Grow your idea to a startup in 7 days: Make a sale with a paper prototype!

Sam Chow, PhD
The Startup
Published in
6 min readJan 23, 2019


I’ve been through 3 startups in my career, either as an early employee or as a founder. Two of those startups ended up “failing” while the third one was acquired.

Needless to say, like you, I’ve spent many nights reading entrepreneurial books and blogs in hopes of learning the secret to building successful startups — only to find the same information in every book: build an MVP and find product-market fit.

These statements are then usually followed by an example of somebody who had an idea, built an MVP (minimum viable product), hit 1 million users in a week and then acquired a year after.

These stories are often inspiring and entertaining but would always leave me with more questions than answers.

  1. How did the founders know which features to include as part of the MVP?

2. How did the founders build their MVP so quickly?

3. How did they attract their first customer?

We all know about the build-measure-learn feedback loop, but how exactly do we execute on it?

Without further ado, I’ll share with you my framework for taking an idea to product stage within a week. No coding necessary!

Day 1: The idea stage

Read this quote.

“Ideas are useless, execution is everything”

Read it again.

Live by it.

You can spend an eternity discussing with your friends and colleagues why your idea is the best — or complain about how another company “stole” your idea.

Or, you could turn that idea into a real company in 7 days…

The first step is to settle on that one idea you’ve been thinking about the most. Don’t worry that it isn’t thought out enough, if you have a hunch that it’ll work and solve somebody’s problem, it’s time to commit.

It’s now time to pause all your other ideas and commit the next 7 days.

Now, set the stage for success by obtaining accountability. This may come in two forms, tell your friends & family that you’re building a new startup or, my preferred method, make a post about your startup on Indiehackers is a community of entrepreneurs sharing their ideas or blogging about their startup journey.

“Tell your friends & family that you’re building a new startup or, my preferred method, make a post about your startup on .”

The point of this step is to really commit yourself by letting others know what you’re doing. Further, it opens the door to conversations with people other than yourself. No good product is built alone.

Day 2: Talk to your potential customers

At this point, you should have a very vague idea of who your customers are. Find them.


Start discussions on Reddit, open a new thread either questioning whether people have a similar problem (you’ll have to be creative on how you fish these answers out) or whether they think the idea would/wouldn’t work.

Connect with them via LinkedIn and begin asking questions. I’ve found LinkedIn to be an incredible resource for starting my customer research. If I’m cold messaging somebody outside of my network about their opinion, I find that I get a response rate of around 5%.

Engage with prospective customers on Instagram. This will be an exercise on how well you know your customer. From the research you’ve done previously (e.g., Reddit & LinkedIn), you should be able to find hashtags that contain your potential customer.

Similar to before, engage with them via DM and ask questions. Further, if you feel like you’ve found your typical customer profile, save their instagram handles so you can later design your sales message around their profile (e.g., applying design thinking principles).

Day 3: Design your product using paper and pencil

Your idea is realized when it either obtains a customer or makes a sale. This, however, is the hardest part.

Most entrepreneurs at this point begin to think about a website, the layout and the messaging of the value proposition. If the entrepreneur happens to be a developer, they spend the next week/month building, if not, the entrepreneur begins to find others that can build it for free/ a low cost.

Either of these options take far too long.

We’re going to build a paper prototype and sell it!

Now’s a time to whip out your paper and pencil and start thinking about your customer’s problem and your product’s solution. You’ve done some initial research on your customer via online forums, now it’s time to develop that pitch!

In this example below, I’ve quickly sketched out two bullet points on a startup that I last worked on. The idea behind the startup was to connect locals to unique activities in every city (e.g., think AirBnB for activities — years before they actually implemented this idea themselves).

Your product is complete!

It’s that simple.

Day 4–7: Sell, learn, iterate & sell

Now that you have a clear-ish idea of how your product will solve a problem, it’s time to find a way to generate sales or conversations about the product. For the particular example I used above, I was trying to establish a two-sided marketplace.

This required a network of vendors who provided activities and another network of users who were interested in those activities (users who also had the problems I’m solving for).

Although it’d be nice to have a website to establish credibility before heading into the sales cycle, your job here is to develop your sales pitch and network. If you can’t sell a product without a website, you probably won’t be able to sell with one.

If you can’t sell a product without a website, you probably won’t be able to sell with one.

You won’t imagine how much you will learn from talking to your customers. These insights will be the difference between creating a terribly mediocre product and the perfect product for that customer segment you’re looking to serve.

In my case, spending my time upfront with my customers before building a website lead me to build a marketplace for established travel agencies and tourism boards. My original idea was to have locals put on activities for other locals, but upon my many calls with travel agencies and tourism experts, I found a small niche. I was able to make my first sale using a paper, pencil and a relationship.

I was able to make my first sale using a paper, pencil and a single relationship.

At this point, you’ve essentially spent the past week doing practical research on your idea. If you were able to gain traction within a week following these methods, its time to build your website and/or product.


Ideas are worthless, execution is everything.

Choose an idea you’ve been thinking about recently and commit 7 days to it. Tell your friends and family, post on and commit yourself to turning that idea into a real product. Accountability is key when you’re beginning to develop your product.

Begin discussing your idea with potential customers then use that initial feedback to inform your paper prototype. Once you’ve developed your pitch using your paper prototype, it’s time to sell your product.

From here on, all you need is tenacity and grit. Good luck!


Thanks for reading this article!

I’ve recently received funding to pursue an AI (artificial intelligence) based product. I’ll be live blogging about my experience from a global AI incubator (TBD).

Follow me to receive updates on our journey and… learn from our mistakes.

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Sam Chow, PhD
The Startup

I write about my learnings as an AI Product Manager. Hit the follow button to keep up with my musings.