After I sent this email, some of y'all asked me to expand it into a series.
It's been a while since I sent that email, so let's start with some context and a refresher on the overall approach I'm laying out for you.
Remember that if you're a total generalist now, and you want the benefits of specialization but you're somewhat risk averse or somewhat intimidated by the idea of a narrow focus in your business, your safest best is to focus on a market vertical. Things will go better for you if you choose a market vertical that you have some access to and credibility with, or if you choose one that you are genuinely madly in love with.
This "just pick a vertical" approach allows you to remain a pseudo-generalist in terms of what you offer that market vertical, but it starts to create efficiencies in your marketing. It gives you the ability to proactively seek opportunity outside your network, and it gives you the ability to be specific in your website copy and other marketing materials while starting to display some of the markers of early-stage expertise in your marketing. So it gives you some of the benefits of specialization without totally freaking you out or requiring you to do a ton of market research. You can learn more here (free) and here (low cost book).
This ideation and validation series that I'm starting today isn't really about the "just pick a vertical" approach. Again, that approach is the quick and dirty approach to specialization, and it's ideal for folks with younger businesses or a more risk-averse approach to their business.
Some of you have more mature businesses. Or you've simply been doing this longer. Or you are more risk-tolerant. This ideation and validation series is really meant for y'all.
I'll start the series by walking through all the ideation methods I know about. These won't be wacky stuff like James Altucher's recommendation that you write out 10 business ideas a day on the pads of paper that waiters use to write down orders in restaurants, hoping that one of those hundreds of ideas is a good one. Instead, I'm proceeding from the simple framework of vertical, horizontal, or vertical + horizontal specialization. In other words, we'll constrain our ideation based on what we know works well from a services specialization perspective.
Then I'll lay out two categories of validation: introspective, which is a necessary checkpoint before proceeding further, and extrospective validation, which I consider a necessary feedback mechanism before executing on an idea. In the extrospective validation category, there are three types of validation, and they differ primarily in how "lean" or "thick" they are. The more lean methods can be executed with less work and greater flexibility (easier to shift or pivot to a different idea based on what you learn from the validation work). The more thick methods require more work, and if you're lucky, they get you from point A to getting paid faster.
So that's what I'll walk you through in this series.
Ideation from your clients
It’s worth talking about the elephant in the room: why ideation? Don’t your clients bring the ideas, and you bring the muscle and smarts to execute them?
Well, see, this is my whole thesis about marketing for professional services: It’s the process of connecting and building trust with prospective clients. Or alternately, it’s brand-building through thought leadership. But either way, good marketing is built on insight into your clients or those you want to serve.
If you have real insight into your clients, then you know what their needs and problems are well before the relationship begins. Yes, some of them will have bizarre or unexpected needs or problems, but for the most part, your very first opportunity to demonstrate real expertise to a client is to demonstrate that you understand their needs/problems and are tightly focused on solving those needs/problems.
That’s why you don’t wait for them to “go first” and express their need/problem to you in an initial discovery call. Instead, you “go first” and demonstrate your insight into their world on your website and in your marketing content. Yes, you clarify and discover more on the initial call, but you don’t wait for that call to start to learn about their problems. You do that well before, in the ideation and validation process I’m describing in this series.
So as we dive into the topic of ideation, remember that we’re talking about ideation in the context of discovering or identifying the needs/problems your clients prioritize solving.
Again, if your response to that notion of “going first” is one of the below, you’re not thinking big enough about your own ability to move the needle for clients, or you’re not really interested in entrepreneurial ways of creating outsized value for them (which is fine, by the way. This entrepreneurial thing is not for everybody.):
- “But what my clients really need is my talent in software development. Focusing on their problems just complicates things.”
- “Figuring out the business problems is somebody else’s job.”
- “My clients understand better than I do how to solve their problems.”
If you find yourself saying something like the above in response to the idea of going first (“going first” is my shorthand for trying to predict your clients needs/problems rather than waiting for them to figure out how to solve those needs/problems and hiring you as “muscle” to solve them), then either the risk of the ideation process is offputting to you, or the whole idea of moving into the role of proactive solution provider consultant might not appeal to you. Again, that’s fine, but the reason this ideation process is important is because it frees you from the limitations that come with not understanding or not caring about the deeper, more expensive problems your clients struggle with.
You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the reward of phat consulting fees without the risk of trying to understand and articulate the problems/needs you see your clients struggle with.
OK, I’ve beat around the bush enough. Onto the ideation process!
It’s useful to structure the ideation process around three possible approaches. If you don’t have some kind of constraints, then we’re back in wacky Altucher land, flailing about trying to come up with lists of ideas. (To be clear, I admire a fair bit of James Altucher’s life and business, I just think there are ways to improve on some of his ideas.)
A good design process guides us much more efficiently from problem to solution, and in this case the ideation approach is a design process with three pathways from uncertainty to relative certainty.
By way of preview, you can 1) use your current and past client work as a corpus of research from which to identify patterns that suggest problems/needs 2) look for the same kind of patterns but in a market vertical that’s new to you and 3) look for a problem that is more horizontal in nature.
Ideation based on current+past client work
I wonder how many of you think of your current and past client work as research? I certainly do.
I mean, sure, it can be pretty ineffective research if you overlook the opportunity it presents. But client work almost always poses an opportunity to learn more about how your clients think and operate. And that, my friend, is a form of research.
Aside: you know how they say your strengths, when over-extended, become your weaknesses? I sometimes think the inverse can be true. A weakness can be used to create strength. As a card-carrying introvert, I habitually deflect questions about me and quickly try to flip into asking questions about them, whoever them happens to be. This has given me a lot of practice in learning about others. Some of it is a defense mechanism, or an over-enforced personal boundary, and some of it is genuine curiosity about others. Actually, most of it is genuine curiosity about others. Bottom line: I’m always asking nosy question of others, and while I definitely understand being timid about that at first, I think it’s a skill we all should get better at, because it lets us leverage ordinary situations into learning situations. Done in a sloppy or ad-hoc form, curiosity is just curiosity. But when you do it in a more consistent, methodical, or focused form, curiosity can become research. Not stringent academic or scientific research, but very useful nevertheless.
So in this first ideation pathway, think about the corpus of experience all your current and past client work represents. What patterns do you see? The following question prompts may help you spot these patterns:
- What business outcome was I hired to help create? Try to use “cave man language” as you express this. In other words, don’t get too flowery or nuanced. Most business outcomes really are at about the cave man level of sophistication. “Me want bigger market share, grunt grunt. Me want greater profitability, drool drool. Me want promotion and bigger house.” I kid, but only a little bit. Business isn’t rocket science after all. :)
- What were the specific obstacles to achieving those business outcomes? The desired outcome is usually quite simple, but your clients need outside help because achieving those outcomes requires navigating obstacles. Some of them of course are technical obstacles, but some are non-technical. List ‘em all, because any of those obstacles can potentially become a significant pillar of your message to prospective clients.
- Why hasn’t this problem already been solved? As you consider this question, try to do so from a truly empathetic position. In other words, just assume that the reason your client hasn’t solved this problem is not because they’re dumb, lazy, or running a poorly managed business. You don’t want to bake a negative view of your clients into your marketing message.
Alright, you’ve asked yourself these questions. Maybe you now have a pretty juicy list of problems that you’ve seen while embedded inside clients. Great!
Or... maybe you don’t. It’s possible that 1) you’ve seen a bunch of problems, but none are repeated and therefore none represent a pattern 2) you were so heads down while in client engagements or so uncurious about their world that you just never noticed any problems outside the immediate scope of your work, and your work might have been a very narrow part of some larger project. So you might have a list of problems that aren’t repeated and therefore aren’t patterns, or you might not have much of a list at all.
But! If you have previous clients, you still have a group of research subjects. And so I suggest you make use of that pool of research subjects. Ask them the questions above. Here’s how you preface those questions:
“Hey, $CLIENT, I was thinking about the work I did for you [remind them of when and what you did for them]. I realize during that project I was pretty heads down on delivering, and I neglected to ask some pretty basic questions. I’ve been working on improving my business by better understanding my clients and so I’m really curious now... [ask all the questions you want. 70% chance they’ll be flattered you asked and they’ll try to help].”
Even with doing this, you run the risk of building a wonderful, beautiful list of problems with absolutely no patterns at all in it. This is what happens when you’ve been operating as a generalist your whole career. You don’t stack up similar experience, and so you don’t get to see these patterns. If that’s you, fix that problem first, then come back to this in a year or three.
Or! Stay tuned for the next section, where I’ll dive into the second ideation pathway: ideation outside your existing corpus of experience. This is naturally more risky and more entrepreneurial, but it’s one remedy for the “no patterns in my previous experience” problem.
The Fire Swamp of Ideation
It’s possible that your corpus of prior client work won’t provide you the raw material you need to identify patterns. That means your lowest-risk method of identifying client needs/problems is off the table. You can either deal with the situation that causes that lack of insight--which is an underlying lack of focus in your business--or you can forge ahead into higher risk territory. That’s what I’m about to discuss here. The higher risk territory. The Fire Swamp of Ideation.
What you're going to do with this ideation pathway is look for patterns in a specific market vertical. You're going to choose a market vertical that you have some sort of connection to. That could be one of the following:
- A head start in terms of access
- A head start in terms of credibility
- A head start in terms of love
Short aside: I don't think I've used the word love enough to describe the ideal relationship between a consultant and their market of choice. That's because in the past I've tried to make the idea of specialization accessible to more people. I still want to do this, but need to temper my missionary zeal.
Specialization makes a lot of things work better, but specialization alone doesn't make entrepreneurial self-employment all that much easier. Self-employment is hard and that's why more people don't do it. So I think you either need to lean pretty hard mercenary in your orientation towards your business, or you need to feel genuine, flat-out LOVE for those you choose to focus on serving.
Obviously--like any real relationship--you won't feel intense love at all times for your market of choice, but when you do feel that love it'll get you through the hard times, and that's why I frame things here in terms of love rather than some less powerful emotion like interest or curiosity.
The first part of the process is something I've talked about a ton. This is how you decide on a vertical that’s new to you:
- Build a list of market verticals you have access to, credibility with, and feel love for. Don't self-edit during this stage.
- Go to www.naics.com/naics-drilldown-table/ and find possibilities you hadn't considered before. Add them to your list.
- Now ruthlessly edit the list. Characterize the verticals on your list based on the strength your access, credibility, and love. Combine those scores to create a synthetic score that helps you identify the verticals with the best combination of those three important attributes.
Now you've got a shortlist. Maybe you have a clear obvious first choice, or a few clear obvious top choices. Either way, it's time to choose one as a starting point for your ideation.
You've got two ways to research this vertical and find problem patterns there. Remember, it's a vertical where you lack direct client experience, or you lack significant insight into what clients in that vertical struggle with. So your research looks different than "just ask your past clients". It's a more challenging form of research.
There are two specific forms of research you can try: watering hole research, or interview-based research.
Watering hole research
I’m borrowing a lot from Amy Hoy here. She advocates strongly for this form of research, bakes it into her excellent 30x500 course, and articulates the benefits of this form of research better than anyone else I know.
The idea is that you’re going to do “ethnographic research”, where you carefully observe folks in their natural habitat. This is both a feature and a bug of this form of research.
As a feature, it means you get accurate information much more easily because you’re observing folks who don’t necessarily know they’re being observed, and therefore don’t act differently because they know you’re paying attention.
For example, imagine that you wanted to sell your services to companies that make high end audio products. There are between 3 to 5 specialist forums that cater to the consumers of these products. By hanging out in these forums, you would start to get a sense of what the consumers of high end audio products think and care about. You’d “get inside their heads” eventually. And that insight would make you a more savvy, valuable consultant to those companies. This is an example of watering hole research.
It’s both powerful and limited. The “bug” or flaw in this kind of research is that some people simple do not hang out in online watering holes at all, or the ones they hang out in are private and have an armed security guard at the entrance (figuratively speaking). Yet, I have numerous examples of my clients getting access to these people. They just do so differently. They don’t observe them in online watering holes because these people just aren’t there, so instead my clients ask them for an interview. More on that in a moment.
I don’t mean to unfairly diss watering hole research. It’s absolutely where you should start if you’re headed down this second ideation pathway. Only if you find that it doesn’t work would I suggest you move to interview-based research, which is less beginner-friendly than watering hole research.
If you want to learn more about the how of watering hole research, check out Amy Hoy. Her free articles have a ton of useful information on the topic, and her paid stuff even more.
The second research approach you can use to figure out the patterns of need and problems in a new market vertical is interview-based research. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: you’re going to interview people and look for patterns of need or problems.
First question/objection: “how the hell am I going to get the CEO of Target to speak to me?”
Red herring alert!
You almost certainly won’t get the CEO of Target or any other similarly famous business to speak to you. But again, that’s a red herring. You don’t need to speak to the CEO of Target to know what meta-concerns they have because the CEO of a large famous company is essentially a public figure who has been interviewed to death and doesn’t have that many secrets to reveal anymore. Everything you need to know can be assembled from interviews, press releases, and looking closely at the words and actions of competitors in Target’s ecosystem. And finally, would you even be working directly with the CEO of a company like Target? Probably not unless you coach executives on speaking or something like that. As a tech consultant, you might interact with the CIO or a VP, and the relatively higher chances of getting an interview with one of them make it worth trying.
Second, you absolutely can get the CEO or other C-level folks at a midsize or small business to speak with you. You just need to approach them the right way.
Another important note about interview-based research. We tend to focus on interviewing potential clients when we do this kind of research, but that excludes what is actually the easiest, most effective group to speak to!
Those are competitors. I use the term competitor with some reluctance. It’s probably the best single word to describe others who do something similar to what you do, but every time I connect with a competitor of mine, I end up having a very convivial relationship with them. So it’s the undertones of fear or danger in the word competitor that I find incongruent with actual experience. Anyway!
You can interview 1) your actual competitors and 2) non-competitive experts who serve the same field. My clients find that about 50% of actual competitors will agree to speak to them. Part of that is so the competitor can “sniff their butt”, and part of that is because many people feel life has been good to them and want to pay things forward when they can.
Non-competitive experts are other consultants and authors who focus on the same field. They are non-competitive with you because they offer something really different. So if you’re a developer, speaking to management consultants and marketing firms would be two examples of interviewing non-competitive experts.
The second ideation pathway is where you explore a vertical you have no real experience with. By some accident, though, you might have connections or credibility there. But more likely, you just love those people. Not in a romantic way, but in a way that keeps you motivated to serve them even when the going gets tough.
So if you want to learn more about this vertical you’re not experienced in but are connected to, you’ve got to do some research. You can either try to observe folks in this vertical “in the wild” at some online watering hole, or you can interview them enough times that you start seeing patterns of needs or problems.
New tech, “rising star” platforms, and evergreen problems
With this pathway, you’re looking for a problem that is more horizontal in nature. By horizontal, I mean this problem can and does show up in a variety of businesses across multiple verticals.
To anchor this with a quick example: lead generation. An incredible variety of businesses across a broad range of verticals need to generate leads. This makes this a horizontal problem.
It’s also somewhat of an “evergreen” problem. It's not something most businesses figure out once and never have to revisit.
When clients of mine find good horizontal problems to focus on, those problems tend to break down into three tags:
- Problems driven by broad technology trends
- Problems linked to the maturity of a particular technology platform
- Evergreen business problems benefitting from technology expertise
Let’s go through these in order.
Broad tech trends
What’s kind of hilarious about new technology is that it creates problems while also solving problems. In fact, almost any change, even a wonderful one, creates new problems.
- Bigger house needs more furniture to fill it
- Job promotion brings a higher salary but requires longer hours and adds stress
- Desirable tech company sets up shop somewhere; adds new high-paying jobs but stresses existing infrastructure and increases real estate prices
While new categories of technology offer significant benefit (mobile computing, sensors on everything, battery storage for energy, micro-sized sensors, drones, and other stuff, zero marginal cost business models, etc), they imply significant change, and change creates problems.
So one way to generate ideas using this second ideation pathway is to look for the problems that new technology creates.
Sometimes new tech creates problems for those that adopt or integrate it, and sometimes the new tech creates problems for those that don’t adopt it. A publication that wants to adopt paywall and audience intelligence tech to monetize and better segment/distribute their content has an integration problem. How do they integrate this whole new way of doing business into their existing business?
A publication that resists this new technology, believing it’s not the right path forward for them for strategy reasons, or believing it’s too disruptive to their business, or believing it’s too soon to try something so new and untested and risky has a different problem. They have to live with the anxiety of placing a bet on inaction and either making the best of the results of that bet, or perhaps trying to innovate in a different way by placing a different bet.
Either way, the new technology forces change and creates problems that have to be dealt with both on the side of the adopters and on the side of the holdouts.
You could come up with a list of dozens of ideas for solving the problems created by new technology. And you could focus in a broadly horizontal way, or you could add an additional vertical constraint.
An example of the former: list a bunch of ideas you have for solving problems created by the fact that an increasing amount of the space on the first page of Google search results is being allocated to paid ad results, local search results, and video. This is a purely horizontal problem that effects a lot of different businesses across a broad range of verticals.
An example of the latter: list a bunch of ideas you have for solving the problems created by the fact that something like 54% of product searches start on amazon.com. This problem is most painfully felt in the retail vertical.
A second category of horizontal problems is related to platform maturity. I should say right away: these tend to not be evergreen problems. Rather, they are problems that reward early movers. They don’t tend to resolve into a winner-take-all situation, but they do tend to favor early movers and resolve into a situation where a field of competitors thins out pretty quickly, leaving only a few strong survivors. This is getting pretty abstract, so let me give some examples.
Think about React. The rapid increase in React’s popularity creates a moment in time. During this moment, several things are true:
- There’s a information deficit around how to use this new technology. This is driven by:
- Hype. I use this term in a neutral way, not a dismissive way. Hype is simply a lot of positive discussion. Hype drives:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO). Early adopters of technology view new tech as granting competitive advantage, and so they keep their eyes open for new tech, take its appearance very seriously, and talk a lot more about the promise of this new tech than about the risk of this new tech. This talk drives:
- More hype. See how we have a circular dynamic forming here? The by-products of this dynamic are FOMO and an information deficit.
“If React is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I need to get up to speed on it. How do I do that? Where do I go to rapidly learn about React?”
Well, in the early days there’s some documentation, but what’s missing—what forms the information deficit—is this whole extra layer of tutorials and crash courses and deep dive courses and “React for Angular devs” and “React Bites — daily 5 minute React tutorials” and corporate React training offerings and online React courses and code samples and complementary libraries and Github repos you can clone to try shit out and get a head start on some project you’re working on and best practices and blog posts on what not to do and blog posts that blow your mind and on and on and on. This, and more, is what eventually fills in the information deficit and contributes to a “whole product ecosystem” that allows the late adopters and holdouts to comfortably embrace the no-longer-new React platform.
I don’t think we’re quite there to full ecosystem maturity yet with React, but you can see that the information deficit is a characteristic of a moment in the maturity of a tech platform. It might be a 3 to 5-year-long moment, but it’s a moment because it’s not permanent.
This momentary information deficit creates opportunity for fast-movers. If you get in relatively early and get established and build a good business out of that platform and that moment, you might be in for a lucrative 5 or 10-year ride. But because your fortunes are linked to a platform, that ride might eventually lose momentum.
Evergreen business problems
Finally, there are a category of problems that are more related to business needs than technology, and they are evergreen. To be clear, technology is almost always part of the solution, but these problems don’t spring from the adoption of new technology or the rise of new platforms, they are always there in the business, and changes in the world of technology can create new solutions or new categories of solution.
Businesses that set appointments with customers have always had the need to remind customers of their appointments. But the rapid adoption of mobile phones and smartphones created a new solution to that problem: SMS reminders.
Businesses that sell products that are expected to last a while but can break have always needed to support customers, deal with potentially bad PR from faulty products, and figure out field repair or replacement and other related issues. But the rapid adoption of social media has created new threats and opportunities.
These are examples of how the business problem is evergreen. It’s kind of always been there, and it always will be there. But the changing technology landscape means a solution that worked in 1980 won’t work now. And in some cases, a solution that worked last year won’t work now.
The third ideation pathway is to think horizontally, either in terms of new technology, “rising star” platforms, or evergreen business problems.
If any of you are actually doing this ideation, let me know. I’d love to get a sense of what your list of ideas looks like.
I think of this first validation method as introspective validation. In fact, let's just call it that.
In short, introspective validation is looking through the list of ideas you've generated in previous steps, and looking inward to measure your intellectual and emotional reaction to each idea. How interesting or fascinating is it to you? How do you feel about focusing on that kind of problem or doing that kind of work?
Introspective validation is both risky and useful.
It's risky, because introspective validation can lead to all sorts of boondoggles; all sorts of services or products nobody actually wants. This is why I'll recommend that you use introspective validation in combination with at least one of the other three validation methods, which are extrospective, or market-facing, in nature. That way you get out of your own head.
Introspective validation is useful, though, because it's a good way to shorten a long list of ideas. It's a good next step after you build a list of ideas because it gets you from a potentially long, overwhelming list to a much shorter, more useful list.
In my work with clients, I've found that your efforts at specializing tend to fall into one of two buckets: successful or unsuccessful. If as part of this work I was required to take an equity stake in your business or do some sort of revenue share and in exchange I was given total control over how you decided to specialize, then I would use one simple heuristic to decide if a potential specialization is good for both you and me (since I have that equity stake and want that to fund my retirement).
I would want to know if you love the problem almost as much as you love your own children. Or if focusing on a market vertical, I'd want to know if you really love something significant about the market vertical.
OK, I'm kidding a little bit about the "as much as your own children" bit. Your love for the problem/market doesn't have to go quite that deep. And there are cases where even this sub-love-for-children level of emotional care for your clients isn't 100% necessary. More "mercenary" types are totally capable of building great services businesses that produce tremendous value for their clients. And a less emotional, more "Vulcan" relationship with your clients can also work.
But underneath all of those is, at the end of the day, a real dedication to either a specific market vertical, the people in that market vertical, or a problem that you find compelling or fascinating or important. And in my experience, this love, or dedication, or fascination is what differentiates successful from unsuccessful specialization efforts.
Yes, there are specialization ideas that will never work because there's no market for them. Extrospective validation will help you ferret those out and kill them. But even if you find the most amazing market opportunity in the world, you will be held back if there is a lack of love, dedication, or fascination on your part. You won't be held back from basic competence, but you will be held back from exceptional value creation, because that requires that you take risks on behalf of your clients, and that risk-taking becomes much easier, more sustainable, and more effective when you care deeply.
How might you quantify how deeply you care? After all, haven't we all "cared deeply" about losing 20 pounds, quitting some bad habit, or finally cleaning up the basement this weekend, and found ourselves not accomplishing that goal? How do you know if your feeling of caring deeply about a problem or market is real; that it will cross the brain--world barrier?
Brief aside: In animal biology, we have the blood–brain barrier, which according to Wikipedia, is abbreviated BBB. The BBB regulates what moves from the bloodstream into the brain.
I propose that there is also a BWB; the "brain--world barrier". This regulates what moves out of your brain and into the world of action and shit that actually gets done.
I know of exactly zero simulations or hypothetical experiments what will reliably determine what ideas will successfully cross your BWB. Sorry. However, I know of two good action-based experiments that will help you understand your BWB better.
So let's say you've done some introspective validation. You’ve sat down with your long list of ideas and spent some time with each idea. You ask: "how interesting is this? How do I feel about it?" Based on those questions, you would rank each idea, perhaps using a simple 3-point scale.
So now you have a short-list, or perhaps an idea that clearly seems like the best fit for you. Now you want to quantify how deeply you care about this problem/market.
Here are two action-based experiments that could help you gauge whether this idea is likely to successfully cross the BWB.
30-day daily writing challenge
Spend 30 days writing about the problem/market. Aim for 7 days/week, be happy if you hit 5 days/week. Ideally publish this stuff online so it's more real, but if nothing else do the writing and don't publish it.
In the writing, strive to say everything you can about the problem/market in question. Come at your writing from a place of trying to be of service; of trying to make things better for the problem/market.
Do everything you can to make the writing technically easy. In other words, don't focus on the quality of the writing, focus on what the writing is meant to accomplish, which is to make things better for the problem/market. Don't try to build multi-part series or explore elaborate themes. Assume that your readers (there may not be any if you're not publishing this stuff online, and even if you are publishing there may not be many readers, so you can feel free to take risks with your writing) will not even notice spelling mistakes, sloppy grammar, and other technical shortcomings in the writing (I certainly assume y’all will! ;) ). Assume that they will look past imperfect expressions of your thinking and focus on the main idea you're trying to convey. Hopefully this keeps you from getting stopped by "1-inch high speed bumps" and keeps you focused on what matters with this experiment, which is understanding how deeply you care about the problem/market. To get a sense of this, ask yourself:
- How quickly do you run out of ideas to write about?
- Do you recover from "hitting the wall", or do you give up in discouragement?
- Are you generally motivated to continue, or are you motivated to quit?
These are the indicators you're looking for as you attempt to understanding how deeply you care about the problem/market.
At the end of the 30 days, do you have more fight in you? More desire to keep digging, keep trying to serve this problem/market? Or are you relieved the 30 days is over?
There's no benchmark to compare yourself to here. This is totally subjective stuff, but again at the end of 30 days you'll have a much more visceral feel for how deeply you care about the problem/market.
180-day weekly service challenge
An alternate approach is to do something that is a way of directly serving the problem/market. One approach that I keep seeing used to good success is a weekly newsletter that's meant to serve a specific market or those focused on a specific problem. Here are some good examples from folks I know:
These are weekly emails. They are, for the most part, link roundups. What makes link roundups good is not the volume of links, it's the quality of curation (often less is more when it comes to volume of links) and the context the curator might add to them. In other words, the work the editor puts into the publication is much more important than the quality of the stuff you link to.
As an example, Matt Levine links to articles that bore the crap out of me, but his point of view and sense of humor are so delightful that it makes his daily emails a must-read for me. There's a way in which Matt is serving folks like me by making the world of finance interesting and accessible.
This is the basic idea behind a weekly newsletter. You're going to spend 180 days serving those who suffer from a problem, or those who are members of a specific audience. And in so doing, you're going to discover how much you actually care about them.
If you find out that you don't care enough to sustain this work for 180 days, then you fold up tent on the newsletter and walk away much wiser, with no harm done.
And if you find out that you do care enough to sustain this work for the duration, several wonderful things have happened as a by-product of the work:
- You've learned a lot about the problem or vertical, because you've read a lot about it in the course of curating and commenting on those links.
- You've possible learned who the big "players" are in the space you're exploring.
- You've perhaps learned which problems in the space are easy, and which are not easy to solve.
- You've started to cultivate a reputation as a smart, generous contributor to the space.
In other words, you've done market research while cultivating a reputation while also validating how deeply you care about the problem/market. That's quite the triple-threat!
If you try this challenge, there are two items that are mandatory reading, from a client of mine:
If you complete either of these challenges, you will know how deeply you care. You won't wonder if your idea can successfully cross the brain--world barrier (BWB); you will feel it in your bones. You will know.
Pure research validation
OK, we've covered the three ideation pathways that can help you generate ideas that fit within a proven specialization framework, and we've discussed introspective validation. Now onward to the first of three extrospective validation approaches.
The three extrospective validation methods are:
- Pure research validation
- Marketing validation
- Sales validation
These are ordered in rough order from least to most effort. You may choose to focus on just one of these validation methods, or you may combine several of them. Let's discuss how you might deploy these methods later, after I've walked you through what they each look like.
Pure research validation
The most lean method available is pure research validation. It's lean because you don't have to build anything. You've got your idea, which perhaps came from one of the ideation processes described earlier in this series, and you use research alone to validate that this idea will be met with demand from the marketplace.
If the idea is for a service offering, you don't build the service offering. You use research alone to validate it first before you build anything. Same for a product idea.
Will research alone be sufficient validation for an idea? Well, ain't that the $10,000 question!
It might not. And that is the reason why there are three extrospective validation methods. Because there may be times when you're not confident in the results of your research, and you want to layer on additional validation methods.
But if you're less risk-averse, and you want some validation but don't need much validation before you build and ship, then research validation alone may be sufficient. It depends on you and the context you're in.
There are two primary research-based validation methods: watering hole research, and interview-based research.
Watering hole research
Ah, our old friend the watering hole. You'll remember this from an earlier article in this series. It's both an ideation and validation tool.
Now, if you already used watering hole research to generate ideas, then those ideas aren't 100% pre-validated, but they are further along towards validated ideas because they did not come from the Land of Bad Ideas (aka inside your head rather than from the market). I mean, yes, you can get bad ideas from other people, but if you are in a watering hole and notice a pattern of multiple people saying "this sucks, and I wish there was a solution to this", then you're at least not inventing an idea literally nobody has ever thought would be valuable. Instead, you're responding to things a group of potential clients found painful enough to complain about.
Now, we have to temper this with the fact that watering holes are typically online, which means they are subject to the dynamics of the Internet, which translates to: "People say a lot of shit, especially online where they are more anonymous and the cost of shit-talking is less than IRL. Action is what matters." But again, the overall point here is that inside your own head, like in some sort of dream state, the laws of "marketing physics" don't apply, and you can come up with ideas that would never escape the gravitational pull of reality; ideas that you could never find clients or customers for.
So to repeat myself a bit, if your previous ideation sourced ideas from online watering holes, you probably won't use watering hole research to validate those same ideas. It would be mostly redundant.
But if your previous ideation sourced ideas from your previous client work, or that ideation led you to a vertical that's new to you, then watering hole research might be a useful validation method.
The second research-based validation method uses interviews, based on either a modified customer development process, or a modified Jobs to be Done process.
There's more effort and social risk involved in interviews, but they can yield richer, more nuanced results. The effort comes from reaching out to strangers and asking them to speak to you, and the social risk comes from the same source. But again, the payoff is a richer, potentially more valuable set of data, and in some cases the relationships you build during the outreach and interview process can lead to early client relationships.
If you want a nice introduction to how you might validate an idea using interviews, read Cindy Alvarez' book Lean Customer Development. You'll have to modify her questions a bit depending on what you're looking for, but 80% of her process works just fine for doing this kind of interview-based validation.
After completing this form of validation, you either move directly to sales validation, or if you are more risk-averse you might use marketing validation as an intermediate validation method.
The next form of extrospective validation is marketing validation, which is less lean than pure research and more lean than sales validation. This is because you have to build some stuff; some marketing assets. But, you can build this stuff and then potentially use relatively low-effort methods of buying or earning attention for it, and then you can measure the interest you get when those marketing assets are exposed to the attention of an audience. All this can happen without having to have sales conversations, which lessens your effort investment.
The marketing validation "stack" I'm going to present below is based in part on an oldie-but-goodie from the PMC archive, the minimum viable funnel.
The marketing validation stack
Let's look at this stack as a quick bulleted list, then dive into a few important details.
- Build a content asset. This can be an email course, a niche email list, or a recorded teaching event like a webinar. Yes, the niche email list was also presented as an introspective validation tool earlier. It works in both contexts. Build a landing page so folks can sign up to get this content asset.
- Buy or earn attention for this content asset.
- You could send ad traffic to the asset, or...
- You could teach to a borrowed audience via a Meetup presentation, guesting on a podcast(s), or being a guest expert on somebody's webinar. Your call to action as you're teaching to this borrowed audience is for them to--if they want to learn more--sign up for your content asset.
- You can also find some sort of online watering hole or social media channel (most likely LinkedIn or Twitter, possibly Facebook, Quora, StackExchange, or others) and see if over-participating and being helpful on that social channel creates opportunities to promote your content asset and if that content asset then attracts subscribers. If this kind of escalation happens fairly naturally, then you can assume that a similar escalation to paid engagements is possible.
Validation is measured by opt-ins for your content asset. In fact, this validation is one way you document demand for your idea. There are other failure points in the path from idea to service, so this documentation of demand alone isn't going to guarantee success, but it's very reassuring to have this kind of evidence that there's demand for what you're thinking of doing.
I want to be clear about something: the above list might make this process seem easy-breezy. And maybe it will be for you. But you really should be prepared for some real work and moments of uncertainty and perceived risk as you go through this process.
The mistake I used to make earlier in my career was looking at the methods of validation or trust-building or whatever, identifying the most effective ones, and recommending those unilaterally without regard to their inherent difficulty level. That meant I was setting folks up for failure.
Podcast guesting is relatively easy for me, because I have a background in training and adult education, which meant that I was speaking in front of small groups of people on a regular basis. The transition to doing something similar but speaking to a single other person via Skype was quite easy. But after repeatedly recommending that folks guest on podcast and seeing them not do it, I realized that I was recommending something that wouldn't fit their context very well. So the quest for me has been to try to find ways to help folks improve while respecting their context; their strengths and weaknesses, etc.
A funny extension of this example: My friend Liston very generously helped my Expertise Incubator folks set up what is known as a LinkedIn pod. In a LI pod, pod members help each other out by liking and commenting on their LI posts. This sounds a little scummy/growth-hackey, but it actually works. It works because it sort of games the LinkedIn algorithm, gains wider reach for the pod members' content, and this can lead to more list signup or discovery calls. The funny part is I do not enjoy doing this kind of thing, so I've been the least helpful member of our pod. I'm kind of dead weight in the pod, and I'm pretty sure Liston is considering kicking me out.
That's why the marketing validation stack above lists several ways you might earn attention for your content asset, and if none of those will work for you, suggests that you buy this attention.
Which, also!, is not necessarily easy. How many of us have heard paid traffic folks crowing about how Facebook or whatever ad platform makes it super easy and cheap to advertise to an audience? Sure, if you know what you're doing. To get to that "know what you're doing" point, plan on spending real money figuring it out and getting disappointing results in the meantime.
Let's wrap with this. If you want to hear a really entertaining and compelling version of this marketing validation stack in action, check out the first 10 minutes of Louis Grenier talking to Seth Godin: everyonehatesmarketers.com/seth-godin-marketing-secrets/
What I love about the audio above is how Louis totally surprises Seth Godin with an on-air challenge at the start of the interview, and how Seth navigates that challenge. It's great stuff, and Seth walks through something quite similar to my marketing validation stack.
The final form of extrospective validation is sales validation. I call it this because you're essentially fast-forwarding past more tentative forms of validation, and just going for the sale. This means you're going to do some of what's recommended for marketing validation, and you're going to add to that the creation of an offer of some sort (semi-productized), and you're going to try to sell that offer to somebody or several somebodies.
Your validation, in this case, will be new cash added to your bank account. There is no more persuasive form of validation than this. Cash does more to soothe the whiny, noisy voice of doubt in the face of risk than anything else I know of. Cash is king, they say.
But because of the extra work you're doing to define the offer and shop it around, this validation method is the least lean, or the most "thick"of the extrospective validation methods. It's likely to take the most time and effort, but if it works you'll be furthest down the road towards making money with your idea.
Here's the overall process described as a bulleted list, followed by some notes on the key points:
- Define a service offering
- A coaching offer is the least up-front effort for you, and therefore the most "lean"way to validate some ideas. Not suitable for other ideas.
- A done-for-you implementation offer will be suitable for other ideas, but like with any productized service you'll need to think carefully about scope, value, and price in order to define an offer that doesn't kill you when it comes to delivery. The least risky way to define a productized offer is to standardize something you've done multiple times as already, so you know the basics parameters of scope, value, and price. In sales validation, you're possibly productizing a service you've never delivered before. This is risky, but it's also an intentional risk you're taking in order to get that cash-based validation.
- Finally, you could define a training offering. This is going to be the most up-front effort because you need to think about what would make for a good training offer, and that's not always easy or fast. But! This can be a more profitable offering than a done-for-you offering because training has less opportunity for scope creep or unexpected unknowns.
- Write a short email course. Yes, you're going to use direct response-style marketing here. That's usually the ideal tool for this situation unless you have an established business and a pretty deep network of previous clients, etc, in which case you could just make a PDF describing the offer, email it to your network, and ask them: "I made this. Do you want it?" OK, not quite so bluntly, but you get the idea, right? :) The email course is so you can efficiently propose your offer to strangers.
- Get or adapt some social proof that your offer is trustworthy. Again, I'll drop in a link to this to add some context around this discussion.
- Write and publish a page that describes the service. Be really specific about who the service is for. Don't try to sell the service via a buy button right there on the page, even if it's a fixed price service. But do make it super easy for folks who are interested to speak to you directly about the service. Remember, your twin goals here are: 1) cash and 2) conversations. The cash is a great form of validation, but conversations are also quite valuable because they can help you learn and iterate more quickly.
- Hire an outbound lead gen agency (https://www.leadcookie.com/ or https://www.leadlion.co/ are good), or do the outbound work yourself. Again, your core message in this outbound sales effort is pretty simple: Ï made this. Do you want it?" Of course, at the detail level there's a lot more to outbound sales than that, but at the conceptual level it really is that simple. Because your message is a closed-end "take it or leave it" proposition rather than an open-ended inquiry into what the market needs, it boils down to a numbers game. You're wanting to get your message in front of reasonably well-qualified prospects, but beyond that it's just a matter of reaching several thousand people with your message and looking to see if a few dozen resonate with the offer.
Validation, in the case of sales validation, is measured by sales and opt-ins for your email course. Simple!
And then the conversations this approach can generate will hopefully provide a lot of useful nuance that you can use to refine your offer.
Alrighty!! That brings this series to a close! The brief summary:
- You're looking for patterns of need. These are your ideas.
- There are three ideation pathways:
- Look for ideas in your corpus of past client work
- Look for ideas specific to a market vertical that might be new to you.
- Look for ideas that are more horizontal in nature.
- There are four validation methods for these ideas. They break down into introspective and extrospective categories.
- Introspective validation
- With this method, you're looking inside to see how deep your interest in the idea goes. Publishing daily about the idea for 30 days, or selflessly serving those suffering from the problem in question for 180 days are good introspective validation approaches.
- Extrospective validation
- With this method, you're looking to the market for validation of your idea.
- Pure research validation is one of the three extrospective validation approaches. You're using research tools to validate the presence of the problem you think might exist.
- Marketing validation is where you assemble a light "stack" of marketing assets, and see if there's interest in these assets. If so, you have evidence that you're connecting with something real in the market.
- Sales validation, discussed above, is where you put together an offer, some very minimal marketing assets, and see how the market responds. This is the most high-effort method, and offers the greatest opportunity for a "swing and a miss", but if you connect with what the market needs, your validation is nearly indisputable cash in the bank.
- With this method, you're looking to the market for validation of your idea.
- Introspective validation
If you'd like help implementing these ideas, email email@example.com and let's talk about it.