Why do most startup ideas fail?
“Because they [entrepreneurs] begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them,” says investor and co-founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham.
If you want to find a startup idea people need and will pay for, spend less time searching for ideas and more time getting your hands dirty. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” says Louis Pasteur. Getting hands dirty simply means, instead of spending your time brainstorming ideas, find an unsolved problem you personally care to solve and then speak with over one hundred people that may be experiencing the same challenge and who have hacked a solution to solve it temporarily. Better yet, follow the approach I am about to share with you.
Talk to potential users while building an audience. The founders of the social media management tool Buffer invested close to a year blogging before launching the first version of their app. Writing articles not only helped them gain traffic and sign-ups to their upcoming product site but also get an opportunity to speak with their subscribers and learn about their needs. When the team was ready to launch, they had users lined up to buy and those users knew exactly what’s coming out because they helped build it.
If you are searching for a problem to solve and even if you have found a problem worth solving, spend the early stages of your startup interacting with potential users, better yet, while building an audience. In his Startup Circle session, best-selling author James Clear said that he spent the first two years prior to his book launch learning more about his future readers and building trust while growing an audience.
Follow these four steps to start a startup even if you have no clue what to build.
People tend to overcomplicate a piece of advice just because its most basic version is “old school.” In this case, there is no simpler way to say that the best way to identify an unmet need and an ideal customer is by doing. In startups, online research barely qualifies as a subcategory of “doing.” Talking to customers is what you need to be doing to move the needle.
The goal of these four steps is to gain customer insights while building an audience. The best way to accomplish this goal by publishing useful content in the form of articles, videos, audio and/or video. The Buffer team started by writing about different business topics. This phase taught them what topics their audience is most interested in. Article comments, emails they received, calls to action clicked, people they met and metrics like repeat visitors, bounce rate and top articles read provided them with insights about the areas they needed to focus on.
Similarly, my venture, Startup Circle, started by addressing entrepreneurs building different business models in different verticals. The first 100 live sessions taught us for whom and how Startup Circle should be personalized and enhanced. Only when we met hundreds of founders and gathered enough data did we learn what to do next. Sharing valuable content will give you the answers you need instead of building based on guesses and gut feelings.
As noted above, publishing content is the best way to start testing ideas. As simple as asking a question at the end of a guide seeking people’s interest in a new tool that solves a specific problem uniquely is an easy first step to test new ideas. If readers care to share their answers in the comments section, answer a long survey, join to the waitlist or personally email you with further comments, you are likely onto something.
While your readers may not be as engaged in the beginning, sometimes for obvious reasons like not having an audience, the chances of gaining deep insights while growing an audience increase the more content you publish.
To attract more people to your content, prioritize leveraging the audience of people who have it. For articles, quote them or cite their work and then send them a personalized email telling them about it and ask if they would be inclined to share. Follow the same strategy for videos and podcasts especially if you make expert guests a core of your content value.
By now, chances are you have a much clearer direction and understanding of underserved segments and potential solutions. To make your direction even clearer, as the Buffer team did, every time someone joins your list, send them an email asking for a little bit of their time to hear their feedback on the solution you plan on creating. Once again, this is an opportunity to test readers’ interest in the problem. Taking the time to spend a few minutes with you is another green signal.
You know you should move to the next stage when a high percentage of your readers and interviewees talk about the same problem and express the same need. When you reach this stage, your priorities change to focus exclusively on testing the riskiest assumptions. The quickest way to test users’ real intentions is by preselling the idea.
There is another key benefit from investing time in the first three stages as they allow you to not only gain insights and find an idea worth solving while building an audience but also build trust with the group. In preselling a product, your audience will invest in you because they trust you will deliver the promise. Without investing in relationship and trust building, your chances of getting strangers to pre-commit are very slim unless you leverage the audience of someone who’s taken the time to build trust.
No one has all the answers. Even those who seem confident about the value proposition of their solution and their ideal customer end up iterating and sometimes pivoting their product and direction multiple times before finding what sticks. If you wonder how to start a startup without a clue what to build, follow these four steps and let the customers answer those questions for you. They may even pay you to build what they ask!