“Is my idea good?”

“Is my business idea a good one, or not?” is a question that gets asked a lot (usually indirectly) when I talk to aspiring entrepreneurs, and it’s often followed by “What should I do next?”

The short answers to these questions are “It’s probably good, with enough adjustment.” and “You should talk to customers.” Both answers are vague & not super encouraging(since they require more work), but they can be very useful in the long term.

Y Combinator is a huge proponent of getting an MVP into customers’ hands, and going from there. In one of his essays Paul Graham writes:

The only way to make something customers want is to get a prototype in front of them and refine it based on their reactions.”

I agree that getting to product-market fit (a fancier term for making something people want) is the most important thing the business should be doing, and founders should be working towards that from day 1. There are tons and tons of examples of businesses who made changes from their original business idea along the way to what they eventually became:

  • Thalmic Labs started as a sports/fitness app
  • Pebble started out having 1 button & only worked w/ Blackberry phones
  • Blackberry itself started out making pagers
  • Vidyard started as a video production company

That process of evolving and adapting to find product-market fit can only truly happen while you are actively talking to customers. The feedback they give you is what guides you to the thing they actually want & are willing to pay for, rather than what you think they want (or what you would want, if you were in their shoes). There is an entire book on this subject called the Lean Startup, and it has sold many millions of copies for a reason: it actually works.

Some people go through this process unintentionally: they build something and try to sell it. They get a bad or lukewarm response from customers, so they make changes & come back. Eventually they make enough changes to the product, the price or the business model that a few customers start to buy, and with a few more tweaks they have a product & business model that works for lots and lots of customers. They have reached product-market fit, and it only took 5–10 iterations after that first “sales” demo when they thought they had it.

Building the product quickly and trying to sell with a lot of bluster & self-confidence is one way to get in front of customers, but what if you don’t have a product yet? What if you don’t have the technical team to build the product yet? From startup coaching I come across a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who don’t have a strong technical contributor on the co-founding team. I believe that by focusing so much on getting to an MVP (as YC encourages), and believing that you should only talk to customers after that, it can drive you to mis-hire your technical team.

Instead, use mockups, screengrabs from other apps, and the concierge model wherever you can to suggest to customers what your product will be like, and take your time on finding the right tech contributors for the stage you’re at. Bridgit is an awesome example of this. Neither of the co-founders were programmers when they started, but they kept validating the idea, and ran 500 interviews with users without having a product of their own to show off. They were able to readjust the product with so much agility, and get such a good picture of what their customers wanted, that they got multiple Letters of Intent from potential customers, and closed a round of financing before they had a product that was even in an MVP state. They were also very picky in hiring their Director of Eng. and tech team, rather than rushing the process.

Whether you have technical co-founders or not, I strongly advise you to get in front of customers as early as you can. Even if you don’t have anything resembling a product yet, have an open-ended conversation about the major frustrations they have in their work, or that area of their life. Find out where the problem you’re trying to solve ranks on their list of problems, and whether or not it’s a hair-on-fire-problem. If it’s not, don’t write off your idea as a bad one & give up. Adjust what the product could be until it’s more inline with what they’re telling you. That’s the most reliable way to get to a good product in the end.

I hope this sheds some light on why I (and perhaps other coaches) often don’t give a direct answer about a business idea in its current state. Instead, I spend a lot of time asking about, and coaching on the process you apply to your idea, and how willing you are to a) make changes based on the market and b) go out and actually listen to the market. So if you ask me about your process instead of your idea, I am much more willing to give a straight answer about whether it’s good or not.