Playbook: Does Your Startup Idea Stink?

I founded 3 startups. Here’s how to tell if your idea is a good one by only spending $600.

Jake Hurwitz
Feb 13, 2020 · 9 min read

One common reason that many startup ideas stink is that founders focus too much on the idea and not the problem that they are solving.

I founded 3 startups, ran a creative agency for startups where we worked with 85+ clients, and then I worked at a startup studio as the VP of Branding for two years. The vast majority of these ideas stunk.

Over time, though, we learned how to validate that what we were building mattered.

These days, quality is everything. It’s never been harder to launch a quality beta product. Customers are critical of every little detail and quick to churn if your product doesn’t meet their expectations.

This leads to high acquisition costs.

However, there’s a great way to find product-market fit prior to building or launching anything, for only a few bucks:

Create a fake brand, run ads to a landing page, and collect data to start to understand your customer.

Essentially, this transforms the design process into a data-science initiative.

Startup studios do this extremely well.

If you’re unfamiliar with the startup studio model and it’s sheer importance today, I recommend reading the GSSN Startup Studio White Paper and Ben Lamm’s article in VentureBeat — one of my favorite pieces on the model.

This playbook is a thorough breakdown of how I quickly and cheaply use graphic design, website design, and social media marketing to validate if I should launch a new product or company, let alone invest time and money into it.

Most founders invest tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of their life savings into this process. Or worse, they invest other people’s money. Here’s how you can do it for a tiny fraction of that.

Feel free to run through this abbreviated version, or download the full 80-slide playbook that you can use for your next project.

It’s totally free. I’m simply giving it away to help other founders, designers and startup studios save time and money. All I ask is that you give me your thoughts and feedback, and perhaps share it with someone who could benefit from it.

The 10-step process is as follows:

Step 01: Name your idea(s)

Step 02: Run your idea(s) through the validation checklist

Step 03: Clearly articulate your desired solution(s) to the problem(s).

Step 04: 1-hour logo design

Step 05: 1-Day product mockups

Step 06: 1-Day landing page(s)

Step 07: Create your Facebook/Instagram ads

Step 08: Analyze the results

Step 09: Draw conclusions and next steps

Step 10: Address any legal concerns

In this exercise, I’m going to weigh out two startup concepts in parallel, collect data on both, and run with the one that proves more enticing to my audience.

Let’s dive in.

Start by articulating the problem(s) that you want to solve.

Problem №01: The experience of watching mobile video is poor due to spotty cell service, especially on one’s daily commute.

Problem №02: Children are finding harmful videos on YouTube.

Both problems are in the media/video space because my network of media executives is vast and the industry is currently booming.

Step 01: Name your ideas

Problem №01: The experience of watching mobile video is poor due to spotty cell service, especially on one’s daily commute.

Name: Evryday

Seems very fitting for an app intended to be used every day on your daily commute.

Problem №02: Children are finding harmful videos on YouTube.

Name: SnackR

This feels punchy, creative and kids/parents would be drawn to it.

Step 02: Run your ideas through this validation checklist

Spend no more than a few hours on this exercise. Try to answer each question to the best of your ability.

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Download the full playbook to use this checklist

Here’s an abbreviated example for Evryday:

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Here’s an abbreviated example for SnackR:

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If you’re finding a lot of green answers, it’s safe to move forward. If you’re getting mostly orange or red, it may be worth it to kill the project.

Step 03: Clearly articulate your desired solution(s) to the problem(s).

This will likely change in the future.

Problem №01: The experience of watching mobile video is poor due to spotty cell service, especially on one’s daily commute.

Solution: Evryday is a mobile-first platform where consumers can subscribe to their favorite content creators and their videos will be automatically downloaded to their devices overnight.

Problem №02: Children are finding harmful videos on YouTube.

Solution: SnackR is a video app designed for parents to keep their children safe from the harmful videos found on YouTube and across the web.

Step 04: 1-hour logo design

Spend no more than 10 minutes looking up inspiration-logos on Dribbble. Then, in Illustrator, whip up something professional, intriguing to your target audience, and legible.

If you’re not a good designer, I suggest hiring someone on Fiverr for only a few bucks.

Don’t worry about it being the best logo ever made. The logo and brand identity will definitely change later if/when we invest capital into the project. Right now, I’m focusing on speed and efficiency in an effort to save time and money.

Here’s what I came up with for Evryday:

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“Minty-fresh green” is meant to symbolize “minty-fresh daily content” ;)

And here’s what I came up with for SnackR:

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Playful, lighthearted…perfect for a children’s app.

I recommend just picking a novel typeface, typing out the name of the company, messing with the kerning, and perhaps adding a box or circle around it. Pick a quick color palette and run with it.

Do. Not. Overthink. This.

Step 05: 1-Day product mockups

Hop on a whiteboard, crank out a few wireframes, and then whip up some initial product specs. It’s crucial that these are high-quality, clean, and enticing.

Again, if you’re not a designer, screenshot cool bits of nice-looking software on Dribbble and arrange them in a Powerpoint deck to create a franken-wireframe. Then, hire someone on Fiverr to turn your vision into a real wireframe for only a few bucks.

If you’re validating a hardware product, creating quick mock-ups is a bit more difficult, but you’ll definitely find someone on Fiverr who can handle it.

Here’s what I designed for Evryday:

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And here’s what I designed for SnackR:

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Step 06: 1-Day landing pages

I’m a big fan of Webflow, where you can design a quality landing page in just a few hours. I recommend steering away from Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly because the templates are often limiting and generic.

These are the steps that I take when designing a landing page:

  1. Write your landing page copy in a Google Doc. KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid!”
  2. Come up with an enticing CTA, such as “join the waitlist”.
  3. Set up a form in Hubspot or Webflow to capture email addresses, phone numbers, etc. but don’t overwhelm the user with too many credentials.
  4. Buy a domain name for a few bucks, upgrade to the ~$16/mo Webflow plan, and get the site published.
  5. Don’t overthink anything. Done is better than perfect.

Here’s what I designed for Evryday:

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And here’s what I designed for SnackR:

Make sure the site is beautiful on mobile, too. Most of your ad-clicks will come from Instagram and Facebook’s mobile apps. If your site isn’t optimized for mobile, you’re definitely not getting any opt-ins.

Step 07: Create your Facebook/Instagram ads

I launch four parallel ad sets, two for each product in the US and Globally. Set up Google Analytics accounts, too, and link them to the landing pages.

For each ad set, we’re paying attention to click-through rate, clicks, cost per click, impressions, reach, waitlist opt-ins, dwell Time, and top cities/countries.

I’m also testing a series of “drivers” (certain motivations why someone would buy a product) through my ad copy and imagery. That way, I can get an idea of the internal motivations as to why someone would buy my product.

Here’s an example of one ad set summary for Evryday:

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Download the full playbook to see all four ad set summaries.

Our goal is to achieve an email opt-in rate of greater than 1.95% and a CTR greater than 1.04% (industry averages).

Let your ads run for one week.

Step 08: Analyze the results

FB/IG results:

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Google Analytics results were as follows:

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Step 09: Draw conclusions and next steps

So, what did I learn from these campaigns…

  1. Evryday had an above-average CTR in the US and globally. All other campaigns had a slightly below-average CTR.
  2. So, next, I’d like to further understand the European markets and move forward with building the Evryday prototype. I’ll also need to figure out the content supply strategy.
  3. The global email opt-in rate was below average for Evryday and slightly above average for SnackR. This may tell me that US consumers are more comfortable opting into waitlists than global consumers. (Did someone say GDPR?)
  4. US email opt-in rates for both projects were extremely high.
  5. There are a few geographies worth exploring further:
    Evryday: Paris, Madrid, London, Hong Kong, New York, California, Texas, and Georgia.
    Hypothesis: European people often live in the same city that their family has been in for generations, and thus, utilize trains daily to commute into the big city. Also, crossing borders in the EU via train may disrupt cell signals?
    SnackR: Mongolia, Nepal, Laos, Algeria, California, New York.
    Hypothesis: CA and NY are expected, but perhaps there’s a strangely high population of protective parents in Mongolia, Nepal, Laos, and Algeria? Or maybe we got a bunch of spam clicks from there. I might want to ignore SnackR as a global product for now and focus on US markets.
  6. For SnackR, I need to figure out the legalities around this product and the MVP tech stack, how we’re going to get legal, efficient, SAFE, meaningful content into the app, and then build the demo and get it in the hands of parents to iterate the product and figure out the business model.

Step 10: Address any legal concerns

If you have any legal considerations (like I do with our content supply strategy for both products), write up a small report and send it to your lawyer to get some quick feedback on the legal considerations that you may face in building out the company.

Legal learnings:

Evryday: It goes against YouTube’s ToS to scrape their video content and download it to a user’s device. So, as long as I license all of the content from media providers instead of scraping from YouTube, I’m good to go.

SnackR: If YouTube doesn’t like that I’m scraping their video content and hiding certain videos from children, they could easily disable my access to their content.

Final Conclusions

I decided to move forward with Evryday and kill SnackR.

Evryday is showing a very clear and exciting path forward worth investing more time and money into, but SnackR is showing a lot of major risks, as follows:

  1. Building a startup within YouTube’s “grey area” is very risky.
  2. It’s difficult to see SnackR being a company rather than just a product.
  3. I’m not the best person suited to solve this problem at this time.
  4. Lastly, even if SnackR were wildly successful, it would still only scratch the surface on solving the greater problem.

Thank you + Download

Whether you’re a creative, a founder, or a startup studio, I hope this playbook was helpful and will allow you to de-risk all of your ideas in the future.

Feel free to download the full playbook to run-through during your next validation process.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +754K people. Follow to join our community.

Jake Hurwitz

Written by

Building for the future of work at Jack Spades Startup Studio. Former Co-Founder at Global Startup Studio Network. Former VP of Branding at Boulder Bits.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +754K people. Follow to join our community.

Jake Hurwitz

Written by

Building for the future of work at Jack Spades Startup Studio. Former Co-Founder at Global Startup Studio Network. Former VP of Branding at Boulder Bits.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +754K people. Follow to join our community.

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