It was about 6 years ago when I stood in a booth at an idea event for literally 6 straight hours filled with energy, enthusiasm and excitement. I made sure that every passing person is aware of what we offer. 200 sign ups just that day. Today, I look back and say, what was I doing?
Out of those 200 sign ups, less than 5% took few minutes to log in and learn more over the following 3 days. I decided I needed to stop wasting my time and people’s precious time. I was grinding like the athlete I was not the startup founder I needed to be.
This is how smart initial stage startup grinding works.
1- Talk To Your Best Friend, Google.
Get the most out of the internet. Spend a couple of hours researching about your potential buyers and the viability of your proposed solution by scanning competitors, visiting forums, reading customers’ pains in the comments and reviews section of blogs, Quora, Reddit, competitors’ product, etc. End your initial few hours search by,
- Defining the problem
- Your solution
- Who it is for, and
- Where to find them
What I didn’t do right: I used google to search competitors, more specifically, to learn what worked for them. I ignored the fact that they were in business for almost a decade and have developed a series of products to address several customer segments. I did not identify the problem, the target and their location. This put me in a wrong direction for a long time.
Estimated wasted time: 3 months.
2- Set a Qualitative Validation Criterion and Interview The Right People
Statistically speaking and depending on the modeling approach and other factors, 30 is usually the minimum number of observations you should have to run a test. You can use this as a benchmark for the number of potential users you should interview. 50 is my benchmark. 30-50 15-minute interviews should give you a very clear idea about the problem, expected solution and target with most urgent needs for a solution.
Interviewing the wrong group is detrimental, misleading and time wasting. Here is why. Most people are nice. They will try not to be a disappointment especially if they see the passion and energy in you. This is dangerous. It gives you the greenlight to move on and waste even more time until you finally realize they wouldn’t pull money out of their pockets.
Simply, a minimum of 6 out of 10 potential buyers should deliberately indicate it is a big enough problem. Hold yourself accountable to the results and reduce the influence of any biases. Customer interviews are unlike any other interviews. You start by putting them in context then ask open ended questions. Yes or No questions will not give the insights you need. The strongest indicator is when they use key words and sentences to describe the problem such as, it’s painful to…, it’s hard to…., I can do this but not….., I can’t find a solution to…….
What I didn’t do right: There was a spillover from the initial moves I made. Online research was not conducted properly; I compared my potential solution to that of established competitors which misled my judgment as to who should the right buyers be. Defining customer persona and narrowing my search and focus on this group could have saved a significant amount of time.
Furthermore, I hustled wrong. As an athlete, it’s all about giving 120%. It’s about pain, sacrifice, and fighting for what you want. In the startup world, it’s not about what you want, it’s about what the customer wants.
Estimated wasted time: 3 months.
3- Set and Test a Quantitative Validation Criterion
You want to validate if what you learned online and through interviews is true. You do this in 2 steps:
Landing Page: You’d be surprised how many claim to badly need a solution and end up turning their back when registration and payment time comes. Quickly,
- Put a landing page together
- Script it as if the product is up and running
- Use a long registration process, and
- Track your conversion
Price Tag: Include a price tag in the call to action to test if users are willing to pay. This is one of the strongest validation and product viability indicators.
6 out 10 people registering and paying is a very high and strong conversion ratio. I aim for 6 but settle with 4 since, at this point, you are still learning about your customers and some iterations can be done to better satisfy their needs.
What I didn’t do right: I spent 5 months building a SaaS product that 3 out of 10 interviewed users used and 1 out of 50 paid for.
Estimated wasted time: 5 months.
4- Do Things That Don’t’ Scale
Some solutions require a complex backend to create a functioning product. Other solutions are easier to simulate manually or through existing resources. In either case, you will always find a quicker and non-scalable method to perform the service. Use it for testing purposes. This is grinding the old-fashioned way. This is where you go above and beyond to meet your promises and exceed customers’ expectations.
What I didn’t do right: Instead of using my energy to adjust my product to meet users’ needs, I spent it in proving a solution no one needed.
Estimated wasted time: a little over a year- the whole startup period I spent from initiation to termination when I could have used a simple registration form, my vehicle, phone, and social media to perform the service.
5- Build The Essentials
The essentials are the core of your solution. They are the reason behind users’ interest in the product. Let’s use an example from Trello.
It seems that Trello learned that boards, lists, cards, members, checklists, and attachments are users’ most important features.
What I didn’t do right: I built an advanced product before even validating the core.
This experience and many others served as a strong foundation for future successes. Today, I proudly help entrepreneurs go through the first 4 stages in 30 days. Smart startup grinding works by taking educated steps centered around users’ needs and not a mission to prove a product no matter what it takes.
“Go after your dreams” is too general in a startup context. At school, work, on the filed or court, you control your own destiny. The harder you work, the better you will get. In the startup world, you use energy to find solutions to fulfill human needs. Use this energy wisely by listening 80% of the time and doing the rest of the time. The sooner you validate or reject your initial hypotheses from online research and personal experience, the sooner you can move to the next stage or idea.
What other steps do you recommend taking for quick validation and/or iteration? Don’t hesitate to share your story.