Matt Stockton
Seeking affirmation of your product idea can be dangerous

I often cringe when I hear people say they are ‘getting out of the building’ to test their product idea. At the core, ‘getting out of the building’ is a proxy for finding or validating tangible problems that people are trying to solve. It’s about finding and validating real pain points that people are trying to alleviate. It is not, however, about seeking smiles and nods and encouragement — and therein lies the problem. People often use ‘getting out of the building’ as a proxy for seeking affirmation of their product idea, which is a slippery slope towards building a product no one wants.

When you have a product idea, there should be heavy emphasis on the word idea, rather than the word product. You have a hypothesis (idea) that a group of people will use your product in exchange for money. This is an oversimplification of course, but it’s the core — you give them something of value and they give you money. The economics of this transaction only work out if two things happen:

You need to find out how much solving a problem is worth to someone, and that’s the core reason of why you get out of the building. The good news is people are generally helpful, and they are willing to talk with you about their problems. This is a shockingly good strategy because there are so few people actually asking others to talk about their problems in this context. Even if you’re not testing a product idea, try it on your friends. Ask them what are their most annoying problems on a day to day basis. Rarely will you find someone unwilling to talk about them (give a guy a chance to talk about himself and he’ll take it).

So people are friendly and helpful and that will definitely help your cause when you get out of the building. Problematically, it can also hurt your cause. It’s a double edged sword. People want to help you be successful. They want to re-affirm your product idea and if you give them a chance to do it, they certainly will — and sometimes it’s misleading.

Here an off-the-cuff example of this. Pretend I have a product idea: I want to make shoes that have a retractable ice skate blade built into them. You need them when you’re walking somewhere and suddenly you encounter a frozen lake and you have to traverse it. I’m outside of the building, and I excitedly tell my friend Jim about these amazing shoe-skates. I show him a cool video of me using them. It looks fun and practical! So Jim searches his brain — he remembers that one time when he was on a frozen lake, and he slipped while walking on it. These shoe-skates would have been amazing!

Now let’s change the story. Suppose you begin the conversation by asking Jim: “What are the biggest winter safety issues you encounter on a day to day basis?” It’s very unlikely that slipping on a frozen lake while walking is in his top 20. It’s also unlikely that after having asked Jim this question, he’ll respond enthusiastically to your shoe-skate idea. By asking this first question, you’ve re-framed his mind-set. You’ve turned the conversation from a sales pitch (which is shouldn’t be) to an analytical information gathering session. Jim will be able to assess your idea with less bias towards wanting to say YES. He’ll be thinking about his real recurring problems, instead of specific isolated instances of when your product would have been useful to him in the past.

Yes, the shoe-skates are a horrible example. The idea is terrible — and your product ideas are much more likely to be reasonable ideas, which exemplifies the problem. If your idea is reasonable enough, it’s likely that everyone you talk to can rack their brain to find specific instances of when your product would have been useful. They’ll tell you YES, but really for your purposes it’s a no.

So how can you deal with this? I think the first step is to be comfortable with people crushing your ideas. You personally need to see that as a success. Be comfortable with people poking as many holes into your story as possible. Your first instinct needn’t be how to patch the hole or provide a rebuttal — try to understand why they are poking holes. Treat it as a data point, not a criticism. Use it as a real data point to decide to iterate the idea, stop the idea, or proceed. Secondly, you need to seek out the people who will poke the most holes in your story. Most people are not comfortable with this — it just isn’t human nature to challenge an idea. It’s hard, your lizard brain tells you not to. So either seek out people who you know are willing to crush your ideas, or make sure you manipulate the situation so that they are comfortable with it (for example, by framing their mind with a leading question as described above).

The other side of the spectrum, and the first deadly sin, is for you to have an unwavering belief of who will buy your product, what they need, and how you will sell to them — so you just go do it. It’s actually pretty fun to just build things, and you might get lucky — but remember, just building things is a hobby, not a start-up.

By the way, I’ve already patented the shoe-skates so don’t even think about it.