Much has been written about picking startup ideas. Although a good idea won’t be a guarantee for success, of course we want to avoid picking a bad idea which sets us up for failure even before we start.
As part of picking an idea is identifying bad ones, we wrote down some of the points we check our ideas against to see if we’re not too quick to jump onto something which isn’t a good fit. Not everyone will have the same criteria, and in our case it’s mostly about bootstrapped software business, but here goes:
1. It’s not super relevant for us
If we can’t even convince ourselves we’d really want to use this, how would we convince others? How do we come up with improvements and novel solutions, if it’s a problem we don’t want to solve for ourselves? How can we find and interact with our audience if they’re nothing like us?
Just as important, how are we going to stay motivated and care enough to make it a success when inevitably there will be some roadblocks along the way. Everything feels like an uphill battle if you don’t think an idea is really interesting, matters enough, and is fun to work on. When an idea does fit, working on it feels like going on autopilot.
That rules out going for that “I have an amazing idea!” you read about somewhere else.
2. It doesn’t allow us to run the business we want
Besides the problem space itself, the idea must support running the type of business we want. Can we use the skills we enjoy using to make a difference in this space? What other aspects of running a business do we find important (for example, being able to work remotely, not having to raise capital, and so on).
Likewise, what are things we really hate doing? There are always tasks that aren’t fun, but if the success will depend on us primarily doing exactly those, we’ll likely not do them on autopilot as we should and risk not moving forward fast enough. It’s better to be honest about this beforehand, as now is the time to pick an idea which is fun to work on by design. No use in trying to launch an idea for the enterprise market when you have no interest in sales.
3. There is no part of the product that’s a “first”
Not building something that’s original would violate #1 for us. But even if you enjoy building a “me-too” product, the internet will be too saturated to care. Some things might have worked five years ago but not anymore. It’s easier to be first (some things even just work once).
No product is 100% original in every aspect of course. In fact, if the category of product doesn’t exist at all yet, that’s often a red flag. But something about it needs to really stand out in a fundamental way. Think about how fans of this new idea’s approach would never want to go back. And how your product did it first.
Just like the product, the marketing (or anything related, like business model) needs a first, too. It’s not the web of 20 years ago anymore. There’s more content competing for attention than ever. Ads are dead (prohibitively expensive for many bootstrapped businesses). Established Marketplaces (like App Store or G Suite) are saturated. Provided you execute well, the chances someone buys from a competitor is not because their product is better, it’s because they don’t know you.
It’s more important than ever to stand out, but there are many ways to do so. For example, the first community around X, the first SaaS version of X, the first privacy-first version of X, the first open source version of X, the first freemium version of X, the first premium version of X, the first to use a channel for X. Everyone needs a thing.
4. We don’t know who to charge for it
Even by filtering ideas, we don’t know for certain if it’s really viable. Interviewing potential users, asking friends, getting “leads”.. It’s all nice, but the only validation is validation by credit card.
So whether people will really pay is what we need to test. But we must at least have an idea how to get users to our checkout form. If we either don’t know who the audience is, we don’t know how to find them, or we can’t charge them enough (depending on our $ARR goal), then it’s time to go back to Start and don’t pass Go.
Lastly, and this is related to #3 above, we also want these initial customers to be real fans. The idea must support creating real fans so we get vital feedback and organic growth. Obviously we don’t know yet if our idea will have fans, but it’s just as obvious that certain classes of products will never have fans, but simply users (i.e. don’t start a paper company).
5. The V1 of the idea isn’t simple enough
The only way to truly validate the idea is to charge for it (#4), and that most likely means building a V1. What’s possible depends on resources like knowledge, budget and time of course, so it must be simple enough to fit those constraints.
Another advantage is that a simpler product is often faster to sell than a large integrated solution which requires numerous stakeholders to sign off on. It’s also easier to explain what is and convince first potential fans to try it out. As building and testing a new idea is already difficult enough, keep things as simple as possible.
One category in particular to be wary of is “broad product ideas” with existing competitors. Where a deep product solves one particular problem really well (digs deeper than the competition in one aspect), a broad product is useful because it does many things in an integrated way. For it to be truly unique and better in some way (see #3), its V1 needs to do be either broader than the competition, or at least as broad and deeper. Both outbuilding and outselling complete existing platforms from day 1 is a bad idea when bootstrapping your first business idea.