This essay is inspired by this week’s Startup Edition topic, “How did you validate demand for your startup idea?”.
There is much written on how to discover and validate customer demand for a product. Invariably, the conversation will lead to one of the two extremes: you either stay in the building, or you get out of the building.
Like most two-sided arguments, the answer is most likely not clear cut. First, the solutions are not mutually exclusive. You can do both right? And, even if one choice is “better”, it will change depending on you, your startup idea, and your target market.
Instead of attempting to find a solution to the general problem, I’ll tell you what I am doing. And I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never found product-market fit. These are the thoughts of an early entrepreneur, but hey, no one knows what the hell they are doing, so I’m going to throw my thoughts into the mix. Just take it with a grain of salt :)
I have been starting inside the building. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look outside. External opinions can be very useful. It just means that I primarily look for internal validation.
I have one rule of thumb:
I continually use what I build. If I can’t use it, it is probably a bad idea. Either that, or I’m not the right person to build it.
Why am I starting this way? Simple. I want to ensure founder-market fit.
You could probably stop reading there, but I’ll elaborate on a few reasons to start this way.
The first reason is purely selfish. I want to be able to use my product. I can’t imagine working for years on something that I do not use. At the beginning of any project, you have the choice on whether you work on something you care about. Why not do something you care about? Being able to use the product is the easiest way to care about your own product.
It goes beyond this selfish reason though.
Second, I want to build a gut instinct in what I am working on. I strongly believe that in most matters of life and career, gut instinct matters. No one starts with a great gut instinct. You build it by making mistakes and training yourself. But once you’ve built experience and trained your gut instinct, it is priceless.
So you have to ask yourself. Where are the answers? Are they inside the building or outside? If you have no answers inside the building, that might be OK. But do you have a guess? Does your gut tell you anything? Try going with it. At first, your ideas and thought processes will be horrible. You won’t know it until you realize it later. However, it is the price you must pay to build your gut instinct. Just treat it as a long-term investment.
Third, I believe that passion is important. Building startups is hard. It requires an enormous amount of work. But more than that, at the beginning, no one believes in your work except for you. The best way to be passionate about something is to build something that affects your own life in a positive way. If it does, you will have the conviction to work through the tough times.
Fourth, good products have their own nuances. They have their big vision. They have their ins and outs, as well as their opinions on what makes a good UI/UX. If you don’t use and understand the product yourself, how do you make these decisions? You could find answers on the outside, but at some point, the answers have to come from inside. If they don’t, your startup has no backbone. It has no soul. There is nothing behind it that backs it and gives it a purpose, opinion, and/or personality. That cannot be good for the long term.
Building a product that you will use every day is a difficult thing. I have built stuff that I couldn’t use at all. I’ve build stuff I couldn’t use past a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months. Each time, I have learned why, and each iteration (on the same or on different products) results in a better product.
I have faith that this will lead somewhere good. When you use your product everyday, you understand everything about it. You know why it matters. You know why you would, or wouldn’t use it. You know where it should go. You know why things should be designed in a certain way. You understand the target market, or at least a part of the target market, because you are in the target market. You may not start out with all the understanding, but you will end up with it.
Paul Graham’s first rule of startups is “make something that people want“. I’m starting with a narrow version of that rule: “make something you want“. Find that, and you’ve found founder-market fit, which seems like an awesome place to begin on your startup journey.
(Photo credit: Pete Prodoehl/flickr)
P.S. This is post number #52 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!
Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.
Or, check out my current project: Soulmix.