So what do they mean when they keep asking me, "Have you validated the problem you are trying to solve?" "Is this something people want?" "How do you know this is really a problem?"
These are the most common questions you'll get when you share your idea with other founders, and though many are just repeating something they heard, there is a very important reason that you should be asking this yourself. Not only so you can answer them confidently, but more importantly, because you shouldn't be a startup if you can't answer honestly. You need to be honest with yourself to succeed.
At first I assumed this question was about research and statistics. I thought it was about blindly sending out surveys or posing questions on Reddit and Discord. I thought it was about having the perfect one-liner pitch. It's not.
“Okay so from my experience, feedback from non-paying, non-active users is almost worthless. You gotta find a way to get committed users to tell you how they feel.” - Dagobert Renouf
At the time Dagobert's advice couldn't have been more on point for the current state of our startup, Therr. His project Logology has a pretty good reputation, so I couldn't argue with his perspective. I decided to give it a try...and that's when I had a minor epiphany. As founders, we're often victim to our own self-assured point of view and more specifically confirmation bias.
The confirmation bias is the tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs.
Since Therr is a free app for social users, I needed a way to find committed users without charging a signup fee or using some financial investment from the user as a way to get them to be truly committed. Instead I started by reaching out to old connections I had made throughout the startup journey on a more personal level. Next, we would send emails to a few existing users of the app and ask for their input on a new idea for the app. We also figured that an unbiased survey would be beneficial only if we shared it in the right channels and through more direct communications.
My first conversation was with Denis Shatalin. We had met months back and talked about his previous startup over a Google Meet. Since then he has pivoted and rebranded as a startup founder coach, specifically to solve these types of ideation problems. He said this was more of his passion, and he discovered that so many early stage founders were skipping key stages of the process. At first I wasn't able to see his point of view, and it seemed he would disagree with me regardless of how confident I was about the problem I sought to solve. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I was getting mad. So, I stepped away from the conversation for some time, and when I calmed down a bit, I realized something that now seems strikingly obvious. The type of startup I'm building requires solving 2 core problems to be successful.
You are probably already familiar with a causality dilemma which asks, "which came first: the chicken (🐔) or the egg (🥚)?" In fact I remember hearing this as a child and thinking, "huh?" 🤔 ... For a startup, this is basically when you have 2 user groups or 2 niche markets. In our case we have social users whose pain is drowning in a sea of irrelevance with no authentic connections to the real-world, social community. Then, we also have brick & mortar business users whose pain is struggling to build genuine customer relations.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Ok fast-forward. My conversation helped me realize that even though I had validation and was confident about the latter problem I was solving, I actually needed to solve a problem for social users first...and again to be perfectly honest, I came to understand at that time that I didn't even have one defined. Have you ever felt that pit of despair when you think maybe it's time to call it quits? I hope that feeling drives you to dig deeper and continue forward. Don't give up. After brainstorming with our new product manager, Sean O'Gary, we landed on a problem statement for our social users that we were both uniquely excited about. It felt like we had a really strong idea now.
Next step, reach out to some existing users to validate the idea...
Receiving a majority of positive responses is a great feeling, but it's just the beginning. We made a brief survey and included an input at the end for collecting email addresses. If someone is willing to provide their email, it usually means they have genuine interest in the idea. They will at least give the app a try, so you've taken a step past ideation into the realm of user acquisition. This seems like a strong enough commitment for honest feedback. I went back and reviewed all previous channels and individuals I had connected with and was intentional about selecting the most unbiased sources, those who had been honest and straight-forward in the past even if it wasn't what I wanted to hear. Along with a quick briefing about why impartial responses were so important to us, I sent out the survey to all of these select connections. I refrained from including self-promotions or any link to our existing content. People are also more genuine when they can be anonymous. We were getting a good percentage of responses with user emails attached, so our confidence in the new core problem/solution was growing. Also our yes/maybe to no ratio was well over 50%. We didn't stop there.
I also updated all of our branding copy to reflect this new concept and put the focus on social users first, then began tracking analytics and user sentiment. Meanwhile, Sean started reaching out through e-mail to some of the users on the app as well as having face to face conversations without mentioning that we already had a functioning app. The feedback was solid.
Surprisingly all of this positive feedback didn't make me feel overwhelmingly joyful, but instead I had that feeling deep down like a weight or anchor inside of me. It took some time to sink in, and I started to realize that this was the weight of knowing how much work was ahead. There would be much more balancing of my time between the startup, a full-time job, 2 puppies, 2 mortgages, a marriage, and oh yes...a personal life.
Although the stress had always been present, this was the feeling of ideation validation that I hadn't quite felt before. Instead of the ominous feeling of "Am I sure this will work?" it was now an ominous cloud of "Are you sure you can do this?" After a few days of coming to terms with the long road ahead and strapping on my startup boots once again, the excitement started rushing in.
So many possibilities for taking this core idea in new directions became apparent, especially after further brainstorming sessions with Sean, and we had to remind ourselves; This was only part one of our product roadmap journey. There is a reason companies have entire product teams to validate subsequent ideation for feature enhancements and evolution. Finally though, we could feel settled knowing that we didn't skip the most important stage of any startup: ideation & validation. Time to implement!
Ok, so we've proven that this is a problem/solution statement with staying power. We've implemented the feature, and people are downloading the app in response to digital marketing. What next? The last piece to this puzzle, due to the nature of a location centric social platform, is organic marketing. Stay tuned for Ideation & Validation continued in a future blog post.