This past weekend I mentored and judged at Lean Startup Machine Chicago (#LsmChicago), and it was an incredible mix of education and competition.
Don’t be a vanity startup
A ton of future founders (of all talent/skillset varieties) show up at the location, pitch their ideas, and then team up (2-5 people) around the best ideas before getting to work. Their primary goal is customer validation in the form of problem interviews, solution interviews, and eventually the acquiring of letters of intent (LOIs), or even (surprisingly) a few legitimate sales. We're talking sometimes $3 or so, nothing major. The goal is to hone your idea down to something that is so appealing that not only does it solve a customer's "pain point," but they will give you cash monies…a pretty big achievement for a 2.25-day event.
So on that note of pain points… the mantra touted by LSM workshop organizer Ryan MacCarrigan is that you want your solution to be not merely a vitamin, not an aspirin, but a morphine for what's troubling the customer. We hear Eric Ries talk about “vanity metrics” but there are many vanity startups, too… thriving on pseudo-problems. We're all guilty of it, and sometimes vanities turn into products you could never imagine living without. Still, the best predictor of success is the confirmation of clear-cut, painful problems.
Biggest lesson: hit the pavement
I would therefore say that the biggest takeaway for me, as a mentor (but also someone who works with other founders daily), is that every startup should be spending a weekend doing heavy-duty, coffee-chugging, pavement-pounding customer validation. Get a sample large enough to really hit home. 2-3 people telling you a story is not indicative of the rest of your market (unless you get extremely lucky), something we address with our Idea Gallery on Junto. Talk to a group, iterate on your survey/question/presentation technique, and then go do it again. Keep doing it until you're not getting enough negating or indifferent responses to make a mark in your research. Just because you're not presenting at a workshop like LSM doesn't mean you shouldn't collect your findings and maintain a thoughtful perspective.
On top of the validation-affirming moments in mentoring, I also led a small Q&A workshop on nontechnical iteration. I find that you can come up with some swanky surveys in google docs, get a landing page up with Launchrock or Kickoff Labs, and then create an interactive wireframe in Mockflow …. and keep refining that until (again) you've hit a stable validation flow. Then, take your resources, package 'em up and talk to developers. Your thoroughness will show them that you're in it for the long haul and that you're the best kind of founder: hands-on and ever-ready.
So go on, get your hands dirty and investigate your market. You're only doing yourself a favor no matter how long it takes.
Marcy Capron is the CEO of Polymathic. Polymathic uses its toolkit called Junto, an online environment for building startups within an open feedback loop, to make MVPs accessible for nontechnical entrepreneurs.