A litmus test for your idea

litmus test

  • A test that uses a single indicator to prompt a decision

Every few days I get an email for feedback on whether someone’s startup idea is worth doing, or for help figuring out how to pick just one idea and focus on it.

It’s tough making these decisions. We waste too much time working on the wrong things. So how do we improve our chances of picking the best idea?

This post is inspired by Startup Edition, in response to the question, “How do you turn your idea into a startup?”

Folks like Tim Ferriss and Eric Ries have championed the idea of a “smoke test”: simply make a landing page selling a product that you pretend you’ve already made and then use things like Google Ads to drive traffic to those pages. If you measure enough interest (clicks, signups, etc.), make the product.

It’s a valid method for testing some ideas. I’ve even used it myself. But here’s another litmus test I’ve found to be simple, cheap, and immensely useful to vet an idea:

Try blogging and teaching to your intended users before trying to sell them.

A couple years ago I spent many months and countless hours building a branded games company, Cityposh. I ran into hurdles, not unlike those any other company would encounter. But instead of following through, and figuring out solutions, I gave up. I just didn’t have the interest to persevere.

Cityposh was about selling novel advertising solutions to companies doing “brand advertising”. We had to attract two different groups of users: advertisers and people who wanted to play games and win prizes.

But there was a red flag I should have paid attention to.

My blog went cold. I didn’t write anymore. Anywhere.

A huge reason for the cold streak was I simply didn’t have any interest in teaching either of the groups of people I was spending all day trying to attract to Cityposh. I wasn’t interested in writing anything big ad agencies would care about, and I didn’t have any interest in teaching deal seekers how to save money or clip coupons or find new types of Groupons.

There’s nothing wrong with either of these groups of users or their interests. But teaching them wasn’t one of mine.

After a few months we had over 10,000 users playing our games an average of 2 hours a day. But the business came to challenges anyone could anticipate: getting current customers to repeatedly use our solutions, acquiring new brand advertisers, and attracting more consumers to play our games.

When it came time, though, to put in the extra effort to figure out solutions, I just didn’t have the fuel. The disinterest in writing felt a lot like the disinterest in hunkering down and exploring how to solve these problems.

Looking back, it’s all obvious, but it seems so easy to miss.

When people tell me about their idea today, I generally start with just a few questions: Are you teaching anyone who looks like someone who would buy what you intend on selling? If not, why not? Why don’t you start a blog today targeting a typical customer and start posting 500 words every three days?

You want to create a business around innovating the sale of diapers? Start blogging to new parents tips on changing diapers, how to deal with diaper rash, or even about saving for education.

Want to start a website matching up job seekers with employers? Start a blog with tips for finding a new job or new employees.

But, here’s what happens for a lot people: they don’t get past blog post number one. Maybe “Start blog” made it onto their to-do list, but that’s where it dies. Why? Because that feeling you had writing most of your papers in high-school returns. Sheer, utter, debilitating boredom. You can’t possibly commit to consistently blogging for this audience.

Then consider moving on to another idea. Because if you don’t, that feeling you just had, when thinking about writing for this audience, is what you’re going to feel when you wake up in the morning and your business is going through one of its inevitable challenges. If you don’t have the fuel to simply write 500 words, you sure as hell won’t have the fuel to keep running your business when the excitement wears off.

If you want to know if your idea is any good, first check if you even have any interest in persevering. Try teaching before you try selling.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter: here.

Or read other perspectives on this topic from an awesome group of entrepreneurs at Startup Edition.

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