The Art of Early Stage Product Validation

A Google accelerator partner shares everything you need to know to find your idea, create the product, and get product validation.

Google’s Entrepreneur First recruits top engineers, and technical minds to their accelerator that starts before the idea is even had.

Starting before an idea gives them a lot of insight into the first 200 days of a successful company looks like.

The lessons below are from a talk given by the co-founder of EF, Alice Bentinck. The video of the talk is embedded at the bottom.

Where do good ideas come from?

This is a very important question because starting a startup has a huge opportunity cost. It could be another job and a simpler career. Alternatively, it could be the other startup you could be working on.

There’s this conventional mindset that thinks that a few guys sat in their dorm rooms and came up with the idea for Facebook or Google. However, that is not where great ideas come from. This is a story perpetuated by the media.

To elicit good ideas we tell our founders to ask themselves two things:

  • Are you making something people want?
  • Are you making something that you care about?

Make something you care about

In the first 200 days of your startup, you only fail if you give up. This almost always happens because you don’t care about what you’re working on.

Since most of the people we take are technical. What we push them to think about a piece of tech that they have been obsessing about for the last couple of years.

If you really really want to solve that problem from a technical point of view, you may not even care about the application. For example, we had some guys in our last class working on a recommendation algorithm. They didn’t care how it would be applied. They just wanted to build the best recommendation algorithm that they could.

The best startups come from obsession driven ideas. An obsession driven idea is probably not something that you thought about in the shower. It is something that you have been thinking about for a very long time.

It is important when you are starting up that you have strong beliefs or expertise in the area. These beliefs also need to be weakly held, but we’ll get into that later.

Make something people want

Even though everyone is hardwired in with the lean mantra of “making something people want,” we still see the number one reason people fail is that they do not make something that people want.

It is in fact really hard to build something that people want.

Companies like had amazing corporate structure, HR policies, a ton of employees, and great distribution outlets, but nobody wanted what they were building.

I would much rather have a two person startup with 100 people using my product every day. This is actually a very hard feat in the first 200 days.

Startups are about creative destruction. You will probably have to destroy what you have made. This is quite hard if you have built all of the infrastructure of a real business. Startups need to destroy and iterate very quickly.

You need to stop building a startup and start building a product. This forces you to focus exclusively on building something that people want, and gives you the ability to figure out what that is very nimbly.

Listen. But only to your customers

The only person that can tell you if your product is good is your customers. This is the weakly held part of strong beliefs weakly held. You need to have strong beliefs about what people want you to build, but you also need the humility to listen to customers and iterate and change.

If anyone else is telling you about your product don’t listen to them. Peter Thiel has a quote:

“Often the best ideas are heavily disguised as bad ideas”

Ask Yourself the Tough Questions

Founders tend to really avoid this. They have all heard of customer development interviews but they always forget to ask the questions that matter, the questions that really make their toes curl.

You have to push yourself to be slightly embarrassed about asking this question. That’s when you know it’s a good question. If you’re not asking this question you won’t know for much longer if this is an idea worth pursuing.

Let Go. You Don’t Know the Answer

Often our founders have read so much TechCrunch and HackerNews that when their startups are not so clean cut, it can be really hard to keep going. They’ve fantasized about what their startup journey will be like, but they don’t realize that most of their journey will be a nightmare.

Building a startup is really really hard. You need to let go about what your product may be, and what you originally thought your startup might look like. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

You Can’t Crowdsource a Startup

Lean has gotten to the point where people think that they can just talk to 50 or 100 people who will just tell them what their startup should be.

Customer development is really important, but, it’s very common that you will get conflicting ideas about what your startup should be. You will not get some “wisdom of the crowd” knowledge about what you should be building.

Strong beliefs help you avoid getting overloaded with information, and weakly held keeps you from getting too tunnel visioned on your idea.

There Are No Magic Ponies

If when you are doing your customer development and everyone is saying yes. It’s likely you are making a magic pony. You’re promising too much, and your idea will never be able to live up to what you promised.

It’s crucial during customer development that you are promising to solve a problem that is within reason.

Don’t Stop

In early stage startups, you only fail if you stop. Don’t stop if you run into a roadblock. In the early stages of a startup, you can always continue iterating your product into something that people want. There’s never a real reason to stop.

This can take a very long time, maybe even a few years. But if you are putting in that time you will get there. Keep going.

Before you go…

If you want to get more startup advice like this check out our mobile app Playbook. With Playbook you can follow all of your favorite startup authors like Y Combinator, Marc Andreessen, Andrew Chen, & more. We’re still working on product market fit so we’d love to know what you think!