Yes, but who said they’d actually BUY the damn thing?

This is Part 3 of the series: 5 lessons from 150 startup pitches.

your-mom-not-test-market

Of hundreds of startup pitches at Capital Factory, almost none had unearthed 10 people willing to say, “If you build this product, I’ll give you $X.”

Meditate on this: Hundreds of people ready to quit their day jobs, burn up savings, risk personal reputation, toil 70 hours per week, absorb as much stress as having a baby (believe me, I’ve done both)….  all without identifying even ten measly people actually willing to pay for what they’re peddling.

Short-sighted, no?

If you can’t find ten people who say they’ll buy it, your company is bullshit.

Aren’t you sick of every startup blogger on Earth badgering you about this? Steve Blank says “get outside the building,” Eric Ries says “seek validated learning,” Sean Ellis says “seek product/market fit,” Drew Houston says “the only way to learn on a $0 budget is to talk to people.”

I say “find ten people who say they’ll buy.” I say “get off your ass and produce hard evidence that customers are in your future light cone.”

But you’re still not listening. You repeat these mantras at Lean Startup Meetings but you’re not doing it.

You’re understandably scared of been proved wrong, especially now that you’re all worked up about the new business idea, and extra especially after you’ve already told friends and family you’re doing this and they’re expecting you to complete your quest.

But jeez people, you’re not even trying. And worse, you’re inventing lame excuses for why you’re not trying.

Full power to forward shields y’all, I’m coming for you.

“I’m scratching my own itch. Since I’m my own target customer, I already know what to build.”

Oh! I didn’t realize your typical customer is observant enough to recognize monetizable pain, creative enough to invent products, able to convince others to work for free and invest money and time with you, and passionate enough to quit her job to pursue unproven ideas.

Fooey! By definition, if you’re a startup founder you’re explicitly not your customer.

“Scratching your own itch” is how all three of my companies started, but it’s only that — the start. It’s the spark of inspiration, not the strategy. It’s the grain of sand tickling the oyster, not the pearl.

Look! Smart people agree:

“Be a user of your own product. Make it better based on your own desires. But don’t trick yourself into thinking you are your user.”  Evan Williams, founder Blogger & Twitter

“If the VP of Engineering thinks the target customer is just like him/her, you’re doomed.  If the VP of Marketing thinks the target customer is just like him/her, you’re doomed.”  Cranky Product Manager

“Our customers did a lot of stuff that I would never do. We think differently. We solve our problems differently. We have different needs and wants. Repeat after me: You are not your customer.”  Eric Ries, Lean Startup leader (repeating a conversation with a startup founder)

In fact I challenge you to find one founder of a real business who thinks “I’m the customer” is the only market validation you need.

“There are millions of potential customers, so it doesn’t matter what only ten of them think. I need to just start; later I can survey and learn something statistically significant.”

If there are millions, it’s trivial to find ten. If you can’t find even ten, then either there’s not millions or those millions aren’t interested in you.

Businesses don’t start with millions of customers, they start with one, then ten, then a hundred, and then a thousand. But most don’t get past ten.

If you haven’t gotten ten to at least say they’ll buy, where do you get your hubris to proclaim that thousands actually will buy?

“My customers can’t understand mock-ups. I have to build it first.”

You shouldn’t need screenshots or PowerPoints to convince someone in your target market that what you’re doing is compelling. If your concept is so esoteric that you can’t describe it in 30 seconds at a cocktail party, it’s either too complex or you don’t understand it yourself.

Take me and WP Engine. I got thirty people to tell me they’d pay $50/mo for this service before I had a company name, a website, a product, a co-founder, or an employee. And don’t say it’s easy for me because I’ve done this before — the full story is that I had other ideas which proved to be crap.

Even if I concede that sometimes you need a mock-up, and that some folks can’t grok mock-ups, remember that your first customers will by definition be early-adopters who are OK with alpha software. If you can’t find a few of those and get them excited about your product, maybe your product isn’t exciting.

“I suck at sales/marketing; I need to build a product so compelling it sells itself.”

The world is filled with decent products that make no money. You know this!

Oh fine, you want empirical evidence? Here’s a list of the top 100 Twitter clients, and here’s some more. Now:

  • How many do you suppose are decent pieces of software that basically work?  (My guess: 80%)
  • How many do you suppose produce any revenue?  (My guess: 5%)
  • How many do you suppose produce enough revenue that, after hosting and marketing expenses, they result in a profitable company where the owner doesn’t need a day job?  (My guess: <1%)

Conclusion: If your goal is a business (not a hobby), building charming, novel software isn’t enough.

You and I know you have the ability to build cool new software. We agree that will be fun and exciting. But that’s not going to create a business.

Writing code is what you love, so you myopically decide that’s what you’ll do. But what you should do is just the opposite: Attack the part of the business you’re least sure of, you’re least qualified for.

If you’re still not convinced, think of it as project risk management. In a big software project do you tackle the high-risk, ill-defined stuff first, or do you postpone that to the end? Obviously you address the unpredictable stuff first — most of the project risk is due to the unknown, so the earlier you can sort out uncertainty the more time you have to deal with the consequences.

I’m making the same argument, except the “high-risk unknown” is “everything that’s not code.” Your code will be good enough; it’s the other stuff that will probably sink your ship — unable to find customers or unable to convince the target audience they should open their wallets.

No sense in postponing it.

“My friend/brother/co-worker/dentist thinks it’s a great idea.”

Your mother thinks you’re smart and good-looking, but that doesn’t mean I do.

It doesn’t matter what non-entrepreneurs think because they’re not versed product/market fit, squeezing blood from evanescent budgets, and using Facebook for advertising instead of sharing the latest FailBlog movie.

In fact it only barely matters what real entrepreneurs think, because they’re not expert in your problem domain, they might have outdated notions, they might be biased against certain ideas and technology, and they carry baggage from good and bad experiences (due as much to timing and luck as anything else).

The only thing that matters is that people are willing to give you money! Business “experts” can argue all day long that it makes no sense to buy shoes over the Internet, but as long as people give Zappos $1 billion per year, it doesn’t matter what experts say.

When ten people say they’ll give you money if you build this thing, that’s the only validation that counts.

What else?

What other excuses have you heard? Which excuses are you using now? Leave a comment and continue the conversation.

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  • http://trackjumper.com Damon Cali

    The only thing I would add is that those 10 people seem to be more reliable with high end products. That is, “I would totally pay $10 for that” is not as useful as “We’ll give you $10k per year if you build that”.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Remember it’s not 10 who say they would pay $10, but 10 who say they will pay when you built it. (It’s OK if they don’t in the end — it happens — but it’s not a rhetorical question!)

      • Paul

        Is it best to get a non-binding, written letter of intent to buy, or just go off your customers word

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

          Nah, just off their word. It’s not really sales, it’s that you’re trying to measure true intent, not just “that’s a nice idea.”

          Of course if you can get such a letter, more power to you!

          • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo Sanchez

            So is this what Ash Maurya refers to as Customer Discovery/Ideation? I just attended one of his “Bootstrapping a Lean Startup” workshops at TechRanch and was impressed at how he pointed out the same thing as you do with this blog post: He said, before you start building anything you need to go out and interview possible future clients to make sure that your idea solves a real problem, one that people will be willing to pay for.

            • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

              Yes that’s precisely it. In fact Ash is doing this right now with a new product idea, and he will tell you himself that you must deal with price right off the bat. Also Ash, like me, is not even a fan of freemuim, except in specific cases.

  • http://tabbles.net Andrea D’Intino

    EXCELLENT POST.

    I sense that most startups (specially those started in a garage/bedroom) are solely composed of engineers – who focus on “developing the optimal solution” while totally avoiding the question “what does people really need?”.

    We’re (the Tabbles team) are 3 guys: 1 developer, 1 marketing-monkey (me) and the third one is doing (part-time) legal/finance/administrative things.
    I’m still amazed by how my goal of following/hitting/creating the trend is so different from my partners’ goal of hitting the optimal solution… but still we’re happy of doing the crazy stuff we do and often agree on disagreeing and discuss all sorts of compromise.
    Sales&Marketing and Development reside in 2 different universes really sit in 2 different galaxies – but still they can’t do without each other!

    GREAT GREAT POST HERE :-)
    (thanks, A.)

    • http://www.tttp.eu xavier

      “what does people really need?”

      Actually, that wasn’t the question. The question is “what people really are willing to pay”.

      Open your closet, check your CC statment. How many do you “need” ? Where are the needs they fulfill on the maslow’s pyramid?

      They are tons of products that fails even even when they fulfill a need, and a rather long list that are successful with a need that deserves to be written with quotes around.

      The need matters as long as the buyer is rational. Hint, If your product aims at human beings, the rationality is quite subjective.

      X+

      P.S. and yes, I need a pony.

  • http://none Gady

    “People will steal my idea”

  • http://www.cleverkoala.com/ Mike Lewis

    Brutal insight, but something everybody needs to hear. Everyone that reads this blog anyways.

    If you’re not willing to push outside of your comfort zone when there’s really nothing to lose (besides pride), how are you going to do it when real money is on the line later?

  • http://www.readwritehack.com Evan Jacobs

    I think that most people see the powerful counter examples when deciding to forgo the advice to “find customers before building”.

    For example, who were the first 10 customers who said they would “buy” what Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. were selling? How would products/companies like these get built if they didn’t even figure out what they were selling until well after they were built?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Companies like those have an atrocious success rate. 9 out of 10 fail, and those are the ones VCs thought were good enough to fund — far more don’t get funded and also fail.

      If those odds sound good to you, then try it!

      • Anonymous

        I love those odds :-)
        I started reading various blogs and it seems to me there are two types of startups:

        a) low-risk startups (like 80% chance of success if properly executed). Some don’t even like giving up their day jobs before they see some success.

        b) high-risk, believe in your idea, then try to sell it for a couple of million bugs startups.

        It seems that these two kinds of startups require totally different mind sets and personalities.

  • http://www.mostlymaths.net Ruben Berenguel

    Amazing.

    Back in high school, I had an optional course, just 10 weeks of “Economy”. Broad subject, and the teacher was to choose what we were taught. We were only 4 students, and we were taught several different things (“how stuff works”, more or less, I don’t remember most things by now, 12 years later). As a final assignment, we were to design a product and carry some surveys (we did around 40) asking how much would they pay and what the problems/advantages of it were. We even called a big newspaper asking how much advertisement did cost. We ran our numbers, and saw pretty quickly we were heading for bankruptcy :)

    I think it is sad that 15-ers like we were back then, were more prepared than grown ups about to leave their day jobs.

    Ruben

  • http://www.keybeam.com BobH

    Very wise post. I’d suggest that said another way, “Find Ten” is actually a positive presentation. Seth Godin – likely the smartest marketing guru on the planet – said it this way:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/04/first-ten-.html

    The counsel to be sure there’s a market before developing anything came to me from a multi millionaire. I would add one other perspective, please: There are very rare instances where what you’re trying to describe is so alien to the status quo that finding the first ten will be extremely challenging. It will only be after they “sneeze” to others that the sense of your solution will be stunningly obvious. BUT the odds are if you can’t find at least ten, the fantasy will fail.

  • http://www.thricearoundtheblock.com Edwin Oh

    Another great post Jason! Dead on again, as usual. In my own startups I’ve learned there is even a huge gap between people who are your target customers loving your idea vs actually opening their checkbooks. THAT’S when the interesting conversations happen!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Agreed. It’s amazing how infrequently “that’s a good idea” is coupled with “I’ll pay you for it.”

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com Mark Essel

    Guilty as charged.

    As much as I want to develop an incredible interface to sorted twitter entity imagery, then leverage captured information to construct deployable virtual agents, there’s no way in hell anyone’s going to pay me for that unless they’re a business that is already working in that area and wants to hire me (bah).

    Garagedollar.com on the other hand has a chance. Two people signed up, now to get eight more.

  • Frank

    Often times, when considering the future, people do not know what they need. So if you have enough vision you have to assess the trends in technology and stipulate future use cases based on these trends. Your goal then becomes to converge the future with the present at an understandable, useable, and semi-polished product. Why? Because your first users will be the minority techno early adopters. These are the people who will carry your product into the future and they are a critical bunch who will want something worth allocating some time away from all the other cool new tech out there.

    I say, go with your gumption. If you truly believe there is a sizeable market developing for your product, keep at it. There are many reasons why you may not find 10 users right away. The incarnation of your hypothesis might be flawed, broken or buggy. You might not have enough reach to get big players to experiment with your product and create a bandwagon effect. The best you can do is keep trying. Make sure you have something people “can” use and eventually they “will” use it. There is no better way to forecast the future than creating it.

  • Euwyn Poon

    How do you reconcile this approach with say, Twitter or Facebook? Not disagreeing, just curious.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Companies like those have an atrocious success rate. 9 out of 10 fail, and those are the ones VCs thought were good enough to fund — far more don’t get funded and also fail.

      If those odds sound good to you, then try it!

      Of course sometimes “just go and it works itself out” works, and it’s easy to pull 3-5 companies where that has happened. But what about the 100s or 1000s which failed?

      See the comment threads on HackerNews — this was discussed in more detail.

  • Vivek

    So what if your building a substitute to an already existing market ? Would that make a difference?

    Ie what if the answer to your question of “will you buy it” is something like: we use something similar but its not been working for us.

    In this case is the belief that your spin will be different and more compelling enough to start creating a prototype ?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      It isn’t different at all. The question is still, if you build this particular thing, will they pay you for that.

      In fact it might be easier if you’re displacing because the existing condition, pain, and costs are clearer.

  • http://www.thorobase.com Robin Howlett

    Should you also ask if they would use your product if it was free?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Great question. I believe intelligent people can disagree on this one — great points to be made on either side.

      Personally I believe “use it for free” is not sufficient. People who use things for free will have different needs than those actually willing to pay, and since there’s much more of the former than the latter, your feedback will be skewed in the wrong direction.

      That said, “take it if it’s free” is a good barrier to see if you can cross — if they won’t take it even for free, something is really wrong!

      Also early in life it can make sense for it to be free for your first 50 beta users, or something similarly limited where you’re trading money because they’re actively helping you out.

  • http://youcangoogleme Secret Artist

    “If you can’t find ten people who say they’ll buy it, your company is bullshit.” – it’s not true all the time – there are lots of startups that give their services for free and their business model build on advertising (model which i’m not a big fan off …) or building big platforms that gets lots of users and then other companies can sell them some bullshit …

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      No, that’s still the same.

      In those cases, “ten people who will buy it” means “ten people who agree to run ads at $X CPM.” Of course you have to get there, but now you’ve validated that the audience you’re targeting is valuable, and you know where to go to get revenue once you have some traction.

      Wouldn’t you agree that if you can’t find some advertisers who can agree to a trial CPM rate that you should question whether your audience is valuable to advertise to? Will it be any easier to get ads if you already had the audience?

  • jc craig

    I like this post. A dose of hard medicine on Monday? I also like to look at the demographic. Who, sight unseen, is buying: small businesses, doctors, lawyers, people who will spread the word? If you can get people to buy just based on your ad text and demo of your product, with no known relation to you (family or friends), or your “cult of personality”, then you may be on to something.

  • Joe Gold

    The post needs a modification.

    If you’re building an incremental product, please do ask 10 people.

    If you’re building a revolutionary product, build a prototype first, then ask 10 people. Otherwise people will just ask for horses with wheels.

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  • Jukka

    Are you speaking as a VC or as someone who (still) supports scratching your own itch just like you did?

    See, I’m yet another person who’s planning to get a business running by sort of scratching my own itch, but with an element of “my app will be better than X(YZ) because X(YZ)”, but even your post about Unfair Advantages sounded like I won’t have a chance.

    Find 10 people who say they _will_ pay for whatever I’m about to build? The thought never even crossed your mind back then, but do you think you could have done the same for your code review tool? Where would you have found the people?

    > If there are millions, it’s trivial to find ten. If you can’t find even ten, then either there’s not millions or those millions aren’t interested in you.

    Would you suggest we all look for the ten “pledges” much like we’d look for customers?

    What are our options?

    How about the way that’s often recommended and that surely works: write high quality content for your blog for years, thus getting a large number of followers, and you’ll have customers!

    – No? Not quite realistic?

    “Be a world-class expert in your field”?
    “Have famous people advertising you”?

    So what’s left? Asking people at your workplace? On the street? “Gee, that guy sure looks like he could use some time-tracking software!”

    > Oh fine, you want empirical evidence? Here’s a list of the top 100 Twitter clients

    Are you trolling us?

    You chose a “gold rush” -type of application as an example? A Twitter client isn’t all that difficult to make – hence the large number of them – and the market is _very_ saturated exactly because of that.

    How does a Twitter client differentiate itself and shine through all the crap to get customers? I’m sure a couple of them have succeeded, “Twitterific” comes to mind, but what about the rest? Do you think they didn’t succeed because they didn’t start by finding 10 buyers?

    What kind of results would you expect if you chose 100 random funny-noise-making-applications from the App Store? Surely they too would support your point about first making sure you’ll have customers and only then building your product.

    But choose 100 time-tracking applications? (Yes, I’ll be making one). You probably can’t find that many, and there’ll be _lots_ more ways to make one stand out in a positive way.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Lots to answer here!

      First, I’m saying this as an entrepreneur. And yes I’m taking my own medicine. In fact I just started a new company (to be fully announced soon) and before I wrote a single line of code or created a single web page or recruited a single employee/co-founder I waited until I found 50 people who said they would give me $50/mo if I had this right now.

      50! Not even 10.

      Then I started. Of course right now we have a waiting list 150 deep. Not a bad way to start out.

      Now to your questions:

      “Look for ten pledges?” Yes! Build a waiting list. It’s OK if 100% of them don’t actually do it in the end; this is proof of concept, not sales.

      “What are our options?” The same as any other venture. Your network, local meetings, adwords, anything. You’re going to have to market your stuff some day, might as well see what happens now.

      “Write a blog?” No, that’s not one of the options. Of course that’s great if you can do it, but obviously 99.9% of companies start without that advantage.

      “So what’s left? Asking people on the street?” I would turn the question around: Let’s say you’ve already built your product. What will you do to market it? Ask people on the street? No, there are 100 other ways. Those are exactly the ways you get to people before your product is built too. And don’t tell me it’s only possible if you have 10,000 twitter followers because I talk to people all the time with a trivial online presence who are able to do it.

      “Twitter clients need to find buyers.” Yes, I do believe that. In fact I know of two in particular which you’ve never heard of, but because they did this method they have paying customers and are currently a lifestyle business for the founders, and may someday be more than that.

      So you can poke fun, but actually it works.

      Do you have to do this? Well obviously for any “rule” you can find exceptions. But it sure re-risks your venture, which is good whether your the founder or an investor.

      • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo Sanchez

        “In fact I just started a new company (to be fully announced soon) and before I wrote a single line…” This was the point exactly on my first comment. You are able to do this because, you already have an audience (people in this blog, etc…), you have had previous success (SmartBear Software, ITWatchDogs), and you have a network of people ready to write you a check for just ideas (this is just a guess) correct? Isn’t easier for the rest of us to build something first so at least we can demo it, get feedback, make changes and then try to sell it?

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

          Well obviously I have lots of advantages starting a company at this point, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

          In my second company — ITWatchDogs — we did EXACTLY this method. That product was a physical one — an embedded web server that can tell you the temperature in server rooms — and we literally walked around with a painted piece of balsa wood and asked whether, if there was a webserver in there with a screen with these graphs and those options and these alerts, would you give us $99?

          And at that time I had no audience, no clout, no blog, no big success, no network, etc..

          In fact all of the lean business guys instruct you to do exactly this, with some disagreement (about 50/50) on whether you should give it away for free first or not, but they still want you to ensure it would be a paying customer if they weren’t a beta user.

          Surely all of these guys aren’t ignorant about your arguments about not having an existing network.

      • Jukka

        Well, my tone was too agitated, so sorry about that.

        I’m willing to believe that it’s a good idea to get ten people to say they’d buy something, but how can you both get these pledges and not have anyone “steal” your idea?

        I suppose the people who you’re asking would have to be in the target audience to matter?

        So if I were to go to a project manager and tell him what will make my time-tracking app great, I’ll have to describe it in so much detail that he can just present the idea at his company and build the product to much fanfare & bonuses etc.

        Besides, how much determination to buy are the pledges supposed to show, for their vote to count?

        My point about the Twitter clients was that since it’s a simple “gold rush” type of application – meaning everyone who could (be bothered) made one, hoping to get some easy money – if they fail to succeed, it’s not because they hadn’t asked 10 people, it’s because their apps weren’t really anything special anyway, and had too much competition to boot.

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

          If a project manager is struggling with time management on the product that she was hired to build, you think she has the time and resources to also build a time management app?

          I sold literally tens of thousands of software developers my software development tool and zero of them made a competitor. Zero. Competition came, but elsewhere.

          So no, that’s unfounded..

          Don’t worry about the pledge — this isn’t sales, this is validation.

  • http://mashtunbeer.com Willis

    So, how do you combine this idea with a market creation startup? Find 10 people who will buy product X for $Y when I build it, and 10 people who will sell product X for $Y when I build it?

    Cheers

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Just tell each to assume the other is there.

      In the case of Etsy, for example, you could have said “Hey, if there was a website where people could post goods, but it has to be handmade and artistic, would you shop there before something like eBay or Amazon or some brand-name? If so would you expect to pay a premium?” And so on.

  • http://ormaybe.tumblr.com Barbara Elaine

    priceless. Thank You for getting our minds in the right place. My mom won’t buy so I don’t have to worry about putting her in my 10. but Still 10 to go…

  • http://twitter.com/ericnsantos Eric Santos

    Excellent post Jason,
    I definitely agree that Customer Validation is the first thing that really matters, and most people take it for granted.
    However, Sean Ellis also has a compelling point about not charging your customers until you’ve reached Product/Market Fit (40% considering the product a must-have).
    His assumption is that many pieces of your original idea probably suck, and without charging from day one you have a lot more flexibility to adapt your product/messaging and then find the fit.
    (short version of his argument: http://startup-marketing.com/when-should-a-startup-start-charging/
    long version: http://venturehacks.com/articles/sean-ellis-interview)

    What do you think of that? For B2C or B2SB products (not ad-based), do you think there’s any other type of validation that’s not just false positive?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Yes Sean and others make a good case for the “free until P/M fit,” and in the end either way is valid, however I disagree strongly. See the other comment herein for details.

      Sure there’s lots of way to validate. Even just someone saying “that’s cool” is potentially validation, especially in B2C. I just feel that “buy” is the best. Don’t you need them to buy eventually? Why not fail fast.

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  • http://www.siliconverse.com Ruchit

    Few reasons ( and I am guessing) why people dont go out and ask people if they would pay for the product:

    1- They worry if someone else would steal the idea. SideNote: if idea is so easy to steal and build, look out for a better idea.

    2- They dont know how to reach to someone outside building and ask the question in right way. Should they do some online survey, should they also ask for pricing…which they can later use for pricing product….

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Great points, but I have answers for both! :-)

      1. Remember you’re asking potential customers, not VCs or investors or random developers or entrepreneurs. If your actual end users are likely to steal your idea, you’re going to have that problem even if you’ve built the product, right? Anyway, ask any successful entrepreneur if she worries about idea-stealing and see what they say — I’ll bet 8 of 10 say don’t worry about such things.

      2. If you can’t reach potential customers now, why do you think it will be any easier or any different later when the product is built? It won’t, it’s the same activity. I’m saying you might as well do it now because that reduces overall project risk.

    • Alan

      3- They are afraid of rejection (which will come soon enough…).

  • Carl

    Good stuff. Sort of applies to me in a retroactive way, where I built the thing for fun and released it just to see what would happen. It’s a free application and besides an incredible response, people often are asking to pay for it. I sort of lucked out in that way. Now working as quickly and cleanly as possible to make it that polished paid product it should be as it was never clearly thought out in the beginning on how to monetize this “for fun” venture.

    Lesson learned for next app, venture, product, to always keep the possibility of business in mind. Then again, I am new to this sort of thinking so consider me subscribed!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I think that’s a great way to go! When you know it’s just for fun and it happens to become a business, that’s awesome. In fact that’s how Smart Bear started — the first product was an excuse for me to learn .NET. (Although everything we do is in Java now!)

      But when you’re explicitly trying to build a business in the first place, not a hobby, then this isn’t the most direct route.

  • Karthik

    What about google / facebook / twitter? You think they asked this question – will you buy it? This applies only to certain class of products or services. You should ask your target market, no doubt, but the question isn’t always about BUYING. I bet this generates a lot of comments if nothing else.

  • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo Sanchez

    It is true, I agree you need to get some people interested in your product or service and willing to give you money for it, as soon as possible. However, I do not agree that you should go and try to get customers before you try build something… it will be an impossible task for someone that is not a sales or marketing person.

    Many times and many of us (first time entrepreneurs/developers) have to overcome the problem of communicating effectively, before anything else. We are just not good at selling/marketing our stuff, I know am not.

    It does not matter if your product idea or prototype is good and seems useful, if you don’t have something for people to try it (let alone pay for it) then it is just as it didn’t exist. Yes this post and many others claim that this what you need to do first (get people willing to give you money for your app)… but the fact is that most of us are not good at communicating or selling, period.

    While the suggestions in this post are true and good, we need to add that the first step is building something that is useful for us and other people. At least we won’t have to talk as much because now we have something to show… it’ll be easier.

    When we have something for people to see and use, we can get feedback about it, then we tweak it and we show it again, and we repeat this over and over until we get a product good enough that some people will actually consider paying something for it.

    Unless we have celeb status or previous success with other startups, building something good enough and releasing it fast to get feedback as soon as possible seems like the best way to do this.

    All the best.

  • http://www.deepshiftlabs.com/ Igor Kryltsov

    I like the way Homer says a phrase “In theory” :)
    If you will come up to me with a 30 sec pitch and your pitch apparently solves any of my problems. I will say ‘Ye’s – I will pay, or ‘Not’ – I will not. It simply does not matter to me because:
    a) I do not need to pay now
    b) I do not sign anything
    c) Chances that you will build it?
    d) Chances you will build it in a way you say?
    e) Chances somebody else will solve it faster and grab me earlier
    f) Chances that problem disappears by itself by than

    So I can say anything to you (me) asking. “In theory” it is good to go to ask and have positive feedback, build it, come back and sell it to those who said they will pay but something says to me – hard work, inspiration, passion and believe are more rare beasts and have bigger impact on success. Problem is you can not say anything about what has to be done in order to become hard worker or be creative or passionate – you are or you are not. And this includes you being able to switch from programming to blogging, to generating ideas about product promotion, ways to build a market, interest people. Is it visionary and skilled and having ability to do all of these building a product? You have it in your head and you move forward regardless ….

    Problem with this ‘idea confirmation’ thing is – nobody says how he did it and succeeded. If you succeeded I am sure you can recall a few moments you were getting some Yes’s from some prospects and you can bring them as confirmation of this method working but was it defining moment for you at that time? Were you using a 30 sec pitch or a real program? You did completely different product and switched to code review, PayPal does the same thing. I think you have to start with idea, build it and show.

  • http://www.thebatchwatermarks.com tbw

    How do you go from first 10 paying customers to the next 50 or 100. What to do when you get stuck at 10.
    Food for thought for another post, maybe.

  • http://www.technologymarketingcenter.com Chris Halliwell

    My favorite excuse seems to be missing: “Our technology is so revolutionary that mere mortals don’t know they need it yet, so what is the point of talking to them? And if you don’t believe me, read The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Try this: “Of course they don’t know what they need, but they sure as shootin’ know what problems they have that are worth solving with this technology.”

  • http://www.scottschulthess.com Scott Schulthess

    So do you have a specific methodology for getting 10 strangers to look at your idea and say that they’d by it?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      It’s exactly the same methodology as any other marketing activity. You’ll have to find people in your potential market and try to sell them something someday, why not now?

      A common method is to put up a single website with a form, drive traffic with some google ads, then interview whoever shows up. Crude, but effective.

      Also there are lots of services now where you can pay to ask a segment of people a few questions, for example: http://askyourtargetmarket.com

  • http://improvingsoftware.com/ JohnFx

    Wow.

    That was brilliant. I love this blog.

  • http://zuupy.com Alvin Tan

    Hi, Jason, thanks for the great post. I agree with the methodology, but that is only one of several ways to build a company (though one of the best ways to de-risk a startup before even starting it). My question is that finding 1 person, much less 10, who 1) is even accessible, 2) who likes the product idea, 3) who says that they would use it, 4) who says that they would pay for it, 5) at your desired price point and 6) would be willing to sign a non-binding Letter of Intent is not an easy task. It’s like a customer development funnel where people drop out like flies along the way. In the end, to get 1 person might be even close to impossible. A lot of it rests on having the correct hypotheses to test in the first place. Wrong (or “way-off”) hypotheses lead to a lot of wasted resources and is horribly bad for morale.

    Perhaps a better post can be about how to generate these hypotheses more accurately in the first place, so that finding people to say that they would buy becomes much more efficient.

  • http://www.thedailymba.com Jarie Bolander

    Customer traction is probably the single biggest thing a VC looks for. They really don’t care so much about the technology but whether someone is going to buy the silly thing. Spot on as usual.

  • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

    Great point, Jason. Just because it is a problem you are solving, DOESN’T mean people will pay or want to pay to have it fixed. :)

  • http://ryansidea.blogspot.com Ryan Chatterton

    I don’t wholly agree that you can’t scratch your own itch, though I don’t feel like you’re completely bashing that theory either. I feel like you’re trying to say, yes, scratch your own itch to the extent that you come up with an idea for a product or service, but there comes a time when you need to pitch to potential customers and ask for their business before making any solid commitments. At the very least, in my opinion, this allows you to tweak the initial idea to make it more about your customers and less about you.

    The book Rework definitely has a very strong opinion on this subject. Page 34. Check it out. Let me know what you think Jason.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I didn’t say you can’t scratch your own itch, in fact I specifically wrote above that it’s a great way to start!

      It’s just that it doesn’t validate there’s a market, meaning enough other people who both agree with the problem and are willing to pay to remove it.

      Rework has lots of good things to say about a lot of things. One of their perspectives is that they build for themselves and they don’t care whether anyone else wants it. That’s fine! It’s just not my style.

      I’ve seen way too many founders never get off the ground because they think like 37signals instead of thinking like servants of their customers. Of course it works out sometimes. Sometimes….

      • http://ryansidea.blogspot.com Ryan Chatterton

        Ha ha. Thanks for the reply, Jason. I appreciate the clarification on your point about itch scratching. I’m finishing up rework now and finding it to be a very insightful book, though of course there are things I disagree with them about as well. I suppose when it comes down to it, its the conversation that we are collectively having that matters, not my, yours, or 37signals’s opinion that matters. That is one of my favorite thing about business is that everybody gets to take their own path with some guidance from others, but ultimately its about your own style and what works for you. Anyways I’m ranting. Keep up the good posts, Jason.

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  • JH

    I don’t get it either…. I’m hoping he does not expect sympathy from those of us who do pay our taxes.
    I’d be willing to bet they’d even cut him a deal with a payment plan and a downpayment to get him out of there.

  • http://www.ad-venturemedia.com Barry Bryant

    Everyone wants to eat a slice of cake and some even claim the recipe for themselves, few will do the work of formulating the ingredients, hours of baking and kitchen clean up. It’s several layers deep. Most of these cooks only get how to make one or two layers and half baked.

    The patented recipe for multi-channel smart media advertising and mobile payments is my invention, not Pillsbury’s, not Betty Crocker’s. If they want to want to bake this cake, they need to see the Bakery that invented it.

  • http://planonfire.blogspot.com/ Brad Bentz

    I think the most interesting aspect of this post is that so many founders have already heard this advice, but time and again elect to ignore it. Customer validation is unglamorous. Iterating on the business model or product specs does not feel like the business is making forward progress. Founders in love with their own ideas hate it when customers tell them it’s a solution in search of a problem.

    Just telling people to “eat your vegetables and exercise more” doesn’t seem to work. How can we, as entrepreneurs, overcome our biases or emotional blocks about customer validation?

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