This is a follow-up to Give it away in response to the question: “How do you validate interest before the product is built?”
I’m going to walk through my thought process and strategy around a new project I’ve been playing with to [hopefully] show what’s happening under the hood.
After failing at business blogging several times and then quasi-succeeding, I began to wonder whether many other people suffer from the same problems.
Testable question #1: Is this a real problem that lots of people have and do they care about solving it?
I wrote a couple articles about my experiences. The strong response reassured me that lots of people had the same problem and would like some solution. I also gave a couple talks at local events.
Beyond a general sense of “people want a solution,” the resulting conversations highlighted one specific problem loads of people had: deciding what to write about.
Testable question #2: Does my imagined value proposition (of overcoming blogger’s block) fit & solve their problem?
I spent a few hours putting together a free workshop in London with the promise that attendees would get “2 month’s worth of blogging ideas in 20 minutes.” 45 people showed up, we had a great time, and they actually did leave with 2 month’s worth of ideas apiece.
By this point, I’ve zoomed in on a specific, solvable problem and have a value proposition which attracts a crowd and can actually solve the problem. That’s a lot of information I didn’t have the week before!
Quiz time: If you were in my shoes, what would you want to test next?
I decided to find out whether it would still be appealing without me in the room as a facilitator. Or, put another way: could it be a webapp?
Testable question #3: Does the appeal of the in-person workshop translate into appeal for an online webapp?
I announced my plans and offered early access for retweets. 30 kind souls obliged and I had bit more information — the webapp was desirable, at least to some, and they were happy to talk about it publicly.
I coded up a crude version over new year’s eve and sent it out to most of the early 30 (I also know I missed a few of you–I am so sorry!)
Testable question #4: Will users endure a 20-30 minute online workshop?
Testable question #5: Upon completion, do they consider it to have been time well spent?
It’s a highly biased group, but early results were strong. Almost everyone who started the workshop completed it and once they did, feedback was unanimously positive. Even better, about 80% of them tweeteed about the experience. While it’s still far from viral, the high public recommendation rate is a useful early indicator.
Testable question #6: Can it grow virally?
In the coming week, I plan to finish version 1 and really begin testing the growth engine. I know it will be time well-spend since I’ve already validated the value proposition across several mediums: blog posts, workshops, talks, twitter, and a crude webapp. I’m confident about the problem, the value proposition, and the core features.
If you’d like to check it out, it’s at whattowrite.org.
Strategy for hobby projects is the same as strategy for startups
I’ll basically continue this approach for as long as the product exists, regardless of whether it’s my hobby project or a “serious” startup. I’m always ready to kill it if it turns out to be inviable (or to increase its resources if I validate all the easy stuff and it still looks good).
This simple cycle is the core of all startup strategy:
- What are the biggest assumptions and uncertainties baked into our idea?
- What’s the fastest, cheapest & easiest way to answer those questions?
- Do it.
- Measure it.
- What are the biggest assumptions and uncertainties still baked into our idea? And so on.
Code ain’t nothin’ but a way to answer questions
Note that I didn’t write a single line of code until I was up to assumptions 4 & 5, by which point I was confident in my problem, value proposition, and customer segment. The total time spent coding to date is still well under 20 hours — a single long weekend or a week of late nights after work.
Anyway, that’s how I approach this stuff. It’s also why I really love side projects. You can answer a lot of questions without terribly much time or cash invested and then make a smart decision about when to double-down and quit your job, raise funding, build a team, etc.
 I’m fudging the timing here a bit for the sake of narrative clarity. Rather than the problem statement springing fully formed from the skull of Zeus, I actually wrote the blog posts first, the response to which made me suspect I had stumbled across a real problem. I don’t think it makes a difference to the lessons-learned one way or the other, but wanted to clarify.
 Social news sites are an incredible first testing ground for new ideas. My standard response to being asked whether something is a “good idea” is to ask who it creates joy or relieves pain for and then pull up the list of subreddits. Your product is going to change the way some person goes about their day, which means you have a vision for what’s wrong with their day and how it should be instead. They’re out there already, conveniently self-identifying into subreddits. The first test is to write something that gets them excited.
 30 early volunteers is a conversion rate of 2% from my 1500 followers, which, in my limited experience, is about the best you’ll ever get on Twitter. Plus, those were retweets, not clicks, which sends a stronger signal. For my money, that falls well within the category of “good enough”.
 Does anyone actually read the footnotes? They’re my favourite part.