Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 2m 49s)

We work to avoid single points of failure in software. What about when validating an idea?

This question came up recently thanks to a client, who I was helping think through validating an online workshop/course.

It's useful to model this situation along a two pole spectrum.

On one extreme, you do a one-shot validation based on pre-sales.

On the other extreme, you think about validation as a group or series of micro-validations that you work through in an iterative fashion.

Let's look at each extreme of this spectrum.

One-shot validation

The common case here is pre-selling your thing (digital product, workshop, course, etc) while you're building it and if your pre-sales don't meet some goal (usually defined as a total number of sales) by some date, you refund the money and shut the project down, usually before you've built the whole thing.

If this is truly the only way you're validating, then this is one-shot validation. You either achieved your sales goal by your deadline, or you didn't.

I have concerns about one-shot validation, but let's talk about the other extreme of this spectrum first before we get to those concerns.

Multiple micro-validations

On the multiple micro-validations end of the spectrum, you are deploying multiple smaller ways of validating your idea.

This might look like the following:

  1. The idea muse visits you in the shower. You, of course, are naked and wet, but you still welcome this visit.
  2. You think about the idea a while and can't find a reason it's an obviously bad idea. You're motivated to build it.
  3. You publish a simple landing page where anyone who wants to hear more about this thing as you build it can opt in with an email address. You share this landing page in some way, perhaps to an email list you have, perhaps on social media, or perhaps some other way.
  4. You get some opt-ins. Yay! This is the first micro-validation!
  5. You start communicating with the lovely people who have opted in to your landing page. They give you feedback. One person asks when the product will be available; they're excited about it. Yay! Second micro-validation!
  6. You get closer to having something you can ship. You offer discounted beta access to the folks who have opted in. A few buy. Yay! Third micro-validation.

It's a pretty clear difference, isn't it, between the multiple micro-validation model and the one-shot validation.

I have concerns

I have concerns about the one-shot validation model because it incorporates less data into your decision-making and affords you fewer opportunities to iterate your idea.

At its worst, it shields your work from critique because it doesn't emphasize 2-way communication with a group of early adopters, and shielding your work from critique has the side-effect of cutting off your access to growth and greatness.

At best, it's a quick and easy validation method that might protect you from pursuing a losing idea but might also cut off the air supply from an idea that's almost great.

For a while I had a sort of informal mentorship with the fantastically good art photographer John Wimberley.

He once said that he's very reluctant to critique younger photographer's work because he feels that they might be just a few experiments away from something really great, and if they come to him asking for critique at that point, the weight of a negative critique from him could slow or stall their progress, which would be a loss to the medium and harmful to that person.

I think this expresses something important and relevant to idea validation.

On the one hand, shielding yourself from critique is harmful to you, so you have to embrace feedback from the market.

On the other hand, I worry that one-shot validation is embracing the wrong kind of critique; one that might kill off potentially good ideas because the feedback itself is hamfisted and un-nuanced.

What do you think?