in Customer development, Lessons, Startup

I had already failed the wrong way: having an idea, spending money and time creating a product and then watching it failing miserably. This time it would be different.

I wanted to create a new startup, but I didn’t have the time and the money to fail in the same way. I didn’t even had an idea. Here is how I created and (in)validated my startup idea in 2 months and without spending money:

Did I really need an idea for my startup?

I believe ideas are overrated. So instead of trying to come up with something that I believed the market wanted to buy, I decided to go the other way around: I would ask the market what it needed.

I brainstormed a bunch of niches I was interested in approaching, like lawyers, hairstylists, chiropractors and so on. I evaluated each of the brainstormed niches with a simple points system:

  • Did it have enough businesses? (Like, at least 5000)
  • Was the niche growing? (For example, was it hiring?)
  • How hard was for me to approach the owner/decision maker?
  • Would businesses in this niche have some money to spare on tools?

I finally decided on the wedding photographers niche. They were mostly small enterprises (so it was relatively easy to speak to the owner), there was a bunch of wedding photographers out there and I believe weddings were still a booming business.

After the niche was nailed, the real work would start: extracting ideas from the niche.

Finding who to talk to extract ideas

To find a few photographers I could interview, I simply googled “wedding photographers” and the name of my state. I wanted to first talk to people close by because I thought it was easier, but nothing stops you from picking people in other places or countries.

Then I would send an e-mail, saying something like:

Subject: Weird question about wedding photography

Hi [name],

I am a software development entrepreneur and I am looking into the wedding photography market. I found your name through Google [or whatever means you used]. My goal is to understand big challenges wedding photographers like yourself have and try to help solving these problems using software, thus helping your business grow.

The question I have is a bit weird, but let’s see if you can help me: nowadays in your business, what is too hard, time consuming or expensive?

It would be great to hear from you, even if just a simple phrase.

Sergio Schuler
[my phone number]

Some would reply and some wouldn’t, but that didn’t matter so much (it is quite limited how much you are going to learn from an email).

If they replied, I thanked them and replied that I would like to call them to explore the answer a bit further. Important: I suggested a day and time so they could just say “yes”.

If they did not reply (the first email with the weird question or even the one asking for a meeting) I would call them anyway. If I got blocked by a secretary (very rare in this niche, but might happen in others), I would say that “I am following up on an email we exchanged a couple of days ago”, which usually lead to the secretary thinking I had a relationship with the person I want to speak, passing the call.

Idea extraction interviews

The interviews are the moment of truth of the idea extraction. I highly recommend you record them for your own use (I used MP3 Skype Recorder, a free Skype plugin), so you can keep 100% of the attention with the person you are interviewing and listen several times afterwards.

Here is more or less the flow I used in the interviews:

  • Present myself again, how I found their business and what is my objective.
  • Is it a good time to speak now? [If not, ask when is good]
  • Building rapport. This is to get the person talking. They might not be very comfortable yet, so ask stuff like “when did you start your business?” or “How is the wedding photography market doing?”
  • Then your objective is to understand the challenges they face. If you ask them about their challenges, they probably will say something that is not very useful. So ask them to describe their day, from beginning to end, what they do, etc and see if you find pain points. Other approach is to ask if there is some part of their job they don’t like or think it takes too long.

Once you find interesting stuff, remember to dig deeper. Ask why, how they feel, how they are solving the issue, how they would like to solve the issue, etc etc etc. Your goal is to understand the pain.

Another good technique is to repeat what the person said with your own words, so you can check if you understood and also assure the other person that you understood them.

I interviewed about 30 wedding photographers when I started feeling I was not hearing anything new. So it was time to move to the next step.

Validating solutions for common challenges

Jackpot, you found common challenges. Time to build the product that will solve them, right?

ABSOLUTELY NO.

You found challenges and now you start thinking about how to solve them, right? Ok, so the first thing is to validate your solution with the same guys who told you about the challenges.

Call them again, they should be much warmer to you now. Ask them if they ever try to solve the challenge. Ask how. Ask what happened. Did they try to outsource this? Would they? Why? If you thought of a solution, time to present the solution. See what they think about it. Did they like? Why? What is wrong with it? What would they change?

And the ultimate idea validation: would they pay X [any tentative price you find relevant] for it?

In my case I found wedding photographers from Brazil had 2 common problems (there were more challenges, but they were not very widespread so I ignored them):

  • It took too long to make the “wedding book” (a glorified photo album), because there was a lot of photo picking, editing, making the layout, etc.
  • The administration of the business was a mess. The workflow was the issue, sometimes they would not remember which stage the wedding photo project would be (like quote, contract, etc).

In this case, when I asked them about the first challenge, all of them were very categorical: they would not outsource this part. Why? Because it was part of their artistic vision. In other words, it was a pain in the ass, but they did not want to solve this pain. It was part of the business.

The other idea was the actual jackpot. The problem was that there were already players in the market solving that same issue. Which means there was money to be made, but I didn’t feel confident I would bring something better to the table. So I just let it go.

Last words

Even if it didn’t work out, I take this as a huge win in my book: creating and (in)validating business ideas in a couple of months with almost no money spent is very different from my Teamometer’s story. I am pretty confident that if I keep trying, eventually I will find something worth building.

Just find the pain and offer the painkiller. That’s entrepreneurship.

What do you think? Do you have other hints or would do something differently?

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  1. this is a great approach – you did find a problem but could not reasonably offer a solution – I think if you repeat this with other niches you will find plenty of problems, but few practical solutions.