“Fall in love with the problem not the solution.” – Uri Levine, Co-founder of Waze

So you have a great idea for a startup. After all, that is where every successful entrepreneur begins.

Maybe you’ve been thinking about your idea for a while – quietly planning to take over the world from your basement. Or, perhaps your idea landed in front of you one day, and you can’t believe you didn’t think of it sooner.

Either way, your next steps will be crucial.

How do you know if your idea has potential? Here’s a hint: relying on your gut instinct may work (but, it’s more likely that relying on a feeling alone will lead to failure). You’ll never be 100 percent sure your idea will be successful; however, there is one thing you can do to increase your odds: validate.


Start with the Basics

Let’s begin with the basics: an idea is not a startup. Too many entrepreneurs just run with their idea, and before you know it, they’re buying swag, setting up social accounts and calling themselves CEOs. While this is a wonderful way of motivating your team and building some awareness, it’s not where you should spend most of your time during the early stages of your startup journey.

Creating a product or launching a startup based solely on an idea often wastes time and money. Before you put your head down and start building your minimum viable product (MVP) – or even worse, a final product – you must validate whether there is an actual need for your solution.

Validating your idea is about asking the right questions. Instead of asking if your product can be built, ask whether it should be built. In other words, is your solution the right fit for the problem you’re trying to solve?

You probably can’t answer that right now, and that’s alright. That means it’s time to start validation.


Your Mindset Matters

It’s important for entrepreneurs to have a customer- and problem-focused mindset when they explore a business idea. You’ll probably hear the phrase “fall in love with the problem, not the solution” often when you start researching and learning about validation.

Here’s what that really means:

  • Forget your solution (I know, easier said than done).
  • Think about the  problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Focus on the customer experiencing the problem.
  • Become an expert on both the customer and the problem.

Before you proceed with your idea, ask yourself these three questions to help you pinpoint the problem:  

  • What problem are you solving?
  • Who are you solving the problem for?
  • Are you passionate about the problem, or are you an industry subject matter expert?


What is Validation?

Now that you have a problem-centric mindset and approach to the validation process, it’s time to dig further into what validation actually is, and, well, what it’s not.

According to Content Marketing Consultant and Entrepreneur, Ryan Robinson, validation is not only a step-by-step process, it is also a way of thinking. Robinson says validation provides “reasonable certainty” on whether a business will have sustainable growth in the near future, instead of spending months or years building a product customers won’t buy. Validation typically results in obtaining pre-orders or waiting list subscribers of people who would pay for the initial version of your product or your MVP.

Robinson also states what validation isn’t – it is not an easy process and it definitely doesn’t promise success. He says it isn’t as simple as creating a landing page or waiting list and hoping people find it and agree to pay for it. The most important thing to remember is that validation is not a step to be skipped when launching a startup.


Validation = Experimentation

When you come up with an idea for a startup – especially if the idea isn’t inspired by your own experience – you’re making an assumption about a group of people who share a common pain point. Consider these assumptions as a part of your hypotheses. Validation is the process of experimenting to either prove or disprove your assumptions – or testing your hypothesis.

If you’re a math or science enthusiast, this equation may help you better conceptualize validation:

Assumption    +    Testing   =   Validation
(hypothesis)   +   (experiment)          

For examples of assumptions about a product, check out
this post on Medium about validating assumptions. The author recommends startups avoid the common assumption that states: “we think our users need the product we designed, and we’ll know we’re right if we build it and they use it.”

Start by brainstorming possible assumptions about your problem, customer and solution. A great exercise for this process is to tape some chart paper on the wall, grab some sticky notes and begin writing out every assumption that comes to mind. If you prefer more structure, the Lean Startup Machine created a validation board to help you as you validate your idea.

Source: https://www.leanstartupmachine.com/validationboard/

In our first edition of Volta Academy, program mentor, growth strategist and founder of Instratify, Ashley Greene explained how you can turn your assumptions into hypotheses by using the following frameworks:

Framework #1 – Jobs-To-Be-Done

Template: When I {problem trigger}, I want to {problem}, so I can {achieve/benefit}.

Example: When startup founders look for talent, they want to find candidates that understand the startup world, so they can onboard quickly and grow rapidly.

Framework #2 – Problem Constraint

Template: I believe {type of people} experience {type of problem} because of {limit or constraint}.

Example: I believe startup founders experience difficulty finding and onboarding talent because professionals often lack experience working for a startup.

Both frameworks result in forming a hypothesis, so it’s up to you to decide which one you use. Try both frameworks and see what works best for you. Ashley recommends that you come up with more than one hypothesis and to be as specific as you can.   


Time to Talk to Humans

You’ve outlined your assumptions, created your hypotheses, but what do you do next? Of course you know you need to validate your hypotheses, but how? Well, as the great Steve Blank once said, “get out of the building!”

Sure, you may be able to validate some of your assumptions and hypotheses based on secondary research, but you’ll never find all the answers by scouring reports and statistics looking for data that supports what you want to believe.

Eventually, you will need to start talking to actual humans. If you haven’t had much experience talking to people about your idea, it can be daunting to talk to family and friends – let alone strangers. A great way to begin is by creating a google sheet to track potential customers you may approach for an interview. Here’s an example of how Ryan Robinson tracks his leads – check out his free template if you want help getting started.

Source: https://www.ryrob.com/validate-business-idea/

When building your list, you may be tempted to interview close friends and family first. While this can be a great way to gain confidence as an interviewer, you may not receive honest feedback. Your friends and family want you to succeed and are more likely to tell you what you want to hear. Instead, look for people who represent your ideal customer.

If your startup is selling to other businesses (B2B), you don’t want to interview John Smith from down the street who has never owned or operated a business before. That said, if you’re B2B, you may want to interview people in an organization who would be the users, as well as the people who would make the decision to buy your product to get a variety of perspectives.

Once you have a list, it’s (almost) time to start interviewing potential customers. Before you rush to schedule interviews, consider how and what you will ask. It’s important to remember that the people you’re trying to interview are probably just as busy, if not more busy than you.

In Ashley’s Volta Academy session, she offered some advice for structuring interview questions. She says that interview questions should be open ended and that you ask “why” at least two to three times for each answer. Ashley also provided examples of the type of questions that will help you get the information you need as efficiently as possible. Here are a few questions she recommended for customer interviews:  

  • Tell me about how you do X today?
  • What products/apps/tricks do you use to get X done today?
  • What is your single biggest challenge with X right now?
  • If you needed recommendations on X, where would you go?
  • Walk me through a typical day where X happens.
  • If you could wave a magic wand and do anything that you can’t do today to help solve X, what would it be? Doesn’t matter if it’s realistic!
  • Is there anything else I should have asked about ____________?

You should aim to be as efficient as possible when contacting someone for an interview. If you’re reaching out through email, be sure to keep it brief – especially if it’s a cold email.

There are a number of email templates and how-to guides available online, but here’s what you want to remember when contacting strangers for interviews:

  • Ensure your tone is polite, professional and personal (your message shouldn’t look like it has been copied and pasted a dozen times).
  • Ask for a short conversation (never request more than 15 to 20 minutes of their time – if the interview goes over the allotted time, be sure to check to see if they are alright with continuing).
  • Make scheduling the interview as frictionless as possible (ask if you can send them a link to your calendar so they can pick a time that works best for them).

: When you conduct interviews, it’s important to record and transcribe them. This will help when you go back to uncover any trends or insights that came up during the interviews.


Next Steps

Validation is an essential activity for every startup. Founders should look to incorporate validation processes into every phase of a startup’s lifecycle. Whether you’re just beginning to explore an idea, or you’re adding a new feature to your product, validation can help you avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes.

If you’re ready to go from big idea to viable tech-focused startup, the Volta Academy program is for you. You’ll learn from experienced entrepreneurs, who will share their expertise on topics like customer validation, design thinking, pitching and more. Apply for the next Volta Academy by January 17, 2018.

Also published on Medium.

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