Whether you are a couple of coders in a garage or a small team in a large enterprise, validating your assumptions early and often can reduce the likelihood of failure, or at least get you to a pivot point sooner. The more chances you take, the more likely you are to hit a homerun.
And, let’s face it, if new products are only 20% likely to succeed, you’ll need all the help you can get. Here are some ways you can use early validation to improve your chances of success:
1. Re-evaluate Your Position Often and Objectively
It’s extremely important to be able to look objectively at where you are as a company, but this can be tough when you see your company as your baby. So, the first step is to break this association.
The next step is to decide, at regular intervals, whether to pivot or persevere. A founder friend of mine recently told me about a really great strategy she and her co-founder use. They have a monthly meeting where the goal is to examine their company’s current trajectory and decide whether they need to pivot or stay the course. This ensures that they are never settling for where their business is at the time.
There’s a caveat here, though. Be careful not to base your decisions on vanity metrics, but on real, actionable metrics. Vanity metrics can paint a false picture of your company’s progress and lead to an erroneous decision (like focusing on pageviews or traffic and not revenue). In this way, vanity metrics can be extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
2. Talk to Humans
From “Talking to Humans.” Photo credit Tom Fishburne
Get Out of the Building
Get out of the building and start talking to humans. You can do this before you even have a product, which can be a great way to gain validated learning about your ideas and assumptions as early as possible.
How to Talk to Humans
One day I was sitting in a cafe here in San Francisco and was approached by a young woman. She politely asked me if I’d be willing to spare 5 minutes of my time to use her new app. She seemed nice enough, so I decided what the heck and said yes. She handed me a phone and started recording over my shoulder as I fumbled my way through her prototype.
When we put ourselves out there, we’re potentially subjecting ourselves to rejection by unenthusiastic, uninterested, or overly critical people, which can be a bit scary. But, it’s this type of scrappy validation that can put you on an early path to building something people actually want to use.
For more advice on the topic, I highly recommend Giff Constable’s book, Talking to Humans. This book is chock full of lessons on how to gain early customer feedback even before you have a product. And, he’s currently offering it for free!
3. Listen to Your Gut, but Let the Data Guide You
Your Gut is Wrong
Your gut is great at coming up with ideas and assumptions based on your prior experience, but it’s almost always wrong. This is why collecting data is so important. You must always be able to validate these hypotheses with hard data.
Some of the greatest entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos may appear to have some superhuman intuition. But, real intuition is being able to propose a unique hypothesis based on your experience and understanding of the market, and then being able to support it with data.
Find “Actionable” Metrics
Making decisions based on the wrong data can be just as detrimental as making decisions based solely on gut instinct. Instead, try to find actionable metrics to base your decisions on. Actionable metrics are data that tie specific and repeatable actions to observed results. In other words, these are metrics that actually are affected by changes in your product or service.
For more on actionable vs. vanity metrics, check out this post by Eric Ries.
4. Reduce Your Iteration Time
When Eric Ries co-founded IMVU, it took 6 months to produce the first version of his product, which it turned out nobody wanted. Even later iterations, which took 2 weeks to build, had the same result. The moral here is that there isn’t necessarily a relationship between development time and customer adoption! The sooner you can get customer feedback on your product, the sooner you can find out what you should be building.
“In retrospect, two weeks was way too long. We could have found out that nobody wanted the product a lot sooner. At a minimum, a simple AdWords smoke test would have revealed how utterly bad the concept was.” – Eric Ries
How Long Is Too Long?
Unfortunately, there are no black and white rules on how long it should take to create a minimum viable product (MVP), and it differs with each product and vertical. But, in general, an MVP is an iteration that has only the features needed to allow you to ship it to early adopters. If a particular feature doesn’t fit into this mold, it might not be essential for your MVP.
Build, Measure, Learn
The Build, Measure, Learn feedback loop can be extremely useful for validating a new assumption. It’s a simple loop that starts with building an MVP, then continues with measuring the MVP’s effectiveness for your customers, which then allows you to learn and gain new understanding.
The Build, Measure, Learn feedback loop.
This feedback loop can be applied to all stages of product development. Whether you’re adding a new feature to your enterprise CRM or creating an initial prototype for your startup, Build, Measure, Learn gets you to validated learning as quickly as possible.
5. Remember That You Are Never Too Big to Validate
Even large companies with big budget internal projects must validate ideas as if they were a startup. As Steve Blank puts it, “The world has changed. The rules that worked in the 1990s no longer work. It’s now a world of disruption.”
If larger companies and enterprises are going to stay innovative, they’re going to need to adopt a lean startup mentality. Otherwise, they’ll be left in the dust of smaller, more agile teams. Intuit, for example, has adopted lean startup techniques internally, allowing them to be more flexible and iterate faster than a typical company of their size.
Even HP, one of the world’s largest PC vendors, has adopted agile practices, allowing them to iterate through new products and validate assumptions quicker. So, whether you’re a CEO of a medium-sized business or a mid-level manager in a fortune 500 company, the same principles of quick iteration and early validation can be applied.
What if Instagram hadn’t decided to pivot from a check-in app to a photo sharing app? What if Odeo had never made the decision to shut down and work exclusively on a new product called Twitter? Product validation is the key to successful pivots like these, and it has led to some wildly successful companies.
When you’re building a new product, pivots can mean life or death. And, without early validation, you’re building in a tunnel of assumptions. The longer the tunnel grows, the more likely you are building the wrong thing.
Whether you’re a new startup or an established enterprise, the same rules apply. Early validation acts as a sort of failure filter, allowing you to make several quick and small pivots rather than one huge one.
Don’t be afraid to question your current trajectory. Always be scrutinizing, always be validating. Who knows, success may be a pivot away.
Now, how do you make sure you are validating your ideas and products early and often?