A simple way to validate your startup idea

Here’s a simple way to validate your startup idea: take a piece of paper, and write out the names of 5 people that need your product.

Just 5 people.

This is an effective test, because it makes it real. If you built this thing, who would buy it?

Can’t think of 5 people? That’s a red flag. Are you targeting a product at a group of people you don’t yet have a connection with?

“Having a connection with people is really important. A lot of people build tools without thinking about the people that are using them.” – Alex Hillman

Eventually, when you’re bigger and more successful, you might have anonymous customers – people that find you on the web and click the buy button without any social interaction.

But at the beginning, when you’re deciding what to build, knowing a few potential customers by name proves something. It shows that you’re involved in their community; that you’ve been listening to their problems. When you can name your first customers, the people you know need a solution, you can build your product with confidence.

(When I say “know people by name”, this includes the online personas of folks you’ve met through forums, Twitter and other online communities.)

Recently, Nathan Barry gave me some good writing advice that also applies to products:

“To write good content that people care about, write to one person. A specific person. My book Designing Web Applications was written to my brother-in-law, Philip. I wrote what I knew would help him. If your writing is truly valuable to that one person, your ideas will be valuable to many.”

Make sure your idea connects with a genuine human need. Before you get too excited about building something, think about who you’re building it for.

Justin Jackson

Is “sales” a dirty word?

“Making sales” feels kind of sleazy, doesn’t it?

For a lot of us, our feeling about sales stems from a bad experience with a salesperson.

The problem is, most salespeople are selling someone else’s product; they’re not directly invested in the product itself. A car salesman is a good example: he doesn’t design, build, or distribute the cars, he’s just responsible for moving them off the lot. This can lead to the kind of predatory behaviour that we dislike about salespeople:

“The salesman is the tiger, and the customer is the deer. The tiger has to eat, and you can’t eat if you don’t kill that deer. You have to go for the neck. Don’t allow him to leave. But if you try to kill him too early, the deer will wake up and run away.”

– Manny Rosales, Car Salesman from Ep 129 of This American Life.

But you’re different.

You’re not selling someone else’s product: you’re going to build your own. And that means sales doesn’t need to be sleazy.

You own the whole process: you’re going to find a pain, and build the solution. Doing this work, from start to finish, gives you the confidence to say: “People really need this; I need to tell them about it.”

It’s like a tow truck driver. A month ago, my family and I got our minivan stuck in a snowdrift. We needed to get a tow truck to pull us out. Sales can be like that: you’re helping people who are stuck, get unstuck.


Our problem, as creators and builders, is that when we do create awesome solutions, we keep them hidden away, because we’re afraid of looking like shady salesmen. But how are we going to help people find our solution if we don’t tell them about it?

Good salesmanship is finding people that need your solution, and just letting them know that you can help them. That’s it. If that’s what you’re doing, you shouldn’t feel sleazy.

Think about it from the customer’s point of view: what would a “healthy” sales process look like to them?

A few years ago, I had a fellow from a marketing agency call me up:

“Justin, I found your blog online. Can I take you out for lunch and pick your brain? I’m happy to pay your normal consulting rate.”

At the time my hourly rate was $100/hour. He took me out for lunch, we chatted for an hour and a half, and then he wrote me a cheque for $150.

Afterwards, he wrote me an email:

“Thanks so much for lunch. You have no idea how much that helped me. I was feeling so stuck: now I can move forward with this project for my client.”

The client, by the way, was paying him upwards of $20,000 on the project. For him, spending $150 to chat with me was worth it, because he was able to save a project worth a lot more.

What’s interesting is that he would have never found me, if I hadn’t “put myself out there” by writing content on my blog. He was willing to pay me for my time, because he had a real need, and felt like I had the solution.

As someone who can create things, you have the power to change people’s lives. But… if you keep your creation to yourself, you won’t affect anybody.

Finding people that need your solution isn’t sleazy. That’s sales – and it can be a good thing. 😉

Justin Jackson

PS: I’m writing a new book called Marketing for Developers. Find out more here.

We are not normal people

When it comes to building products, the biggest problem technical (and creative) people have is this:

increasing the technical challenge while creating a product does not increase the chance for more sales

This surprises us. We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we’d use to build it, and get excited.

“I could build this on the Twilio API!”

“I could learn that new CSS framework!”

“I could use this new tool I just purchased!”

The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.

Repeat after me:

“We are not normal people.”

Say it again:

“I am not a normal person.”

We’re not. What’s “normal” for us is often alien to our customers. If we’re actually going to sell products, we need to quit thinking about what’s cool to us, and focus on what customers actually need.

Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: the best way to do this is to listen.

Let me give you an example:

I was walking to my barber for a haircut, thinking about all the ways technology could improve my barber’s business. “Software is eating the world!” I thought. As I walked, I began to create software (in my mind) that would eliminate perceived inefficiencies, save him hundreds of dollars a month, and increase sales exponentially.

Then I go in, got my haircut, and got a reality check.

Me: “So, have you ever tried using scheduling software for your appointments?”

Barber: “Oh man, I’ve tried like 10 of them. Terrible! They’re all terrible.”

Me: “Really? None were helpful. Why?”

Barber: “Almost all my bookings happen on the phone, or via text message. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s more efficient than looking at a paper calendar on the wall, and finding them a time. If I have to walk over to the computer, I’ve already wasted too much time. I have 5 seconds to look, and determine when is have a spare block. All the software I’ve tried just gets in the way.”

All the plans in my head, for incredible barbering software, were crushed, in a single conversation.

This is the power of getting out and actually listening to people.

Sidebar: there’s a temptation to try to change people’s priorities so they fit our ideal. For example, I could have argued with my barber that a paper calendar is a terribly inefficient way to organize his business. This is almost always a bad idea. First: he knows his business way better than I do. Second: trying to change people’s priorities is almost never profitable. The amount of energy, time and dollars required makes it a losing proposition.

Here’s the hard part about building, and marketing, products: we have to commit ourselves to the best solution for the customer EVEN when it’s not the most challenging thing to build. Here’s a scary thought: in some cases, a customer might not NEED more software!

If we’re really going to help people, and we’re really going to improve their lives, we have to be open to all possible solutions.

  • Sometimes the best solution for a customer will be to write a book.
  • Sometimes, yes, they’ll need good, simple software that solves their problem.
  • And sometimes, like my barber, maybe what they really need is a better paper calendar, that helps them book appointments more efficiently.

Really, we won’t know until we listen. If you want to get good at marketing and sales, you’re going to need to get good at really listening. Throw away your preconceived notions, and open your ears to what your target market has to say.

You can do this in direct conversation, like I had with my barber. However, it’s also helpful to go to places where you can be a silent observer.

Luckily, the Internet has lots of places like this, especially if your target audience is online. Go to forums,subreddits, Facebook groups, and Quora and listen to what people talk about.

Here’s what you’re looking for: what are people always complaining about? What pain gets brought up over and over again? (Hat tip to Patio11, Derek Sivers, Hiten Shah and Amy Hoy for teaching this to me originally)

I’ve always hung out with developers. Although I don’t write a lot of code, I like working with them. In my day job as a Product Manager, I partner with them every day. In my spare time, I hang out with them on forums like Hacker News, Slashdot, and JFDI. And in my hometown, some of my best friends are engineers. We go out for beer, have lunch, and play volleyball together.

When I hang out with my developer friends, I ask questions and I listen. Here’s a pattern I started to see: developers have the amazing ability to build things, but they’re intimidated by marketing. It confuses them. They don’t know where to start. Here’s a few quotes I’ve collected:

“Like a lot of programmers, I used to view marketing and sales as something that was scummy and below me. It amounted to essentially tricking people into giving you their money and they didn’t get much in return. It wasn’t until I became a salesman that my view on sales and marketing completely changed.”

“I am an engineer and product developer by trade. However, sales and advertising are much tougher for me. What works? Social media? Google? Bloggers?”

A developer who knows how to code and market a product is basically unstoppable. I want to help my developer friends to be unstoppable: to build, market, and sell their own software.

Would you like help with marketing? I talk about marketing and building products every week in my newsletter.

Here’s your homework for this week: I want you to go out, and listen. Leave your ideas at the door. Just ask questions, observe, and record the trends that you see.

Justin Jackson

Feeling threatened

Watching how a company, industry, or individual responds to a threat tells you a lot about how much they understand the needs of their customers.

Recently, Squarespace announced a new feature that allows users to self-create their own logo, online, with simple tools.

The announcement generated criticism from professional designers:

“Hey Squarespace: Impressive how eager you are to destroy your standing with graphic designers. I have to ask how this is a good idea.”

“This really bothers me. These guys should know better than to devalue what others in the same industry do for a living.”

“At first I kind of thought everyone was overreacting about #squarespacelogo until I saw how much of a mockery it makes of my profession.”

It’s natural to feel defensive when something threatens your livelihood. I understand that; it’s scary to think about.

But we really need to look at things from the customer’s perspective: the customer doesn’t really care about the design industry, it’s ideology, or it’s problems. They only care about their own problems.

Ultimately, if the customer finds a different approach to solve a problem (like Squarespace Logo), and it gives them the outcome they want, it doesn’t matter how we feel.

Really, the key to being successful is to eschew your own self-focus in order to stay hyper-focused on what the customer needs. If you’re good at finding (and solving) pain you’ll always be in business.

Squarespace originally built their brand by disrupting two industries: web development and web hosting. Instead of spending thousands of dollars hiring a web developer, a customer can create (and host) their website using self-serve tools, starting at $8/month.

Now they’re doing it again with logo design. Maybe the people who use these cheap, self-serve logos will experience adverse effects: maybe they’ll lose business, or lose the respect of their customers.

Or maybe… they won’t. Maybe these new Squarespace logos will fit their needs perfectly. Ultimately, that’s up to the customer to decide. If they like the results they’re getting from cheap self-made logos, they’ll keep using them.

If you’re going to rally paying customers around your cause, you have to show them what’s in it for them. You’re going to need to show them data: “a professionally designed logo will improve your brand’s perception by 150%”, “according to this study, a well designed logo increases the pride felt by employees”, or “a designer can save you money, by providing an identity that can live for decades.”

But instead of focusing on the customer, and where you might be able to offer more value, I hear rallying cries that come off as defensive and self-focused:

Shop local!
“Don’t outsource programming work overseas.”
“Hire a real designer to create your logo.”

Meanwhile, the customer is staring back at you and asking: “Why? What’s in it for me?”

I think we, as designers, developers, and business people, can ward off most threats by getting to know our customers intimately – and finding places where we can offer legitimate value. No self-defence necessary.

Justin Jackson

Further reading

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This is real life

One thing the online gurus don’t talk about is “real life”.

In some ways I’m guilty of this too. I talk about launching products, building ideal routines, and “achieving the dream”.

But the truth is… real life is messy.

A lot of us like our online personas, because they’re clean. We can hide all of our mess behind smiling avatars, stylized Instagram shots, and clever status updates.

Let’s be honest: we’re not perfect Internet rock stars. Each of us have a personal reality with some “real life stuff” in it: kids who wake us up at 3am, a family member who gets sick, bills that need to get paid, feeling down and lonely on a Saturday night, a messy house that we’d never share on Instagram…

Talking about Instagram, check out this picture, taken by my daughter:

Justin Jackson: real life parenting, this is funny

It’s me, in my bathrobe, eating cereal, with my son on my shoulders (drumming on my head). It’s funny to me now, but at the time, that was a hard morning. My kids got up early – I was tired. I’m wearing my dumpy bathrobe, trying to eat my cereal in peace, when my 4 year old climbs me like a tree. I’m too tired to ask him to get down. He starts singing and drumming; he’s so happy to up there, I might as well just finish my cereal.

You see, I can pretend to be cool on the Internet, but in real life I’m just a dad in a bathrobe.

And the truth is, we all have “stuff” like this. There’s real circumstances in our lives, and those circumstances affect us. This is real life, and it’s good to talk about it.

So let’s talk about it.

First: everyone on the Internet is a real human being, just like you.

Even though some people seem perfect and impossibly cool… trust me, we ALL have real human stuff we’re dealing with. And all those pictures you see of gurus laying in hammocks on a tropical beach? Sure those pictures are real (probably), but that’s not their real life. Everyone has a real life and an illusion of their life that they show online.

BTW: that photo of me above isn’t even “real”. I put filters on it in Instagram. I blurred out some of the mess around me. It’s an illusion.

Second: the relationships you’ve built are really the best thing you have.

“The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated.”
– Christine Carter, Ph.D., Happiness is being socially connected

You have a loving spouse? Cherish that relationship. Invest in it. Be a good lover.

Do you have kids? Man, parenting is hard. But those kids are amazing little human beings. They need your attention, your direction and your love. You’re responsible for them; take that responsibility seriously.

And friends: if you have good friends, that you get to hang out with regularly, that’s like gold. Seriously: I know we all want to build great products, have popular blogs, and make an impact in our industry… but hanging out and laughing with friends is actually better. Don’t forget that.

Third: in terms of building and launching our own projects, there’s a balance here.

On one hand we have to accept that our reality will  restrict what we can do. For example: I’ve had the flu for the last 2 weeks; all I could do was rest in bed, and wait for it to pass. That’s life. If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, your reality’s going to be different than a single 22 year-old. Each of us have unique circumstances that will affect what we can work on, and when. This was especially true for me when it came to writing a book: I decided that a full 300 page book wouldn’t be possible (with 4 kids and a day job), so I wrote a shorter guide instead.

On the other hand, we have to figure out ways to appropriately rise above our circumstances: to get outside our comfort zones; to claw, climb, and push ourselves to where we want to be. Doing something out of the ordinary does takes some grit and some sacrifice. Here’s what this means for me, personally: I’m not going to miss my daughter’s Christmas pageant, but I am going to wake up really early on a Sunday to write a blog post.

Ultimately, our relationships are way more important than any business we’re going to create. Let’s not sacrifice our friendships on our journey to build and create cool stuff.

Fourth: we can’t do this alone.

If we’re going to do extraordinary things, we’re going to need support. The support I get from folks I’ve met on the internet is helpful: a Skype session, chatting in the JFDI Campfire room, or a personal email goes a long way.

But, I’ve found my best support comes from my friends here in my hometown of Vernon. When it comes to “real life stuff” nothing beats local support. You need friends that can actually show up at your doorstep and give you a helping hand, encouragement, and a listening ear.

Finally: let’s talk about depression.

If you’re depressed, or even if you’re just feeling down, please get help from a professional therapist. If you’re struggling with other issues (relationships, self-identity, addiction) getting regular counselling will help. Take care of your health first!

Was this helpful for you? If you want to chat, reach out on Twitter, or join my mailing list.

Justin Jackson

PS: I originally sent this email to my newsletter list, and had some really great conversations with the people who replied. If you’d like to be part of my list, sign-up below: