Of all the mistakes I’ve made in the past four years of business (and I’ll proudly keep making them if it helps me move forward) there are two, crushingly simple ones that probably stand out the most (and I’d like to help you avoid if, like me, you seem to enjoy learning things the hard way).
One, spending hours, days, weeks and $£€ on an idea only to launch it without the smallest of ripples or a single customer (because I never spoke to anyone about it before creating it).
Two, ‘learning’ from the previous mistake and talking to people about the idea but never actually asking them.
Why a mistake?
Well the first one is pretty obvious (even if you’ve never read a single article about business validation).
It takes lots of time to create a whole product.
It takes a lot less time to talk to some potential customers (please forget about people stealing your idea).
Therefore, talk to whoever you think your ideal customers are before creating it.
The second mistake?
Because you don’t know, repeat, you know absolutely nothing until you ask people to buy.
But the moment that you do ask people (and those people are preferably somewhere close to your target audience) you know 10x more than if you’d written a whole book, built a whole website or whatever else you’re doing.
Let’s just underline that (because I never want to make this mistake again):
You know more just by asking people to buy than if you’d built the actual thing.
So what happens when you ask?
Now of course that’s very easy to write, but I only know that because last week I finally did ask about an idea I had (‘WP Owner’, an educational website / resource for business owners whose websites run on WordPress) and here’s what people said (I’ve removed any personally identifiable information):
WP Owner sounds great and I know you’ll have great success for it!! To be honest, as much as I would love to be your founding member, I just don’t have time to use the service. I have delegated on all website edits to our marketing director who used to develop websites too. I’m trying to simply my life these few months so I have some free time before [personal thing]. Hope you can understand!!
So this person thinks that WP Owner is going to take up a lot of their time (definitely not my intention).
Immediate lesson: change the website copy and make sure that any eventual product is very easy to dip in and out of.
I was wondering, if I sign up to this programme will it be able to teach me on how to have downloadable recordings that i can charge people for and how to set up a membership database? As I would love people to sign up to be a member and then I can contact them regularly via an email campaign.
Yes, that’s one of the #1 things I want to teach, so I need to make that much clearer in the copy!
[Intro para where she says she likes the idea]
My one big challenge – as good as this is…..is another site of information to read. I will admit that I am a big of an information junkie. lol. Although in this business climate, I don’t know how one can survive without always having a list to read. I’ve spent $ on products like this before…with the best of intentions…and then didn’t get to reading it…and cancelling it months later without having looked at it.
The ones that I’ve used more have highlighted either a specific topic each month or set up a curriculum with a start and stop date…and then I had access to the info for life. For example, [name of an unrelated but successful online course] really rocks in this area…
…But to honest, I may not be your ideal customer. So pls know that it is just my 2 cents.
Oh dear, you are absolutely my ideal customer. I came up with the idea with you in mind! If WP Owner is not appealing to you then what I’m pitching is way wrong.
(I went back to her, explained things much more clearly and I’ll be including some of the points when I re-write the WP Owner website copy this week).
Was that scary or awkward?
In fact, notice the distinct lack of anyone dying of shock at being asked or people going crazy at me for even asking them to buy something.
How long did it take?
The whole process including setting up a one page website*, sending the initial email and replying to people was just a few hours.
Still some time, but a whole lot less than me creating a membership site, recording videos, writing content (or hiring someone else to do it) and then finding no-one arriving on day one or that people expected something else.
(*I’ve added some (previously written) blog posts to it and a few other bits like a footer to the website since then.)
It’s way too early to say if WP Owner is going to be a success as a business (though I’m going to make sure that it’s a success for everyone who joins!).
What is clear though is that both my potential customers and I are a lot better off with just the simple act of me asking them.
So, next time you have an idea, whether it’s a side project or full blown business idea, before you hire a coder (or start coding), or commission a design (or start designing) just ask people (to buy).
You’ll probably get some uncomfortable replies but you’ll be 10x better off.
Sidenote: don’t know who to ask?
Hopefully you’ve got friends who might be suitable or regular clients in mind1.
Definitely don’t feel awkward about asking them.
You are after all (hopefully) asking them about something that is designed to give them a tonne of value (that ‘obviously’ outstrips the cost of buying it) and that is clear and easy to understand.
If you don’t have any audience at all around your potential idea or you’re looking for an idea you could do a lot worse than just concentrating on building an audience first2.
If you don’t want to do that then you can try finding out places where your ideal customers spend time and joining the conversation.
I definitely did not have a big audience to ask WP Owner about, but I did have at least five people in mind3, and I’m glad I asked them.
- 1Strangers and friends – Seth Godin
- 2Quit trying to attract a crowd – Justin Jackson
- 3A simple way to validate your startup idea – Justin Jackson
Credits: The photo used in this article is by 401(K) 2012