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My startup validation process (neilcocker.com)
111 points by NeilRamp 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

The reason why most startups don't start this way is because many successful founders have an intuitive understanding for what the problem is and what the right solution should look like. And the reason why they are successful is because they are right.

The reason why unsuccessful startups fail is many, but for many they don't have product-market fit. The reason they don't have product-market fit is because they start with a solution and look for a problem. This analysis follows that same general track. Validate something. But validate WHAT? What if you just have nail in search of a hammer?

Validation is good but often it plays second fiddle to really understanding the problem domain and understanding how the solution is a good fit. Validation can only happen once you have that good sense of a fit.

"The reason why most startups don't start this way is because many successful founders have an intuitive understanding for what the problem is and what the right solution should look like"

This kind of over simplification of popular founding stories doesn't help founders. There are almost always twists and turns in most founding stories, including the product; it's rarely a strait path. It's the ability to navigate those riptides that lead to successful execution. Thats why YC invests in people and not ideas. This post provides tools for founders to evaluate their ideas, markets, features, and other "leaps of faith", something that founders have to do continuously once they are in business.

> The reason why most startups don't start this way is because many successful founders have an intuitive understanding for what the problem is and what the right solution should look like. And the reason why they are successful is because they are right.

And the reason why the fail is because they're often wrong.

It's exceptionally rare that v1 is right and targeted at the right markets and positioned right and priced right. If $hours of talking with potential customers saves weeks or even months of wasted time, money, and effort, the ROI is easy.

> ...many successful founders have an intuitive understanding for what the problem is...

Or put it another way, founders solving a problem they themselves have with just enough skill to build an initial solution. Subconsciously many of us forego start-up ideas due to what Paul Graham described as schelp blindness [0].

> Validation is good but often it plays second fiddle to really understanding the problem domain and understanding how the solution is a good fit.

Often times, what the founders set out to build and what they end up getting to product-market fit with are often different things even when they intuitively understand the problem-domain. An example that comes to mind is https://meesho.com, a Unicorn now (with a very different product though roughly in the same domain), but back then failed to raise any capital on YC demo-day [1].

[0] http://paulgraham.com/schlep.html

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L325PVEvm7Q

>The reason they don't have product-market fit is because they start with a solution and look for a problem.

I agree. Understanding the importance of solving the right problem i.e. the problem with enough need gap that people are willing to pay for getting it solved and of course the problem which we want ourselves to be solved played a huge role in me building successful products later on.

So, I'm building needgap[1] a problem validation platform where problems are the first class citizens. Posts are created by the consumers(incl. entrepreneurs) who have a problem, want to find a solution for their problem, check if others share the same problem, however small the problem might be[3]. Builders can post their products in the comments if it solves that particular problem or else discuss with others to create a product to solve that problem(There are couple of products built/being built for problems from needgap).

I'm not saying I've solved the issue of validating problems, far from it. I think I now have a direction towards understanding the 'language, grammar of problems and startup ideas' which might one day result in making validation easier.


I really like the site. At the same time I think you could optimize comment display. I don’t understand who is replying to whom. How are Threads sorted? Super confusing. Just copy HN, done. And: I don’t get how the front page items are sorted. By activity?!

Thank you. Improving comment thread is on my TODO list and would be addressing it soon.

As for the front page ranking algorithm, it's similar HN/Reddit's Hot but the difference is that the problem/need gap karma is visible only to the creator of that post and the comment karma is visible only to the commenter although the profile karma is visible to everyone. This was done to limit populism, limit discouraging those who might post a problem which could be perceived as 'small', limiting hive behaviour and for the general health of the community.

You can read more about karma on needgap here - https://needgap.com/problems/2-contributor-guidelines-for-ne....

Looks nice, kinda like HN.

I think we might have a slightly different understanding of validation. For me, really understanding the problem, and how your product solves that, is validation.

You say nail and hammer, and I say key and lock... ;-)

I think validation is more about whether or not someone will pay for your solution than if it actually solves the problem or not. Sounds like the same thing, but it's not really.

That's correct. You might have invented the "better mousetrap" but no one might want it. Product, yes, market no. You don't validate the solution, you validate the market. The market fit is the solution fit with the market, not that you have a solution that the market doesn't want.

Agreed. And then again: which problem did the iPhone solve exactly?

Phone, music player, and internet communicator in a single device, that enabled worldwide communication reliably.

Just the original phone solved voicemail (with visual voicemail) once and for all in one fell swoop. It was just echelons better.

That part of the initial demo still continues to blow my mind. https://youtu.be/VQKMoT-6XSg?t=29m30s

Here’s the original introduction to the iphone: https://youtu.be/MnrJzXM7a6o?t=1m23s

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the iPhone. I just don’t think it really fits the standard “solve a problem for customers” folklore.

But then again, Apple wasn't a startup at that point. A corporation with millions of customers and a huge fanbase who would buy anything it would produce without even questioning isn't exactly on the same line as a 0-customer startup.

Ok, fair enough. And what about TikTok then?

What does TikTok have to do with it?

It focused on a specific niche in a specific age group in a single country, which led to it expanding exponentially to 100M users in half a year there. Growing after that is a completely different story and not what's being discussed here.

Oh I was thinking we are discussing if solving a burning problem is a necessary requirement for startup success. Maybe I should have been clearer

Not enough holes in wallets?

Two classic books that are fast reads and will also help you are 1) The Launchpad (about YC) and 2) The Lean Startup. Both are old books but they cover many of the same concepts and ways of thinking.

I’d add that if you do nothing else, read the first 3 chapters of The Mom Test; it provides a great overview for evaluating ideas.

Meh, The Lean Startup is a bunch of "our VC funded company did a lot of bla bla bla" with very little detail or actionable information. It could have been a blog post or two.

I'd love some book recommendations with actionable info and with actual details on how to execute.

"E-Myth - Revisited" is very good as an "operational handbook". Basically "systematised" everything and don't do "special request/things" for customers, since most of the time they are not repeatable by other branches or members of staff and get buy-in (for your vision) from your employees. There are many more practical lessons in there.

I went through "Running Lean" by Ash Maurya after reading Lean Startup, and it's a lot more practical and full of examples that can be applied in your own business. Only thing is that it's more oriented at consumer startups, so for B2B SaaS I'd recommend "The Startup Owner's Manual" by Steve Blank.

Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet.

He’s actually had a couple of exits which can’t be said for most authors in the space.

Running lean is probably a lot better.

Did you read the whole section of the post where I recommend reading The Mom Test.... ;-)

p.s. I've read Lean Startup, but will check out The Launchpad, thanks!

I was agreeing with you. Thats why I said, “if you do nothing else”.

Ah ha, sorry. I misinterpreted your comment :-)

I was on my phone so I wasn't commenting at my best. So to be clear, I liked and appreciated your article! The more view points I can read on these topics, the better it is, because there's no one right answer (as I'm sure you've found).

Yeah. It's definitely a case of trying to do the best job quickly. Validation should be an ongoing process for the pretty much the whole lifecycle of a startup. I think most of us aren't that good at it, or subconsciously avoid doing it, a lot of the time. This is my own effort at trying to streamline that process somewhat.

Thanks for your feedback. Genuinely appreciate it!

I see The Mom Test recommended anywhere. Can anyone shed some light into what other information it contains other than "focus on the problem (not your solution) and explain things simply and concisely enough that your mother could understand?"

I’ll summarize the book in one sentence so you don’t have to read it:

‘When talking to customers, ask about their current behaviors rather than hypotheticals (e.g., ‘would you buy this’).’

I have 20 years of experience in conducting customer discovery interviews professionally, so I found the information in the book to be incredibly simplistic and sometimes misleading or incorrect. I get frustrated every time I see it recommended as some kind of bible for startup founders doing discovery...

Which book(s) would you recommend?

I quite liked:

Validating Product Ideas


What information in The Mom Test would you say is misleading or incorrect?

As one, he says surveys are 100% useless, which is not entirely correct (there is a time/place for them).

Second, he says customer interviews must be face to face to be valuable. That is patently false, and even dangerous. In a face to face setting many people feel social pressure to conform and there is a strong interviewer bias. A mix of in-person and online methods is essential to get an unbiased read.

I’m on vacation right now, otherwise I’d spend the timing outlining my many criticisms of the book...

Makes sense. Agree with what you're saying, that surveys can have value and customer interviews can be valuable even if not face to face.

Would love to hear more of your thoughts sometime after you vacation.

The book is about how to avoid getting false signals of customer needs for a problem you think your solving, regardless of solution, that doesn't exist. People also “fire customers” when they don't like what they hear. Its in the same vein.

Probably drop the surveys and replace them with a sign up page. Surveys are low quality. Individual conversations will tell you more, and a sign up page requires action / intent (you can raise the bar as high as you like to increase confidence).

Yes, surveys are low quality. But personally I find that if they're well designed then you'll get more data out of them than you would a sign-up page. And there are always plenty of people out there who are happy to do an anonymous survey, but not give you their email address. Sometimes that's the best data. You would miss that with asign-up page.

If they don't want to give you an email address, they don't care about your product. That's great feedback that the hypothesis is wrong.

What service do you recommend for sign-up page?

Not OP but check out this (1) thread from yesterday . balloonary (2) is mentioned as a solution to quickly launch a sign up page. Here (3) is an example of how that would look like.




This looks good! Could do with more design options

It's a good start! You might want to take a look into the books "Business Model Generation" and "Running Lean" (and follow-ups for both). The first one comes out of science and is the state of the art tool to reason about your business. The second roughly follows a similar approach but tries to be even more practical.

Both companies also provide digital tools and I'm thinking about building one, too. Hey, we can take this post as an early experiment and see if someone is interested!

I read Business Model Generation and found it super hand-wavy and not very helpful/actionable at all. YMMV but I really disliked it.

Thanks! I've read Running Lean, but will check out BMG.

Looks like a book ad.

Ha! I promise I don't receive a penny from the sales of the book. I wish I did, given how much I've recommended it over the years...

Totally reads like an ad, actually I verified whether those were affiliate links or not.

Interesting. I clearly need to dial back on my enthusiasm for it, then!

Simple idea that can't be repeated enough times: you don't convince customers to want your product. You show them how it solves a problem that they care about.

The simplest form of validation is to sell something to a few people. If you can do that you have some proof of a problem to be solved, and you usually get questions along the way that can help you develop the idea further.

I'm spending time refining this, so would be genuinely interested in any feedback, or ways to improve.

It's absolutely not the finished article, and intended to be quick and deliver results.

Enjoyed reading it, and also your writing style in general. Am saving the article in order to refer to when I start developing my new product idea. I have a genuine question, and maybe two further "optional" comments to offer since you're explicitly soliciting feedback.

The question: is there a distinction to be made between "startup" and "product"? How, if at all, would you change your process for a simple product idea, like, say, a new kind of umbrella?

As for the optional comments, I did find the "Read a book" a bit jarring in the bulleted steps of the process -- it is unlike the other steps in that you don't do it again and again for every single startup idea you might be evaluating, and so not really part of a process associated with each project.

Thanks for the comments, and kind words!

The difference between startup and product is simple, and it's something I'm guilty of conflating (along with many others). The product is what you're selling, and the startup is the organisation built around it to bring it to market. I should really have used the word Product instead of Startup.

Thanks for the thoughts around the Read A Book bullet point. Yes, I think it could do with being re-written!

These are definitely some validate starting points. I recommend giving some sort of chronological order to the process. With emphasis on spending quality time up front defining what problem space you are attempting to solve. Once that is defined, you might have a more clear idea about your potential target customer. From there you could actually build better traits about your customer. This process is typically known as building personas. This part of the process is helpful and helps you and your team focus on what are the real themes/problems needing to be solved.

I do agree that reading definitely helps but one book isn't enough. There are several books in this space that are helpful but probably deserve their own thread. Especially around strategy. Maybe worth building out a collective comprehensive recommendations list one day.

Surveys are great but wont capture the true understanding of your customer or the heavy user of what ever product you create. One needs spend some quality time (1hr initially) with these customers so you can build out a better persona which will help you hone and focus on creating the right solution. Then you can use future surveys after gaining trust to get valuable feedback. I do however understand this is a "fill the top of the funnel" approach which isn't bad.

However that said you make some really great points throughout your posting about falling in love with the problem which will allow you to create a great solution.

Thanks for the feedback. Some useful insight.

Yes, agreed that there's much more that can be done, but this is attempting to put a basic framework around the very early stages of validation (which should obviously be an ongoing process, anyway).

It's frustrating because obviously stuff like persona building should be in there, but at some point if you include everything it becomes too unwieldy to be a simplistic, quick process. I'd love to get to a point where this is both simple AND comprehensive. But I expect that's a bit of a holy grail.

Neil would you be interested in turning this into some sort of service? I could help with that, shoot me an email (check profile).

Great, I'll be in touch.

Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your article! Very actionable advice.

Thank you!

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