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How Lean Canvas saved me from working on a bad idea

Max
Solution architecture, microservices and Rust. Available for contract work.
・7 min read

A practical guide to startup idea validation based on a real-life project

There is plenty of good advice in books and on the Internet about how to validate an idea. The authors may convincingly tell you what to do, but skip the execution part as if it's not important. This post is a step-by-step walk through an idea validation process I did recently.

I started writing on Dev.To only two months ago. Call me a beginner. One of the main challenges for me is finding someone to proofread my posts before I publish them. I want to know if the posts are interesting and easy to read and what can be improved. This is how I got this idea about a proofreading community where writers would review each other's posts and exchange feedback. Better posts, happier readers, more reactions, right?

Maybe not so!

Most ideas sound good on the face of it. You need to look much deeper to know if they are worth pursuing.

My idea validation tool of choice is Lean Canvas. Ash Maurya, the Godfather of Idea Validation came up with that simple, but very powerful framework to make us think about ideas as businesses before we invest any time or money into building a product.

This is what my idea looks like in Lean Canvas format:

lean canvas

It's quite light on detail, isn't it?

A "lean canvas" isn't supposed to have the depth of a business plan. It is just a starting point to get something on paper, like a bird's eye view.

There are other ways to validate an idea. The most expensive one is to go and build the product. Jeff Bezos requires a 6-page memo and a press release before even discussing a new idea. Or, you can make big bets Elon Musk's style by boiling it down to first principles. I am nowhere near their level of greatness, so I just dig deeper with the Lean Canvas framework.

Why doesn't it exist?

If there are StackOverflow and Quora communities where we help each other solve problems, why isn't there a community where we help each other release better posts and documentation?

If there is an unmet need there must be a reason why it is unmet.

  • Is it technically feasible?
  • Is it financially viable?
  • Has anyone else tried and failed?

Building a community somewhat similar to Stack Overflow is not technically challenging and assuming the need is there, it must be down to business viability or some other hidden issue. This Quora reply from 2011 held the answer:

quora kibin

The description of the service in that post sounds exactly like my idea. Surprisingly, kibin.com is a very different type of proofreading service today, with no community aspect. Travis Biziorek, the founder of kibin.com was very kind to reply to my cold email with a detailed explanation about why that model didn't work out. In short, they could not monetize it.

If kibin.com couldn't monetize it, why would I?

10 years is a long time in the life of the Internet. If it didn't work for Travis and his team back in 2011 it may work just fine in 2020.

Investor pitch deck

I practiced my "elevator pitch" on anyone who'd listen until it started making sense. It went from blabbering something about proofreading my blog posts to a very concise statement.

Peer-to-Peer Proofreading Community

Get feedback on your blog posts and technical documentation from other writers, users and engineers for free.

A proper "investor pitch deck" took me a day to make and ran into 11 slides. The amount of thinking I had to put into that document was an order of magnitude more than for the canvas. It had to be detailed enough to start a meaningful conversation with others about the project.

You can download the entire document from Google Docs: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1wxuYD6lA3G4bK1N03kCIUi4mQJrtBZHvXOoshhsONzM/.

pitch deck

Red flags and self-deception

Idea validation is not about proving the idea itself, but the assumptions we make around it. Proving them to be true is actually quite hard. It is easier to invert our model and try to falsify the assumptions it is based on. The inversion won't guarantee project success, but it will save us from a predictable failure.

Look out for what can go wrong.

Some red flags popped up as soon as I started writing the pitch deck. We tend to dismiss those early warning signs that something is off. After all, we want the project to succeed, so we ignore or downplay them until the reality comes back to bite us. Let's not make that mistake ever again.

Catalogue all issues, risks, and uncertainties.

You'll find a few panels like this one in my deck. I expanded and summarized them in a separate slide at the end of the presentation.

warning box

The power of nay-sayers

Most of your friends want you to succeed, so they will just say, yeah, it's a great idea and change the subject. Deep down, they neither understand nor care about your new idea. Those are not the responses I take seriously.

Finding someone qualified to give you feedback isn't always easy. It takes a lifetime to build a network of trusted advisors or even people capable of giving advice. In situations like this, they can be worth their weight in gold by pointing out the blind spots.

Is it safe to share my idea in such details with my wider network? What if someone steals it?

Ideas are dime a dozen. If someone steals my idea, then it wasn't a good idea for me to work on and someone else would beat me to it anyway. Primed with that thinking I sent 21 cold emails with the pitch deck to people outside of my immediate network. 3 replied. 1 gave me a very detailed analysis of some of the flaws in my plan.

deck response

I love feedback like that. It is much more valuable than someone saying, yes, great idea, go for it. There is a caveat to it, though.

Listen to all feedback carefully, but draw your own conclusions.

Let the mob tear it apart

Talking to potential partners and customers can't be done over an investor pitch deck. They need to see something resembling a product.
Registering a domain name and setting up a landing page may be just enough for that.

My landing page went under https://feedback.farm. Check it out.

Reddit, ProductHunt, LinkedIn and Slack groups are the quickest way to gauge the response from your target audience. The feedback there can be brutal, but some of it is very good. Ignore the brutes and listen to those who put some thought into it.

online feedback

Expect your posts to be removed, your account blocked and IP blacklisted for self-promotion if you don't have a good standing in that community. Check out this excellent interview with Josh Howarth from Exploding Topics on how makers can use online communities to validate and launch their new products.

Silence is worse than a No

You will get a lot of non-replies. That's worse than a No because they don't resolve the uncertainty one way or the other. Did they ignore you because your idea was so bad it didn't warrant a reply or was your email not worded right? Here is my "guess-list":

  • Confusing message
  • Didn't ask the right questions
  • Spam filters
  • Too busy
  • Too many emails
  • No interest in the subject
  • Not a decision-maker of any kind
  • Bad idea
  • Conflict of interest
  • Does not understand the problem
  • Understands the problem, but cannot relate to it

Add any number of other reasons to it, but you are still none the wiser.

Non-replies is a predictor of failure - whatever the reason was, you failed to generate interest.

The weakest link

Putting the feedback aside, what is the weakest link in your chain of assumptions? Pick one.

Let's assume the problem is real, there is some demand and the solution is technically feasible. How are you going to reach and acquire users?

weak link

My weakest link was in "Channels". I would not be able to reach such a diverse and dispersed audience as bloggers and technical writers without relying on channel partners.

I set myself a deadline of 1 week to acquire at least one channel partner to help me reach my target audience. 10 days later I only had 2 replies with lukewarm "maybe".

To build or not to build

Unless the validation comes back overwhelmingly positive and you see a strong upside in investing your time and money into the product, step back for a moment. Let the emotions cool down. Think of the opportunity cost and ignore the effort you put into your idea.

The big question to answer to yourself is ...

Is it worth my time?

My validation didn't return a clear winner. It could be because the idea was bad or because I didn't execute it well, or both. I may still continue working on Feedback Farm as a less ambitious side project, but that will be to "scratch my own itch".

feedbak-farm

Discussion (2)

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peter profile image
Peter Kim Frank

Max, this is a wonderful post. It was great taking this journey with you from concept to validation to idea-testing to eventual decision to not pursue it.

It is easier to invert our model and try to falsify the assumptions it is based on. The inversion won't guarantee project success, but it will save us from a predictable failure.

This is very powerful advice, and had I been better at embracing it, I could have avoided a few mistakes in my own entrepreneurial endeavors.

Most of your friends want you to succeed, so they will just say, yeah, it's a great idea and change the subject.

Related to the above idea, sometimes it is a good idea to free your friends from their protective instincts, and to empower them as a "designated naysayer." You can ask them to point out flaws, poke holes, generally try to tear the idea down. It's important that you assure them it's a safe space and that you're honestly seeking that sort of feedback.

On the topic of Channels, finding distribution and matching Supply / Demand in the early days is a very common and interesting problem. You may have heard of AirBNB's "creative" use of leveraging Craigslist.

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rimutaka profile image
Max Author

Thanks Peter :)

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