A lightbulb resting on a chalkboard with 6 bubbles drawn outwards from it

A lot of my crazy product ideas have failed over the years, but one thing I’ve gotten pretty good at is how to validate them (more importantly, how NOT to).

Today, I’m going to break down a simple formula for how to think about the product validation process so you don’t fall into the same traps I did.

You may be familiar with this framework from back in your days as a student.

Drumroll, please…

It’s the 5 W’s!

Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

Except for this time around, I’m going to frame them in the context of validating product ideas, not plotting out a short story.

I’ll be leaving out the When component because, in my opinion, the best time to validate is always before you build your product. Unless you like wasting your time and money, then by all means!

And I’ll be adding in a How section; you’ll see why in a second.

Note: I am not an expert, this is just what I’ve learned over the years based on the failures I’ve gone through.

WHO the Heck am I Selling to? Link to this heading

I used to think the best way to come up with ideas was to look for problems and needs, then define a target market.

While this works, I’ve found that more often than not it’s easier to start with a market, look for problems in that market, then come up with possible solutions to that problem or ways you can improve existing solutions.

It may not even need to be a super novel idea. Most ideas worth pursuing already have some form of competition. It’s a sign of a market with healthy demand.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel unless you’re planning on launching people into space or building flamethrowers like Elon Musk.

Even if you already have an idea, the first step is always to define who’s willing to pay for it.

You need a monetization plan.

It could be a persona, identity, group, movement, niche, industry, or any other subset of the market. The more defined and/or passionate the niche, the better.

From there, take some time to formulate a customer avatar (also known as a persona, profile, or however else you want to label it).

This avatar can be broken down even further into a few key criteria:

  1. Demographics - Age, race, gender, geographical location, profession, income level, etc.
  2. Psychographics - Identities, passions, dreams, interests, fears, wishes, beliefs, values, etc.
  3. Hero’s journey - Their story, how their narrative plays out, who they want to be.

You can go way deeper than this, but that should get you started.

WHAT Problems Do They Have? Link to this heading

Now that you know who you’re selling to, you can plug in a potential solution.

If you’ve done the analysis above and the solution doesn’t fit your market or their needs, how can you modify it so it does?

What problems does your market have? What other solutions are on the market already? How does your potential solution better solve the needs of the market?

What is your differentiating factor or USP?

Think outside of the box here. Nothing is off limits as long as it’s important to your target customer.

WHY Your Product? Link to this heading

Building off of your customer avatar, extrapolate this into the underlying reasons why your avatar needs your proposed solution.

It’s not enough to simply offer a solution. You need to demonstrate how or why it’s going to make their lives better.

Will it save them time so they can be with their family more? Improve their health? Let them underwater basket weave for an extra hour every day?

People don’t buy luxury cars for the speed and handling alone. They’re buying status, excellence, and an overall feeling that they’ve made it.

Keep in mind that your reason for starting the product, even if it’s to scratch your own itch, may not line up with why your market wants it. Always verify before building.

WHERE Does my Market Hang Out? Link to this heading

Now that you know:

  1. Who your customer is
  2. What problems do they have
  3. Why your solution is the best…

The next step is figuring out where to reach your market. How will you get your hypothesis in front of their face?

If you’re testing the market, you don’t want to be doing it in all of the wrong places.

Let’s say your target customer is the owner of a painting business. If your idea of a valid test is to run Snapchat ads you probably haven’t thought about your market enough and should go back to step one.

Who knows, maybe there are some middle-aged Snapchatting painters out there.

On the other hand, if you’re thinking of scraping yelp and cold emailing the actual owners of painting businesses or joining an industry Facebook group, you may be on the right track.

HOW Can I Reach These People? Link to this heading

Knowing where to laser target your validation experiment should also help you figure out the vehicle with which to do so.

Which channel and medium can you reach your audience through?

Sometimes it could be as simple as running paid traffic from Facebook to a landing page.

Other times you may have to rub elbows with people in person and talk to your market the old-fashioned way.

Maybe both are the best choice in some cases. You won’t know until you sit down and do some research on where your market hangs out and formulate a strategy to get eyeballs on your offer.

Plain and simple: you need to know how to reach your audience.

The Secret Sauce of Validation Link to this heading

Now that you have all of this fleshed out, it’s time to put your nose to the grindstone and gather as much feedback as possible.

You can validate your idea in a few different ways, but the best form of validation is always a cash outlay of some sort.

Pre-selling the Solution Link to this heading

This is where pre-selling the solution comes in.

When pre-selling, the goal is to simulate the buyer’s journey as if your product already exists. You can do this manually or set up some form of automated payment capture.

Just make sure to be transparent with your early adopters. After purchase, make it clear that it may take some time to deliver the solution they’re looking for, and be explicit about an expected timeframe.

If you do get the validation you need, this should kick you into gear and motivate you to deliver on your promises. You have a tangible incentive now. People have trusted you with their hard-earned money and they’re counting on you to follow through.

Example Pre-sales Workflow Link to this heading

My favorite way to pre-sell is to throw up a simple landing page with a solid design and enticing copy that speaks to my audience.

From there, I run paid traffic or generate organic traffic to my landing page manually by engaging the market. And of course, set up that simulated payment capture to pre-sell the solution.

If you’re not comfortable collecting someone’s money with no product on hand, that’s understandable. There are a few ways to get around this:

  1. Configure your payment gateway to delay processing the charges until you get explicit permission to accept their pre-order.
  2. Manually charge back the purchase, give them a discount code, and offer to keep them updated on the release via email.
  3. Redirect them to a page that tracks conversion events in your analytics and take the whole payment processing step out of the picture completely.

The key is just to simulate the purchase as best as possible.

If after this point they’re still eager to receive updates on the product release this is a sign that they’re WAY more likely to purchase on release day than cold traffic or email subscribers.

Gathering Market Demand Intel Link to this heading

Validation is also a great excuse to gather more intel by emailing those who opted-in and asking for their feedback. As you begin to develop your solution, you can send your audience real-time updates by adding them to your email list.

Interacting with your audience this way benefits both parties. Your potential customers may feel a sense of belonging going through this journey with you which in turn makes the whole process much less stressful for you, the product developer. With no support system, you’re much more likely to get discouraged and give up.

These early adopters are the lifeblood of your business. If you’re truly filling a need of theirs that they feel will improve their life in some way, they should be open to this approach. Otherwise, they’re not worth your time and you should work to find people who are, or move on to the next idea.

Conclusion Link to this heading

Ideas are a dime a dozen.

Anyone can sit down and say their idea is the next big thing but until someone pays you for it, it’s nothing more than that - an idea.

Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire yelling Show me the money! into the phone

Creating a product people love can be a lonely journey. I know because I’ve been there.

But validating your idea beforehand is the best way to protect your time, money, and sanity when diving into the deep, unknown waters of a new market.