can you make a smaller version of your product? Can you introduce some key aspect of your product to potential customers in an introductory way? Can you create something with no/low budget that would give people a taste of what your product is before investing extreme amounts of money and time?
6. Have you considered crowdfunding?
Flynn suggests trying crowdfunding to see if your product is valid. This works in two ways: your product’s validity, and your ability to communicate your product idea.
If you can’t raise the money, it’s a decent sign that your product idea isn’t valid, or that you don’t understand it well enough to sell it yet. Crowdfunding relies both on the idea and
how you present and sell it to potential investors.
Crowdfunding, such as with Kickstarter, is tricky; you need to be careful that you set reasonable goals both financially and what you promise to deliver those who decide to fund. Crowdfunding done poorly is a good way to destroy a good idea and create negative buzz for both you and your product whether it was valid or not.
7. Have you tried to create buzz?
Apps will often create landing pages describing what their product will do, and the only call-to-action available is for potential customers to leave their email for future product updates. The beauty of this approach is that you can talk about your product on social media and in other promotional formats, pointing people back to the landing page.
You can engage with potential customers, and hear what they have to say about your idea. You can measure how much buzz and interest there is, and start an email list, without having to build the actual product.
A great example of this is The Grid, an artificial intelligence website creator. Though The Grid is taking money, they are, essentially, using a landing page without offering any actual product just yet. They described what the product is, what it does, and the problems it solves. Adding a customer counter above the fold has added impressive social proof. If their product idea didn’t take root, they could refund the money.
8. Have you participated in a startup event?
For most, pitching your product idea at startup events is both scary and helpful. You’ll learn about what it really takes to make a product idea happen, what it feels like to have your great idea bomb, and how to handle feedback.
These kinds of events are like a microcosm of what happens out in the real world, but without the thousands and millions of dollars and months of time. Find an event or opportunity to work with other entrepreneurs or startups, and give your idea a run. And again, be open to critique.
9. Have you surveyed your audience?
Talking to potential customers, friends, and other entrepreneurs is an initial step, but as you move along through the product validation process, you’ll want to be more formal. Remember, product validation is about testing, and testing is a controlled system which lends itself to measurable results.
If your product idea seems to be be faring well, create a survey that will give you clear direction on how to proceed next, whether it involves clarifying an issue with your idea that previous discussions raised, or what kind of features you should scrap. For example, your approach may be to present a few versions of your product to see what the response is.
Product validation doesn’t have to break the bank. You can find out quite a bit about your product idea by research, surveys, and by slightly testing the water long before you commit to building a product for release.