Every person who has had the courage to start a business has done so with imperfect information. There are always unknowns. We all wonder, “Is this even a good idea? How can I be sure? What can I do to prevent my business from failing? What direction should I take next?”
These are critical questions — questions that I’m betting have kept you tossing and turning at night more than once. Are they fundamentally unanswerable? I don’t think so. What successful entrepreneurs do is let the market tell them what it needs. When you need answers, that’s where you should turn.
The path to becoming a successful entrepreneur is strewn with obstacles. Bumps in the road are perfectly normal. You have to have faith and be flexible. In many cases, you may actually need to start over. The good news is that each of your experiences — good and bad – is an opportunity to learn. But you have to truly listen to pick up on the lesson.
So, what do I mean by “let the market tell you what it needs”? That you should never forget to listen to your audience. You could wrestle with yourself internally and agonize about a difficult decision for ages. But I think you’d be much better off seeking the opinion of people who actually matter.
At a conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I heard entrepreneurs — some of them wildly successful — discuss how they brought an initial concept to fruition. Over and over again, I heard them say that they let the market tell them what was needed. They weren’t afraid to pivot when they received new information. They also weren’t afraid to try doing something radically different than their peers, because they had listened to their customers and felt sure that they had a handle on what they wanted. They stood firm in the face of opposition.
So what are some ways to let the market tell you what it needs? I’ve written about some of these methods before — I thought it was important to get them all down in one place.
1. Try to license your idea.
Submitting your idea to potential licensees is a great way of getting feedback. If your submission is turned down, ask why your product idea isn’t a good fit for the company. What you discover might surprise you. Use the feedback you receive to redesign and polish your idea. Most products that end up being licensed were rejected for one reason or another at first.
2. Read product reviews.
What do customers value? What are they frustrated by? What do they wish were different? Critical reviews of my book, One Simple Idea, helped me determine how to improve it when I sat down to write an updated and revised edition. Product reviews offer up a veritable treasure trove of insight. Mine them.
3. Walk a trade show.
To be honest, I don’t think you even need to get a booth. Instead, take a prototype of your idea with you to your industry’s trade show and hit the floor. How do people respond to your idea? Are they excited by it? As you walk around, take inventory. What’s popular? Where is the industry headed? What booths are crowded and why?
4. Showcase your creativity at a Maker Faire.
I recently wrote about how great these events are for testing an idea. When I was young, I did more or less the same thing, but Maker Faire wasn’t around then so I was forced to seek out art fairs and street festivals. (Some were a better fit than others.)
Life is Good company founder Bert Jacobs did the same thing when he was in his 20s. He and his brother traveled around the country for five years trying (mostly in vain) to sell T-shirts they had made out of their van. Just when they were about to give up, they hit on a winner, selling completely out of the design in a single day. Later on, listening to the market encouraged him to create a nonprofit arm of his company.
5. Consider crowdfunding your idea.
It takes a lot of work to run a successful campaign, but boy can it pay off. A successful campaign provides proof of demand. There’s no better proof than someone actually reaching into his or her pocket to pay for your product idea.
6. Conduct a survey.
When I had the idea to reinvent the shape of the guitar pick, the first inclination my partner and I had was that players would love picks with images of women’s bikini-clad bodies on them. Sex sells, right? Wrong. When we got local music stores to display our prospective designs at their checkout counters and asked for feedback, we discovered our customers loved the skull design best. Input was crucial to our success.
7. Create a YouTube channel.
This is less appropriate for a product, but fantastic for a brand. My company inventRight teaches people how to license their ideas. So my partner and I established a YouTube channel and started uploading short informal videos during which we tackle different aspects of licensing. We engage with more people that way than any other medium. For example, our audience frequently asks us to create videos on different topics. We know what they’re looking for because they literally tell us.
Seek out answers from the market to help you keep moving forward. Failures are just opportunities to get it right!
Stephen Key (Entrepreneur.com)