Eight Essential Steps to Reducing Product Risk

Having worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the last 15 years, I’ve seen many who have been percolating on their idea for a long time before finally taking the plunge and getting ready to actually build it and bring it to market.

However, one of the biggest risks when starting a new business is accidentally building something people won’t use, or for which they won’t pay. This is a big waste of time and money. Worse, you may go out of business before you’re able to fix it.

On top of that, over the course of however long you’ve been thinking on your idea, you’ve likely been obsessed with it, and you’ll have fallen in love with it. As a result, you’re likely tied to your specific ideas, and worse, now that you’ve finally decided to take the plunge, your anxious and impatient to get going.

But before you dive right into building exactly what’s in your head, you have to take a step back and validate that you’re headed in the right direction.

Here are the eight things you need to do to validate your idea to reduce the risk of building the wrong thing:

1. Take a step back.

I’m sure your idea is wonderful. But for the time being, you must put your emotions aside and work on your idea objectively. Doing so is critical to making the hard choices you’re going to need to make during this phase of your business.

2. Identify the core job-to-be-done.

You’ve come up with a solution. But what problem is your solution solving? Is it the right one? Is it one that many people actually have, and are willing to pay to solve? Put your specific solution aside for the moment and think about the real pain-point you’re trying to solve. The other items in this list will help you identify the core job-to-be-done.

3. Interview potential customers.

Don’t tell them your solution yet. Talk to three to five actual people about their frustrations and how they’ve solved them in the past. Take notes, or even better, record these interviews so you can review them later.

4. Create a simple prototype.

The simpler the better, because you can really get bogged down here. The ideal prototype is something very simple that you could show a potential user after you interview them about the problem. Find the intersection of what you’ve learned from the interviews you’ve already done and your initial idea. Draw a picture, or create a mock-up, series of screens, or paper prototype that can communicate your solution to a potential customer.

5. Prototype in hand, interview more potential customers.

Start your interview the same way you did previously, focusing not on your solution, but the pain-points they have and how they’ve solved them in the past. But this time, finish the interview by showing them your prototype. Introduce it with something like “I’ve had the same problem as you and I have an idea of how I might be able to solve it. I’d like to show that to you and get your honest thoughts.” Then let the potential customer, ideally with minimal guidance from you, look at your prototype. Ask them what they are thinking as they see it for the first time. Ask them what they think it does, don’t tell them. If you lead them too much, you aren’t going to get honest, useful information.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask them if it’s valuable.

Don’t be afraid to learn the truth about whether you’re building something valuable. Conclude your interviews by answering any questions they have, explaining anything that you think they missed, and then asking them “How does or doesn’t this solve the problem for you?” Then ask follow up questions. If they say it doesn’t solve the problem, ask them why. Ask them “what would you change in order to make this valuable to you?” But if they say it’s valuable, you also must ask follow up questions. One reason is because they may just be telling you what they think you want to hear. The other is that these are your ideal future customers, don’t miss the opportunity find out what they want! Ask these people, “what specifically do you find the most valuable?” and “Is there anything you would change to make it even more valuable to you?”

7. Revise and test your prototype.

While it’s possible that based on your initial prototype interviews you’ve nailed it and completely validated your idea, it’s likely worth revising your prototype further, based on what you’ve learned, and test again. However, if you learned from potential customers that you were headed in the wrong direction with something that wasn’t valuable, congratulations, you’ve just avoided spending a lot of time and money building something that would fail! Now you have the chance to make much less expensive changes and test again.

8. Extract the smallest possible initial first version.

Once you’ve validated that you’re headed in the right direction, it’s important to take what you’ve learned and extract the smallest possible thing you could release and be valuable to customers. Doing this is important because there are still so many other risks to success. The more quickly you can get something real in front of real customers, the better. Perhaps your initial version could be a simple web form? Perhaps it could be a phone number they call? Be willing to do a lot of stuff manually, and don’t be afraid to piece together existing solutions to get the job done. You don’t need to worry about scaling at this stage, you only need to worry about creating something valuable.

Worth the Investment

The steps above may sound time-consuming, but most entrepreneurs will be able to complete them in just a week or two.

One structured process that encapsulates many of these essential steps is the one-week Product Design Sprint.

Whether you do a formal design sprint, or your own take on these essential steps, isn’t a week or two a worthwhile trade off, when you’ve potentially already spent years, to ensure that you don’t waste time and money, and to reduce your overall risk of failure to build the right product? I think so.