You’ve come up with a startup idea, and you’re excited. This is going to be The Next Big Thing, you’re absolutely positive. You catch up with friends and family and bounce your idea off them. They agree you are onto The Next Big Thing. Yay!
Have you just done yourself and your friends a disservice? Often, sadly yes.
I have seen way too many crazy startup ideas get too far down the track, thanks to well meaning people supporting ideas, that frankly, have significant problems. What you need is customer validation; not platitudes from loved ones.
I’ve been guilty of doing this. I’ve also been on the receiving end.
Enter the topic of confirmation bias.
Your friend Sally wants you to remain positive and wants to see you succeed. She listens to your startup idea, you brimming with smiles and talking enthusiastically. Sally nods and agrees with your idea. However, deep down, Sally remains unconvinced. In some situations, she is actually thinking that this is the Next Big Dumb Thing.
You see, Sally doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. She doesn’t want to be the person who brings bad news. So it’s easier for Sally in a social setting to just agree, to keep you happy.
Problem is, Sally isn’t helping you at all, and you’re putting stress on Sally because now she feels guilty that she told you it was great, when she actually feels it isn’t.
Now, obviously not everyone is the same, however what you want to do is avoid the group-think mentality of people just agreeing with your thought processes.
Better ways to ask colleagues
One way to do this is before you explain your startup idea to someone, make sure to mention that there are no good or bad answers – you’re after as much feedback as possible, positive or negative. It all helps you as an entrepreneur.
It is also very wise to frame your questions differently.
For example, start by saying ‘I have an idea to improve shiny rockets. I’d love to hear your thoughts, but I want as much negative feedback as positive feedback’
Once you’ve given them a quick pitch on the idea, ask exploring (and not leading!) questions, such as ‘What do you like the most about this idea?’ and then follow up ‘What don’t you like about this idea?’
Make sure not to answer defensively either; a good way to shoot down someone’s freely given advice is to start saying ‘No, you’re wrong’, which is effectively what I hear when someone starts acting defensively.
Instead, say things such as ‘Oh, hey great point I hadn’t thought of that’ or if you had, say ‘Yes, that had crossed my mind. One way to tackle that is use shinier shiny things’. The shiny things bit may not work in your case.
It is fine to ask family and friends for thoughts, but ensure you balance that with feedback from further afield; and by further, I mean from people who aren’t emotionally connected to you.
How to validate with real customers
The startup world is full of talk about customer validation, and this often can feel like a huge step, but it doesn’t need to be.
First off, determine who you think is the ideal customer. This is the person who frequently suffers the problem you are out to solve. Say your shiny rocket idea.
The first step is to discover who is actually affected with this problem; what role do they play? Is it the engineers, the astronauts or the administration staff?
Find these customers in social connections
Then, make a list of people who you know that fit this customer persona. If you don’t know anyone in these roles, look for people you may know that could introduce you.
Using LinkedIn or Facebook, you can trawl through your contacts and try to find the right person, even someone who works in the rocketry field.
Run a very short survey
Another way to approach this, is to use a survey tool such as Google Forms or Typeform, and invite people by email or social to answer it. I’ve used this technique a few times to collect data, and it’s very handy. The good thing about this technique is that the recipient doesn’t feel pressure completing it, the con however is you aren’t able to change questions, based on the interviewees previous answers.
The above survey was great. I created it for free using Google Forms, and then using social, collected around 35 responses over a 24 hour period. It gave me great insight into how people feel, and I can now dig down using the next step.
The cold call technique
If not, try calling your nearest rocket manufacturer, and ask to be put through to someone in that role. It may feel daunting to pick up a phone and just call a stranger, however you’ll quickly find that most people are very happy to spend a few minutes to give advice.
Before you ask though, you need to contextualise it correctly.
Begin the conversation by saying something like “I’m not selling anything, I promise. I am thinking of creating something to help alleviate a specific problem that rocket manufacturers face. Can I ask a couple of questions? I promise it will be only five minutes of your time.”
Then, start by asking them if it really is a problem. “Do you have problems with dull rockets?” or “Is the shiny parts of a rocket important to manufacturers?”.
Make sure to follow my leading question advice from above too. A leading question is when you ask something in a way that encourages people to agree or disagree. Such as “Shiny rockets are a big problem, aren’t they?”. This question would be far better if phrased “Are shiny rockets an issue for you?”
Finally! Confidence in the feedback you’ve received
In no time at all, you’ll collect valuable thoughts around your startup idea, and you may discover that there is no problem there to fix, that the decision makers don’t value your proposed solution, or that you really have stumbled on to The Next Big Thing.
In any case, get feedback about your startup idea from further afar. Don’t spend lots of time or money building a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, or is undervalued by your target customers. Also consider looking at resources like the Handbook for Startups over on Elluminatiinc.com. These may help as well – good luck!
9 April 2017 at 1:30 am
Excellent post. These are great tips on how to avoid family and social bias, good work!
1 May 2017 at 11:20 am
Also some solid advice on interviewing people here: https://www.amazon.com/Running-Lean-Iterate-Works-OReilly/dp/1449305172