Bringing a new product idea to market used to be an incredibly difficult and expensive proposition. That’s no longer true. In fact, there’s pretty much a script you can follow these days.
I’ve been building and launching new products for new companies for more than 20 years. I’ve been chewed up and spit out by the “raise-and-pray” product development cycle several times. I’ve also slogged through the slow growth process of reinvesting profits back into a product over a painfully long time.
The first startup I ever founded on my own, Intrepid Media, took three years to become profitable. My latest, Teaching Startup, was profitable in three months. The difference was I figured out how to work backwards from my vision of a successful product — all the way back to the original idea — and fake each step until I hit revenue milestones.
Prime Your Product for Success
It’s actually never been easier to bring a new product to market. For the first time ever, an entrepreneur can even legitimately start a company, launch a product and generate revenue or investment without risking a ton of upfront capital. Hell, you can even start a company on an installment plan thanks to SaaS tools and subscription pricing models.
But in every single case, the end result is only going to be as successful as the quality of the idea and level of effort you put into executing it. Everyone now has access to all the required tools to evolve a valid business idea to a viable product and market fit. The problem is, very few entrepreneurs take the steps necessary for that evolution to occur.
Think of success as something that your idea, your product and your company has to first be eligible for. There are gates to that eligibility at each point. To pass through those gates, the most successful startups I’ve launched and advised take these steps.
3 Key Steps to a Successful Product
- Validate the idea.
- Validate the solution.
- Validate the product.
Gate 1: Validate the Idea
Is your business idea any good?
Don’t answer that. Because what you think, what your friends and colleagues think and even what advisors and investors think — none of that matters. The only proper answer to that question comes from the market. The only way to get that answer from the market is to put your product in front of real customers.
That used to be expensive. A startup would launch whatever version of their ideal product that their internal economics (i.e funding) would afford them. For decades, product development was constrained by economic ability, not by market viability.
That’s just backwards.
The minimum viable product (MVP) launch strategy has reoriented that notion the right way. MVPs are often misunderstood to be that same economically driven development, just executed more quickly. This is how MVP gets maligned.
The proper way to build and launch an MVP is to go backward from customer flow, not to go forward from internal economics. Map out every bit of functionality the customer needs to be successful with the understanding that you will then go build, buy, borrow or hack that functionality.
Don’t skimp on UX right out of the gate by dumbing the product down to how much money your startup has in the bank, which is usually “very little.” That excuse no longer flies. Instead, whiteboard the perfect use cases for your customers, and cut corners on the business side to provide that level of usage at the bare minimum cost.
When you’re done whiteboarding, move to wireframes. If your business idea is an elegant solution to a painful problem and your customer flow is the business case for your solution, your wireframes will be the visualization of that business case.
Now you’ve gone through the idea eligibility gate, and you’ve got something to show and build on. But this is where a lot of startup dreams go to die (or at least get delayed). Entrepreneurs often stop at this gate to either find someone to code their idea or find someone to fund their idea.
Don’t do that. Not yet.
Gate 2: Validate the Solution
Can your business idea evolve into a working product?
Please don’t build anything before you’re able to answer that question. Because people used to develop their product first, and it led to too many entrepreneurs wasting too much money on poorly designed software or ill-advised fundraising cycles. Without a prototype and a plan, you’re just throwing money into a shredder.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as an inherently bad business idea. But 99 percent of them will die when they come face-to-face with the question: “Yeah, but does it work?” To take your idea through this next gate, you don’t need to prove the idea will work, you just need to show how it works.
Solutions like Adobe XD and Figma will let you take your wireframes and apply motion and flow, which can mimic the user experience. This is where your available time and funding is going to start limiting your result, but again, this is no longer an excuse. I’ve created rich, complex prototypes to sell yet-unbuilt software and hardware to major corporations. I’ve also whipped up MVPs in PowerPoint or spreadsheets to get the basics of the solution across. And don’t get me started on the power of using a simple text doc to build killer products.
While you’re communicating UX in these steps, you don’t necessarily need to show the user interface UI. In fact, I would recommend that you don’t. UI is where most of the bloat, expense and assumptions hinder the solution in its early stages.
It’ll force you to adopt use cases and user paths that you don’t need. Not yet.
Gate 3: Validate the Product
Will the market accept your product and pay for it?
This is, as they say, the million-dollar question. Every business is built on the idea of offering a product that generates $X in value, for which customers will pay $X + $Y to access.
As recently as 10 years ago, it was almost an impossible proposition to bring a new product to market without at least a five-figure spend, likely six-figures. Today you can do it for about $100 a month or less.
Here’s the mission for your MVP:
- The primary goal of an MVP is to create as close to 100 percent of $X of customer value as possible.
- The secondary goal is to determine $Y (such that the customer is willing to pay $X + $Y for that value).
- The tertiary goal is to have a plan for each manual hack, sneakerware strategy, SaaS subscription and no-code/low-code solution so that it will scale as you grow.
That plan could be a more expensive tier of higher usage for a third-party tool. Or it could be a transition to “real-code,” either done in house or contracted out to a development shop. Or it could even be a round of funding when the success of the MVP justifies the leap to a higher and faster scalability.
Either way, the spend is now warranted and in some cases paid for by the incoming revenue generated from your MVP sales.
Look, here’s the deal: Investors and enterprise customers aren’t any smarter than you. But keep in mind they’ve gotten to the size they are by not making bad decisions — especially bad investment or purchase decisions.
Back when I used to invest in startups, I never invested in ideas (save for my own, which is now all I do). I was always asking those questions first:
- Is the idea any good?
- Will it translate to an effective solution?
- Will that product be viable and successful?
My guess is as good as yours. But if you show me revenue and profit, you’ve done most of my homework and due diligence for me. The rest is academic.