Finding an itch that's worth scratching

Finding an itch that's worth scratching

Many people fail at building a successful app because they start with the solution in mind. Instead you should focus on solving a problem. Below you’ll find a few ways to validate that: (a) there’s a market for your product, and (b) that your solution actually solves the problem.

Executive Summary

To build a successful product, start from problem and then build a solution, instead of building a solution and then looking for a problem to solve.

How can you validate demand before building the solution?

  • 1. the mom test — don't ask your mom (or friends) if they would use your potential product. People tend to be polite and say 'yes' and that might give you a false sense of confidence. Instead ask your target audience how they currently solve the problem.
  • 2. do things that don't scale — do things manually for your users in the beginning. This doesn't scale, but it allows you to understand your users and even your business much quicker.
  • 3. sell before you build — if there is a market, then you should be able to convince a fraction of that market to buy your product before you build it. Whether it's crowdfunding campaigns or pre-sales at a discount, getting money from customers is the ultimate proof that the market exists.

It’s easy when you notice a problem to fall in love with your solution. The issue is that when you focus on the solution you move away from the problem space. This way you risk solving a problem nobody has, like the creators of the bluetooth connected, voice enabled salt shaker.

Bluetooth Saltshaker

Before you start building explore the problem space. Validate the problem. Validate that people are aware of the problem. And last, but not least validate that people are willing to pay (and pay you) for the solution.

Here are 3 ways to validate the market for your solution:

the mom test

The easiest people to reach out to for feedback are always friends and family. And they (usually) tend to be people that support us and will say ‘yeah, awesome idea’ to whatever we present them with. Don’t fall into this trap. Positive feedback makes us feel good, but it might also give us a false sense of confidence at this important stage.

Here’s an alternative.

Talk to your mom (or someone a friend similar to your target audience). Don’t ask her if she’d use your product, but instead ask her how she’s currently solving the problem you’re working on right now. There are a few options here:

  • she doesn’t register the problem — maybe the thing you found a solution for doesn’t even get on people’s radar as a problem. It’s really hard to convince people that they have a problem, it’s harder still to sell a solution to a problem they’re not feeling.
  • she acknowledges the problem, but already has a solution for it — if you build a recipes app, and she only takes cues from her favorite cooking show, your app might gather digital dust on the shelves of the App Store.
  • she acknowledges the problem and looks for a solution — and of course, if you’re lucky, your target demographic might actually feel the pain and look for a solution on a channel you can promote yourself as well Discussing with your target users about how they do things currently will help you get a clear image of how things work, not how you wish they worked.

This is based on Rob Fitzpatrick’s book: The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you

do things that don't scale

In the early days of building your product it’s worthwhile to do things manually. Answer support emails, make manual recommendations, get on a call and help users use your solution. This will help you learn really quickly what your users like and don’t like about your product.

In the early days of AirBnB, the founders went door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings. Similarly, the founders of Zapier spent hours each day on forums helping people for 8 months before they got their first inbound lead. Their philosophy was: “we can’t be the best and we can’t be the cheapest, but we can care the most”.

You have a unique perspective on the product and the solution, and thus the more you interact with your early users, the more you will be able to find patterns in how they see the problem and the solution.

sell before you build

This goes back to the ‘mom test’ and how if you ask people if they ‘would use your product’ they will often say yes, even if in reality they wouldn’t. Well, if you get them to give you money you can be a lot more confident that they are going to use your product.

Crowdfunding is one way of selling before you build that’s been gaining popularity in the last few years. If you decide to go this route, just know that there are specialized marketing agencies that can handle this for you. The unfair advantage that they have is they already have the audiences of early adopters to advertise to from the buyers of previous clients.

But crowdfunding is not the only way to go, there are simpler ways to go about it. Depending on the type of product you are thinking of here are a few options:

  • pre-sell directly at a discount — sell your prospects on the vision of how your solution is going to solve their problem. Let them know that you are building the solution and that if they buy early they get a fair discount.
  • build a pre-order landing page — to get traffic you would need to either reach out to people or run some ads. If you can’t get any interest without the product, chances are you’ll have a hard time after you’ve built the product as well
  • sign a letter of intent — in the B2B space you also have the option of signing an agreement with a client in the form of a letter of intent. This would basically formalize your clients interest in your solution. Although it doesn’t give you the same feeling as money in the back, it’s the next best thing when approaching a complex problem.

Cash is the ultimate form of idea validation.

bonus tip: Look at the competition. If you can’t find any competition then either you’re breaking new grounds or others have come and gone because there are some unseen problems. If you think you are doing something nobody thought of doing before then it’s that much more important to validate that the market exists.

Follow any of this simple, but not always easy, ideas and you’ll significantly increase your chances of building a successful digital product.


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