How we validate ourselves and our business ideas.

Illustration of eyeballs staring at viewer on yellow background

The road heads away from the sea, past the cinema, casino, and a hotel where The Beatles once stayed. The road hits a fork. Left down to the square and right up towards the church as it turns into Gervis Place. Just before the church on the right-hand side, is a cupcake shop. Years before it was a shoe shop called Jones.

One day I was walking past Jones the shoe shop, it was having a closing down sale. One thing caught my eye. I stopped, gazed at the window display for a few seconds, then walked in.

In the shop, on top of a box sat a pair of white leather, lace-up shoes. I picked them up, flip them over, and saw they were my size and half price.

You couldn’t ignore the shoes — they were so white they virtually shone. As I held them, I was conscious of being eyeballed. I turned around and saw the shop assistant who looked back at me with a quizzical smile. I sat down, and after pulling both shoes on, I looked down at them, They were white all right. I stood up and walked around. The assistant smiled at me as paced up and down in them. I tried to appear dignified, but I was secretly having a conversation with myself:

‘I’m walking around like a twit in a pair of white shoes’

I buried that thought, and as I sat down to take them off, I decided that I’d buy them. Heck, they were white and bright, but I didn’t want anyone to think I’d lost my bottle. No! only the brave buy white shoes. And besides, I was committed — I’d tried them on so now I’m duty-bound to take them to the counter and pay.

I handed over my credit card, the assistant handed me back the receipt and a bag. She raised a warmer smile. I’d love to have known what she was thinking.

I got home, and my wife rolled her eyes when I showed her my new shoes. It was a taste of things to come. That was the reaction that most people had. Like white trousers, jackets, cars, and sofas, white shoes stand-out but are in no way practical. They get dirty quickly. Their shine fades.

I can only remember wearing them a few times. After each outing, they’d need cleaning and touching-up with white cream, which is effectively Tippex for shoes.

Their first outing was to a friend's wedding in Somerset. Upon arrival at the swanky wedding venue, the Father of the bride, Mike, walked up and shook my hand, looked down and said “Nice shoes!”, he did an about-turn and walked off laughing his head off. The rest of the time, those shoes were the butt of many jokes. At the time, I wasn’t laughing.

I learned that white shoes make people react. I thought ‘they’re a bit different’. People are bound to raise their eyebrows. But I’d convinced myself that they were wrong and I was right, in my bright white shoes.

It took a while for me to realize my mistake. As the months and years passed, I wore them less and less. As I grew into my forties, they looked more like the shining apex of a midlife crisis. After years of the shoes collecting dust, I finally threw them out a couple of years ago. It begs the question ‘what was I thinking?’ and ‘If only I knew then what I know now’.

I love that wise, nostalgic, comedy feeling — when you look back and remember a moment when something seemed like such a great idea. In hindsight, it was fanciful. Nothing has physically changed the idea. But the context has exposed it as pure folly!

  • A wry smile fixes my face
  • One eyebrow dips and the other raises
  • I snigger through my nose
  • I gently shake my head and look-up to the heavens
  • Finishing with a sigh and a purse of the lips.

How many start-up ideas lie buried in a dusty presentation deck? The ghostly numbers from an old business model faintly rubbed out on a whiteboard. Archived logo concepts that never saw the light of day. The fine details agonized over for days and weeks now wasted and futile. Relics of an idea that never quite made it.

When a new business fails, it costs financially and emotionally. The post-mortem is a lament; a sober reminder of an exciting time when anything was possible. An idea that was on course to change the world.

What has the purchase of a pair of white shoes got to do with a failed business idea? Not a perfect comparison. But, there is something in how we love to be wise after the event. Hindsight is a curse as well a tool for learning. Is there a way to be smarter before the event? If I had my time again, would I have bought those white shoes?

Let’s think about start-up ideas. I read up on a few reports, and it seems that the number #1 reason why start-ups fail is due to a lack of market demand. The ultimate validation of an idea is when a customer pays for it. In that context, the start-up failed because nobody wanted to part with their hard-earned cash.

We want to do the right thing by others. As social creatures, we need the endorsement of the herd. Or we want honest feedback like ‘It’s not giving me anything more than what I already get with my usual purchase’. Or, ‘did they have those shoes in any other color?’

Validation is important in our human development:

  • “Hey Mum, look I can ride this bike without stabilizers”
  • “Hey Dad, I just got a pay rise”
  • “Hey mate, I met someone”

“I’m not what I think I am, I am what I think you think I am.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Validation lives in that middle chunk of the triangle. Esteem and Belonging are essential parts of what motivates us. From a soothing nod from a parent to pixels on a post.

Back in 2005, Andrew Pile, Jake Lodwick, Kunal Shah, and Zach Klein developed the first ‘Like’ button for the Video platform, Vimeo. The Facebook ‘Like’ button followed. They are an iconic example of validation in the social media age.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re on a constant hunt for validation of yourself and your idea. Until you scale-up, bring in staff and add process, you and your idea are inseparable. Validating your product helps you de-risk launch and dodge the banana skins of failure.

As entrepreneurs, it’s written in folklore to ‘fail fast’. But it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. Culturally, failure is taboo. Growing up we’re told to battle failure with bravado.

‘Failure is not an option!’

You’ve probably heard “failure is not an option” in an action-packed Hollywood blockbuster. You may have whispered the same words to yourself the night before an exam. Then you leave education, start a business, and become an entrepreneur. Next thing failure is your badge of honor.

So if you’ve just binned your idea, is there’s a way of bringing it back to life? Can you pick the bones and find some part of it to reuse? You can always mine value from experience.

Like we already said, ‘being wise after the event’ means recognizing the things we didn’t get right. And we’ll do that more than once. You will dance with success and failure regularly. Think Edison’s lightbulb attempts and Dyson’s prototypes.

Self-help blogs and books write about why you shouldn’t seek validation from others. They advise you to look inward and feel comfortable with who you are and your own concept of self. However, in a business context, there is someone else who will need to validate your idea: your customer.

Before you build something that customers will love, listen to them. Hear how they talk around the product, what pains they have, how and where they need your help. Don’t leave validation until the end of your product or service development.

Start with validation at the beginning and use it right the way through — like a stick of rock.

Get in close with customers. Try and view them as co-creators of your product or service, rather than owners of a transaction. Validation from customers at the get-go means you’re building value every step of the way. Nothing is wasted.

There is a more natural way to think about validation. See it as a means of finding solutions.

Focus less on starting a business — think more about solving a problem.

Ultimately, that is what you are validating — the ability of your product or service to solve your customers’ problem. Involve them early because the customer had the problem before you got involved. They’ve got a head start on you. Use it to your advantage.

This great piece from entrepreneur, Thomas Oppong:

‘What is the one painful problem you can solve without struggle? To grab your customer’s attention, start by solving their needs, wants rarely make the cut. If your product is not a must-have, you could still find a way to repurpose it to solve a pressing need. If you have been able to identify a crucial problem that you can effectively execute and deliver to market, you will be able to create a real business that matters.’

Full article

It’s just too dam easy to put it off and carry on doing what you think is right. Here are some other common excuses that get in the way:

  • “It’s not ready” — It probably is. Get it to Goldilocks standard. No more, no less.
  • “What if they hate it” — what if they don’t? Besides, no one ever learned anything from getting something right.
  • “What about we do this first?” — what about we do it later? (we might not need to do it at all) The validation process might need us to fix something more critical.

Stacks of people burn time and money trying to build the perfect online course (me included). Co-founder of The Happy Startup School, Lawrence McCahill posted this recently on LinkedIn. It’s the perfect plan B that builds validation from the off:

1. Don’t build an online course
2. Start with the people you want to help. Find 10 of them.
3. Don’t sell, start with an ask e.g “I’m looking for 10 [insert audience here] for a pilot online course to help them [insert desired outcome].
4. For the pilot don’t pre-record videos, host a live class each week on Zoom and record that. Make it 3 or 4 weeks long max.
5. If you want a place for people to interact outside of the calls use Whatsapp
6. For payments either set up an eventbrite page or just a paypal link
7. When you’re ready to create a ‘proper’ course use a platform like Teachable.
8. Remember it’s all about how valuable the content is and the people you bring together, don’t let tech get in the way.
9. Perfection is the enemy of done. Your first course won’t be the best. That’s fine. Ship it and learn along the way.
10. Frame the value by quoting the price you will charge for it in the future, but charge a lower fee for the pilot in return for feedback.

Validation is a nourishing and instinctive human emotion. It’s also a powerful business tool. Its gift to you is wisdom that you can use to navigate a path through the twists and turns of your business journey. It helps avoid those painful ‘what could have been’ moments (and fanciful footwear purchases).

Whatever the situation, validation is a way to measure if your business idea has solved your customer’s problem.

I would love to hear about your validation stories. Drop me a line here

I write about insights, design thinking and digital miscellany. Subscribe

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store