Deep Dive into Validating Your Side-Project & Startup Ideas

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@spekulatiusPeter

Building side-projects and learning new stuff every day.

Thanks to Juan Betancourt you can read the article in Spanish as well now 😍️
As a developer, I’m eager to build. That’s what comes naturally to me. Surely, many other developers feel the same. Usually, my thoughts go along these lines: Oh, that’s a neat idea. I can do this. That’s quick and easy. But reality isn’t agreeing with this approach and three weeks later I have to admit it. This happened more than a few times to me. 
Doing the same thing, under similar circumstances, and expecting a different result is not overly smart. Some even consider it insane. So over time, I’ve started to rework my approach on how to evaluate ideas. First step was to let them “sink in”, collect them in a Trello board and re-evaluate after some time. That alone didn’t get me on the path to more successful business. Now, I spend more time on figuring out why my idea hasn’t been worked on before: After all, if it’s such a simple thing to do, why hasn’t it been done?
Seasoned entrepreneurs and indie hackers will tell you that a great idea is only a fraction of successful business. Along the path of abandoned project ideas, I have learned to agree with this. Once you have a great idea you shouldn’t jump into execution. There is a critical step to success before: validation of your idea. If you don’t validate your ideas before you start building, you might find yourself some way into building, just to realize that something significant is blocking your path to success.
Success stories shared by some famous investors do not mention anything about adequate preparation. However, you may want to know more about your business idea before committing it to action. This way, you can minimize the risk of failure and ending up on the Startup Cemetery.
The following steps are an extensive collection of ideas and thoughts on how to check whether an idea is viable for more than a hobby. Once you grasp the concept, the whole process won’t take more than one or two days to get to a conclusion. You also collect important marketing insights for the later execution of the idea, if you decide to go through with it.

Quickly: Why Take Your Valuable Time to Verify Your Idea?

When your new idea is fresh, spending time on validating your idea feels counter-intuitive. But there are some good reasons to switch gears back. Talking to indie hackers on Twitter and other channels, I’ve noticed there are usually three key issues which lead to early failure of their ideas:
  • Scope: People often underestimate the time required to build a minimally viable product and for its operation at full capacity including customer outreach and support. They may find, to their surprise, that a given task, which seemed simple at the start takes a whole month rather than the two days as expected. A clear scope helps a lot.
  • Competition: After you hopefully have overcome the hurdle regarding the scope there is more. Your competitors will be the next obstacle on the way to building your business. Your plan may look good and you start building. At some point you’ve got to name your project. You check the business register or try to register a suitable domain name. To your disappointment you find out that there is already an existing business trading on what you planned to build and, to make things worse, it’s using the name that you wanted to give your startup.
  • Marketing: Marketing is another challenge which may trip you up, if the first two didn’t. Once you successfully named your business, you must still face the hard task of publicizing it. You can rarely just sit back after building and hope that the customers will come scrambling for your products. You need to inform people on a daily basis what you are doing and why they should choose you instead of any other business. If you don’t believe this, do a little research. Many completed but non-marketed and therefore unsuccessful online businesses exist. You will be alarmed by the statistics.
To put in plain words: These are uncertainties you need to predict and evaluate before starting out. Your success may depend on it. The business validation your planning provides is the first step towards counteracting these uncertainties.

Steps to Validate Your Business Idea

For me, validating ideas splits into three simple phases by now:
  1. Searching if someone else is running with the idea, worked on it previously, written or talked about it.
  2. Discussing the idea with others to ensure I’m not missing major issues or blandishing the idea to myself.
  3. Publicly discuss the idea on Twitter, Reddit and validate it with a simple landing page.
While the goal is to validate the idea, I’ve noticed you also learn a lot about the issues people actually face and might pivot (somehow I hate that word lol) early on.
One more thing: As a fan of Google Sheets, I’ve started collecting all information in sheets and structuring it there. You can use my Google Sheet template, if you want. Just click on “File” -> “Make a copy” and you are good to go.

Step 1: Researching your startup idea

Let’s start straight with the first step: researching your idea on several websites, services, and communities.
How to Get Started
Brainstorming is the way to go. Write down three to five sentences describing your idea. Focus on the core features and differences to existing solutions. Catch any phrases and keywords popping in your mind. Identify the common threads. This will be the basis for the next steps: Research synonyms and add them to your list. Based on the list search for related keywords. This should give you a starting point for the final step: searching the internet.
The following list contains 16 items 😯️ No worries, you won’t need all of them. Some won’t apply to your idea. For some sites, it might pay off to use “site:” instead of the internal searches. The items are intended to give guidance and it’s up to you to pick and choose.
  1. The first step is to Google your keywords and phrases in the hope of finding similar projects, discussions or articles. It comes down to the kind of results you find when you search for your keywords. Did you find articles? Were they on high-traffic platforms or niche websites? What kind of articles are they? Descriptive or informative articles? Are people currently discussing it or is it a thing of the past? Do you find your answers already on these blogs? Have you come across any blog post where a customer shares his or her approach to your problem? You should include them in the list “Spaces & Links” if your answer to any of the question is yes - any later references help with your marketing approach.
  2. YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world after Google. Are you able to find relevant videos about your business idea? Check on the viewers' statistics and the comments that viewers leave on the video. Do you find the comments motivating or discouraging? How many people talk in the comments about the service or product you want to build? Include any new keywords you identify in your list as well.
  3. Facebook sits in position three of the top search engines in the world. You can use it to search some of the keywords and phrases from your list. Turn your focus to only the Groups, Marketplace, App, Pages, and posts. You can do this by filtering your search using the filter bar at the top. You will find very useful information from groups and activities. Notice what is mostly discussed in these groups and identify their concerns. Will your business idea bring solutions to these problems? Kudos if you said yes.
  4. Will your business idea offer help to people? Go to Quora to check if there are questions asked by users, which are related to what you are about to offer. Check for any related topics and dig deeper into the questions that have been asked regarding these topics.
  5. Next, search Twitter. Check out project-related accounts. Is there any relationship between these tweets and your idea? Will you bring solutions to some of the problems that concern people? From the responses, do people offer a straightforward solution to these problems? Can you find a hashtag related to your idea? If so, include them in the “Spaces & Links” list.
  6. You can also make use of Reddit. Go ahead and search the keywords in your list thus far. Note all the subreddits that have a close connection to your idea and populate them in the “Spaces & Links” list. These might come in handy later on.
  7. Use Answer The Public to see if people are already connecting with your idea. Make a record of your successful terms and have a look at the questions asked there.
  8. Go to Medium and search for any relevant articles. Have you found articles which discuss a solution to the problem? Add their authors to the “People” list.
  9. Check projects posted on Upwork, Fiverr, and PeoplePerHour. Are there projects about your problems? Listing results on either Fiverr or PeoplePerHour is a clear indication that your idea has a market.
  10. Make your way to Amazon’s Kindle Store. Try to see if you can get any eBook which addresses your problem. Do you find them popular? Check out the bestseller badges and customer reviews. Also, note down any alternative book or links that you find.
  11. Are others looking for solutions to your problem? You can find out on Udacity, Udemy, and SkillShare. What are their selling points? Quick solutions to save time or to make the process easier? Also, check for other statistics such as enrolment figure if you can get any.
  12. Building startups and side-projects in public is very popular these days and you’ve got a good chance of finding existing projects in communities focused on this. Major bootstrapping sites such as IndieHackers and discuss.bootstrapped.fm are a good starting point. Some smaller sites include to include in your search could be WIP.chat and MakerLog.
  13. For already launched projects there is no better place to look than the ProductHunt. Search for your keywords and see what is popping up. On the left you also find an alternatives section with similar projects which might be of interest.

    Bonus Tip: You might get lucky and find a project with shared statistics. Simply add “/open” (e.g. “https://example.com/open”) to the end of any URL and press enter to see if you get more details about the project. These details can give you a lot of insights on the interest in the project.
  14. There may already be projects out there that solve the problem. To ascertain this, head straight to Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Some of the parameters to check on these platforms include the funding status and the number of people who supported the project. Was it funded or not? Head straight to the project website if you can get the link and check on the comments. You can also view their YouTube videos and read through the comments if you can get to them.
  15. It will also pay to check on the niche website such as HackerNews, if your business is in the technology sector. The projects that are of interest are found on the “Show HN” section. Add to your competitor list any project which solves your problem, whether in part or as a whole.
  16. Last but not least: GitHub is a platform for software projects. You can find many software engineers who are more than willing to share their project details including codes. You never know whether you can meet someone who is doing a similar project and have a chance to collaborate or build on top of an existing open source project.
From the findings you get from steps 1-16, you will be in a better position to tell who is interested in your idea and who is not. You might have found one (or multiple) competitors. This doesn’t mean you need to abandon your idea though. Existing competitors simply mean there is a market and the idea is probably viable.
Analyzing Your Competitors
Thumbs up for you to reach this far, as many people might have given up already. You are now well equipped, knowing your target market. The steps you have gone through have shaped your thoughts and made the needs of your users more clear to you. 
The ideas presented here allow you to find and identify closely-related projects and their activities in the market. It pays off to go through every competitor to find out what they are already doing. This gives you valuable information about the marketing approaches tried and taken, an impression of the market size, and a better feeling on how to position your product or service.
  1. Get to know the market performance of your competitors from Neil Patel’s website. This gives you an impression on the traffic volume. Could you turn your idea into a profitable business based on the volume? Keep in mind that not every visitor becomes a lead.
  2. By using Buzzsumo, you can get an idea of the social media shares a website has. You simply key in your competitors’ web address, and it will readily show how they relate with their customers. Higher engagement is generally a good sign.
  3. Many domain name checking tools are available to check usernames and domains. In many cases, when you attempt to find an appropriate (domain) name for your startup, you will come across the projects in the same space. If you come across parked and stale domains, this simply indicates that there is someone already working on the same idea but not yet launched it. It might pay to research who is behind the project. Naturally, I would use my own tool here; Startup Name Check. It checks all usernames and domains you are interested in simultaneously.
  4. Go to the Google search to find out other possible names by typing “alternative” + name. By so doing, you will come across similar projects and also known platforms where those projects are discussed.
  5. Type “site: URL” (e.g. “site:competitor.com”) on the Google search box to find the number of pages that have already been indexed. You will get to know what their blogs discuss.
  6. Look for niche communities around your project idea. Identify any major problems that are being addressed in these communities and the reactions towards them. Are people happy or unhappy with the current solution? A lot of information you can gather from these niche sites will be of great interest.
  7. Do a backlink search for each and every community you included in your Spaces list. Keenly check all the articles that are related to the communities as you are likely to find solutions. Turn your attention to the websites with titles in a question form. There are chances of getting what you are looking for there. If you haven't got a subscription to Ahrefs you can use the seven dollar one-week trial. There are some free tools as well - the information is often much older though.
You investigated all the competitors and might feel quite discouraged by now. That’s understandable and not unexpected. Often, this is the point where I abandon ideas - I simply realize that I can’t invest the time needed to build a product that makes a significant difference. That’s totally fine. I accepted that not every idea works for me.
Some startup ideas might work for others, but wouldn’t work for me - with my tech-stack, experiences, and resources. When you are bootstrapping your business and don’t have any VC support, you need to take these limitations into consideration. I started to share project ideas in the form of lists of side-project ideas for grabs. These are ideas I’m not going to work on, as I don’t have time or I’m missing a path to make money. If you like any of the ideas, I’m happy for you to run with it (for free, of course). Reach out if you want to have some thought exchange.
If you are ready to continue and are still excited to get your solution in customers' hands, keep on reading. The next logical step for me is to validate your idea in one-on-one conversations with potential users and other entrepreneurs.

Step 2: Private Discussions about Your Project Idea

Even if you might hesitate, it’s important to share your ideas with others. Two minds are better than one. Speaking with a potential customer or another entrepreneur will reduce your personal bias. Someone might know more about a competitor or factors which make it harder to monetize your idea. Early customer conversations can help you to position your product or service in the market and focus on the core value you want to provide.
Who to Talk to
The right audience depends on the nature of your idea. The following suggestions might help to identify who you can talk to:
  • First and foremost, potential users and customers of course. Talking to customers is the number one “secret” seasoned entrepreneurs mention repeatedly. These are the people who should guide your business and development of the MVP.
  • Industry experts are always a good idea to talk to. Most likely, they know the market and players better than you. Spend time compressing and compiling the information you gained from the previous interviews to make sure you are well prepared.
  • Bloggers and authors are a good source, as they - similar to industry experts - know what is going on in the market you want to address. Keep their interviews personal, as you might want to build a longer connection and suggest collaborations to market your new side-business later on.
  • Talk about your idea with other entrepreneurs. Let them know what you are up to. Their opinions will be useful. Don’t stress yourself thinking that they will implement your idea before you. They are already busy with their own businesses and have little time to spare.
If you opt to use the Google Sheet I’ve provided, you might have collected some names and contact details already. If not, you might need to go through some of the niche communities you identified earlier on.
How to Validate Your Startup Idea in a Simple Conversation with a Potential Customer
Asking the right questions and listening closely is key in customer interviews. The following gives you guidance on what questions you should prepare before the interview. Make sure you’ve got your questions ready and your mind set on listening instead of explaining:
  • The starting point should be a problem-statement which you seek to address and how you will do it. When done, invite the second party by asking open-ended questions such as “What do you think about this?”. Besides the actual response, how he or she responds will give you what you wanted to know. Take note of any positive comments as well as negative ones. Also, don’t be fooled that just because you didn’t get any negative comments, your idea is fine. Some people don’t want to criticize others.
  • Ask what they love about your solution. Is there anything they like about what you're offering? Note down all these points and identify what to focus on during the development. The notes also help to find out if there are any recurring complaints and give you a starting point on how to improve on them.
  • Ask if there is anything the user would like to see included in the solution. Ask the same question in reverse: ask what they would remove, if they could.
  • Once the user indicated that they are interested in your product or service, you can also ask, if and how much he or she is willing to pay for it. This usually separates the wheat from the chaff. If statements such as “If it does X, I would …” come up, that’s a sign they aren’t willing to pay for it.
  • The last thing to ask before appreciating their time and participation is to ask if they will be excited to share your solution with their colleagues. Besides the payment question, this will give you a good indication of success as no one would tell their friends about something which doesn’t appeal to them.
After conducting a few of these you will get a feeling of the way people respond to your idea. Is there confusion? Do people need further explanation of what my goal is? Are people willing to pay for my product? Try to complete at least 5 to 10 conversations before you jump onto the final step - seeking public opinion. If you don’t have enough people, try to identify more by asking your existing contacts.

Step 3: Using a Landing Page to Verify Your Idea

After spending hours reading in step 1 and talking to customers and others in step 2 it’s finally time to go out and start publicly talking about your idea. Design a simple landing page. Briefly explain the problem and solution you intending to offer. Give the visitors a chance to give you their email address, if interested. The number of email addresses gives you an indication of how people positively perceive your idea. Don’t forget to include an option to contact you - email, contact form, Twitter, etc.
You can do all of this for (almost) free with existing website-builders. Carrd turned out to be a great pick for this. It allows you to build a stunning one-page website. AJ, the founder of Carrd offers different packages for different purposes. If you want to connect a MailChimp (free) account to collect email addresses and a custom domain, then a Pro package at a fee of $9 per year is the one to go for. Make sure to connect your Google Analytics too. To find the right domain, check my side-project startup name check - simply enter in the keywords or phrases from the previous steps and find the right name for your landing page.
Presenting Your Idea to the Public
Again, finding the right spot to present your landing page is niche specific. Make use of your "Spaces & Links" list here. Your posts should brief and clear. A small introduction, problem statement, and the solution that you intend to offer. It also pays off to provide some value based on the insights you gained so far. Every post should link to your landing page. This will help you to build your email list.  You should write a custom post for each community. Don’t just copy and paste - people will see this as a marketing attempt. This would burn valuable ground.
Start with posting your idea in niche communities first. Take their feedback, tweak your messaging and expand to larger communities. Move on to asking for feedback on IndieHackers. Reddit has some interesting places for you as well: r/Entrepreneur, r/Startup, and r/Business_Ideas are great for reaching out to other entrepreneurs and discussing your ideas. If you haven’t found niche-sub reddits during the first step, keep an eye open for niche sub-reddits. Twitter is also a good spot to connect with indie hackers. The latter might require assistance from an entrepreneur or user with a suitable audience. Make the required connection before you tweet you post. 

Closing Words

Sorry about the long article. It got longer than I expected. You must think this process is a beast. Maybe it is. But it’s doable within a surprisingly short amount of time once you have done it a few times. In the end it comes down to the key question: Is it better to build a project for a month and realize you’re running out of steam or got too many “unforeseeable” issues to continue or spending a few days finding out if it’s actually worthwhile and learning a lot along the way? The steps can help you deal with the uncertainties at the beginning. 
Another way of looking at it is as an investment in terms of time. It helps you to better understand your market, customers, and competitors. You will have a renewed energy to proceed with the building once you are certain that your idea is viable and will run smoothly afterwards. Now, building your MVP and starting marketing are your next steps.

About the Author

Hey, I’m Peter Thaleikis - a nomad developer turned indie hacker. I’m running a small dev-shop called bring your own ideas. If I’m not deep diving into client code I’m building side-projects such as the SEO Tool Extension and the above mentioned Startup Name Check. I’m always happy to hear from you. Reach out via Twitter or via my contact form.

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