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Validating Your Product Idea With Existential Questioning

John Doherty —  April 10, 2013
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I have interviewed a few well-regarded entrepreneurs in the past couple of months, and out of those have come the common vein of “Is the problem you are solving worth your life?”

Entrepreneurs are ideas people. We think a lot, we try to optimize our lives to find better ways of being. We are known for being eccentric, disciplined, and sometimes a bit unsatisfied with life. This way of being has very real challenges and benefits.

One challenge is that we can set out to build something that will potentially make us money, but at the end of the day we are not passionate about it and therefore are almost destined to fail from the beginning.

As David Haskell (interview coming next week) told me, “When you start a new venture, you are committed to it for at least 3 years usually. That can easily turn into a decade. We all have about four decades of work to our life. Is what you’re working on worth that?”

I’ve heard multiple VCs talk about being pitched the same idea multiple times. The most commonly used example is “a social network for pet owners.” Aside from it being a terrible idea, this is also a great example of a problem that probably very few people are actually passionate enough about to spend years solving (if it’s even a problem in the first place).

How Do You Know?

Let me tell you a story. When I was 13 years old, I started drawing a design that I liked. It was a Celtic cross with flames around the edge and writing over top. I drew the design so many times that it became engrained in my head. I would tell my parents that I wanted to get it as a tattoo when I was old enough, to which they said “Draw it, put it in a drawer, and don’t look at it for a year. If you still want it after a year, then you know it’s a good idea.” I don’t know how they knew this, since neither of them has tattoos, but I did just what they said.

Years later (finished when I was turning 22), I had this on my back:

cross-tattoo

A problem worth solving, or idea worth building, is one that you can’t stop thinking about. How this comes about will vary, but in my experience manifests itself as:

  • A lightbulb moment that won’t go away
  • A problem you’ve had for a long time that you wish you had a solution for

Validating The Idea

When I interviewed Dan Martell back in February, he said this:

Here’s the filter, and people always say you have to have goals. It’s not, ask yourself, are you worthy of your goals. It’s ask yourself, is your goal worthy of your life? I don’t get today back. I’m going to work on Clarity. If I’m not super-passionate about Clarity, I’m wasting my time, and I don’t get it back. I take that seriously. I want to work on problems that I feel it would be an honor to invest my life into that problem, and no matter what happens, if it’s good or bad, I know that I tried, and I had a lot of fun doing it, and that’s my filter for starting companies today. And it has to have a big impact.

After you’ve decided that this is something you can look back on and be proud of spending your life on, next you need to validate the idea with the people you want to pay you.

Don’t Build Yet

If you have an idea, start telling others about it. Especially start telling people who you could see turning into customers, and gauge their reactions.

A point of note: don’t be afraid that someone is going to steal your idea. Truth is, most people are lazy and won’t build your idea. Very few people exist who will actually go and steal your idea, so don’t be afraid of talking about it. If you are not talking about your idea, you have no way of knowing if the way that you are thinking about it is correct.

I recently launched a new project. During the vetting phase of it, I was shooting emails back and forth with a peer in the industry that I respect. Long story short, through the course of the conversation I realized that I was thinking about my business model all wrong. If I had never had this conversation, I would still be wrong about the business and not nearly as far along.

Get The First Payment

Another thing Dan told me was to get the first payment as soon as possible. A lot of people will say that they would pay for something, but when it comes down to it few will actually do so. So push them to do so. Provide the value and then ask for payment.

If they pay you, you know that you have a winning idea. I took the first money I got from my idea and used it to buy a domain name and hosting. And I still had extra money in my pocket.

Now Build

Once you’ve validated your idea, build the first version of your product. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but it should be functional and have the basic functions (if you want people to sign up, build that functionality first. If you want to process payments, that’s a feature you need built in from the beginning).

Sometimes your MVP will not get traction, and that’s ok. You haven’t dedicated a ton of resources and time to building it at this point. If you do get traction, though, then go build your focused product and keep gaining traction.

Your Life

We have a finite amount of time on Earth. Don’t waste time building something you’re not going to be proud to be part of, or to give up other things for.

At the end of the day, I believe that whatever you’re doing should be something you’d be willing to do for free. You do it in your free time, on the weekends, and on airplanes. You think about it in the restroom.

You stick with it, and eventually you catch a break. Make it worth your life.

Geraldine did:

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John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

6 responses to Validating Your Product Idea With Existential Questioning

  1. Anthony Pensabene April 10, 2013 at 11:48 am

    like this, especially the last sentiment of not doing something you’re not proud of – i learned that lesson by taking a few on the chin, and i’m wiser for the bruises.

    also, yep, who cares if someone is trying to ‘steal your idea’ or ‘do what you’re doing.’ Cream’s risen since the beginning of time – it’s mathematics…

  2. I have experienced the light bulb turn on and then having that moment last and last and keep me awake and distract me from everything else. That is a life changing experience. Getting the first payment is critical too. You can have a logo, site, business license, and have it mean absolutely nothing. Sales are everything for a new business. Great post John!

  3. “A point of note: don’t be afraid that someone is going to steal your idea.”

    I had an entrepreneur approach me once to set a meeting in order to review his internet marketing strategy for a new business. I set the meeting and asked some preliminary questions via email. He told me it would be best if we didn’t talk so much about the actual idea because he didn’t want it to be out in the public.

    I canceled the meeting immediately. I cannot understand the amount of entrepreneurs that value the idea as much or more than the actual execution. You pretty much nailed it with: “Truth is, most people are lazy and won’t build your idea.” But even further than that, fear of market competition where the barrier to entry is the idea itself tends to indicate that it isn’t a great business model in the first place.

  4. Definitely agree that you have to be working on something you are proud of. I think it is a lot trickier to find ideas you are passionate about that have real money making potential. I know people doing well with businesses that do not excite them from a product or service perspective, but the money making aspect is enough to give them the required drive.

  5. Is that the tetragrammaton ?