When creating a startup, setting out to change the world isn't necessarily a bad idea, but I think it's more prudent to focus on selling fledgling ideas to one person at a time.
And by "sell ideas," I don't mean just convincing someone that an idea has legs and could be a company one day.
That's necessary, but not sufficient.
I mean sell the idea of whatever it is that’s being built.
Make people see if they want to pay money for the product or service now.
The exception would be ideas with multi-sided business models or start-up ideas that are designed to be free for consumers, such as mobile applications.
I’d challenge those with these kinds of ideas to think through monetization early.
If building a free-to-consumers mobile application, how will it generate revenue eventually?
If it’s an advertising play, more downloads of the application will lead to more active users, which will lead to more advertising revenue.
So in this case, focusing on getting prospective users to sign up to a mailing list for the mobile application’s launch could be a proxy for selling.
Jessica Livingston, cofounder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator, recently said:
Sales gives you a kind of harsh feedback that 'marketing' doesn’t.
This concept extends to individuals with aspirational start-up ideas by modifying it to, "Selling your nascent idea of a product or service gives you the harsh feedback that other start-up activities do not."
I believe following this can help determine whether a start-up idea can grow into a company in a short time frame.
Selling forces a customer-first mindset, which leads to building things that customers want, rather than building a startup on many untested hypotheses.
This increases the likelihood that the product or service is something that a group of customers will love, which is one of the most important things for a startup to do.
A danger to look out for in sales is feature requests from prospective customers.
This is tempting because it’s often the case that these customers will claim they will purchase a product if just one critical feature is added to the product.
Oftentimes, these prospective customers are trying to say they aren’t interested in purchasing without giving that direct response.
A good litmus test for this is asking prospective customers to commit to purchasing the product by signing a letter of intent or even asking them to pay in advance.
Both strategies will weed out most of the people who were never going to buy in the first place.
Another consideration in selling early is feature creep.
Even if prospective customers are clamoring for a specific feature, don’t add new features just to placate these groups in order to make more sales and get new users.
This will ultimately lead to something Maciej Ceglowski, the creator of the bookmarking tool Pinboard, calls “abstraction syndrome.”
This is when a product that starts out with a promising vision for how to do things ends up adding more and more features that are requested, and it ends up becoming a generic, bland product.
In order to avoid this, have a strong vision for the future of the product and try to build a loyal base of customers who buy into the vision, rather than adding features as a primary route to customer acquisition.
Find a narrow and deep subset of users who love the early, often ugly, versions of the idea-turned-product, and focus on building for them.
I believe attempting to sell ideas in this manner can weed out dead-end ideas and lead to ideas that have the potential to grow into a major company.
First, I recommend assembling the simplest form of a product or service, and then attempting to sell it.
When building a physical product, create a prototype and search for users who have the problems it’s designed to solve, and ask them to pay for the prototype.
When crafting a software solution to a problem, try to solve the problem manually for people and ask them to pay for it.
As an example, I discovered a problem a couple summers ago when I forgot to purchase a greeting card for my mom's birthday.
In the weeks leading up to her birthday, I had a spark of inspiration to purchase and send her a greeting card.
I didn't act on that notion, though, because buying a card and finding a stamp required too much time and energy, so I put it off.
This process repeated itself several times, and before I knew it, I missed the occasion altogether.
I was disappointed in myself for not following through on this simple task, but this experience left me with an idea for how to make writing to my mom on her birthday a more seamless process.
What I really wanted was to focus more on the handwritten message to her, rather than the logistics of buying her a card.
In the current state of affairs, I'd have to set aside time to purchase a great card that is both an accurate reflection of myself and would appeal to my mom, buy postage, write the message and finally mail the card.
At the core, however, I recognized the handwritten message was the most important part of the card-sending experience.
I simply couldn’t find time to complete all of the steps that came before putting pen to paper.
A few months later, after mulling the idea over — and missing my sister’s birthday — I wrote a knee-jerk email to a group of friends with a Google Form, asking them to provide information for a card they'd like to send.
The simple survey asked for information such as when the card needed to arrive and recipient contact information.
I asked my friends to Venmo me $5 and told them I'd take care of curating a card for their recipient and sending them a pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelope along with their card.
It turned out a few of my friends actually bought into my concept.
I've received valuable feedback from these first customers, and Cardagain, the project I'm working on now, is growing out of that initial product offering.
Why speculate whether a product is marketable?
Selling ideas right out of the gate is the way startups can discover if their products or services have real potential.