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Startups: Never Stop Validating

A startup is a learning experience and pivots are inevitable. So it should be no surprise that photo sharing app Instagram started out as a check-in app, or that Slack spun out of Tiny Speck, a gaming startup, and Paypal started life as a way to send money between Palm Pilots.

Pivots are an important part of the startup lifecycle, that’s why so many great products have spawned out of them. But there’s another important part of the startup lifecycle that, if properly employed, can either reduce the likelihood of a massive pivot, or get you to the inflection point sooner, saving both time and money.

Always be validating your product

“You know that old saw about a plane flying from California to Hawaii being off course 99% of the time — but constantly correcting? The same is true of successful startups — except they may start out heading toward Alaska.” — Evan Williams

Startups rarely set out on a path to product market fit. Instead they must always be willing to examine their current trajectory and alter the course as needed. The longer you head down the wrong path, the harder it is to pivot away from it later. This is why, like the plane flying from California to Alaska, pivoting more often in smaller ways often gets you to your destination quicker.

Validation helps correct your course. If you aren’t properly validating at every step, you could be heading further and further from where you’re trying to go.

How to validate

1) Listen to your customers.

Talking to your customers daily can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your product so that you can always be sure you’re making something that is actually satisfying their needs. Alex Turnbull, CEO and Founder of Groove offers to speak to literally every customer. According to him, this has been one of the most valuable things he has done for his company.

You can read the whole story here and you can follow his team and their journey to $500k in monthly revenue at their blog.

We’ve tried a similar technique at Sqwiggle. When a new company signs up, they’ll get a welcome email that includes a link to a public calendar where anyone can book a product demo with a single click. It’s been a great tool for gaining a better understanding of our customers since we’re doing these demos all the time! We use a service called you can book me, but there are plenty of others out there if this one doesn’t work for you.

2) Keep solid, reliable metrics

It’s important to track your metrics right out of the gate. There are a ton of great services with dead simple integrations, it’s really just about deciding what you want to track. I recommend being fairly liberal here, you can always remove a tracking event if it proves not to be very useful. Here are a few great services you can use to track your events:

Mixpanel — We’ve used mix panel from day one and while it’s not perfect, it’s a very sharp tool that works well and has a ton of features to mine your data.

KISSmetrics — Another popular option, fairly similar feature set but check out this article by Sacha Greif for an in-depth comparison.

Keen.io — Keen takes a bit of a different approach, offering customizable queries that you can monitor and embed in your own dashboard.

3) Re-evaluate your position often

A founder friend recently told me about monthly meetings that her and her co-founder have, in which they discuss where the business is and if their previous assumptions still seem to be true. I love this technique because it ensures that you are always being opened minded about where the business is and whether or not your experiments are working. Discussions like this can often be the catalyst for a pivot, one which might make or break your business.


Building a business is about accepting that you are going to make some big mistakes, but hopefully by keeping product validation at the top of your mind, you can avoid a few of them.

For now, always be scrutinizing, always be validating.


Update

Baremetrics founder Josh Pigford recently published a great writeup on how he brought his company from $0 to $14k MRR in just 6 months by using data from early customers to validate at every step. Ton of lessons to be learned in there so I highly recommend giving it a read.