Last year, I embarked upon a personal challenge to validate a business idea in 30 days.
To make it even more difficult, it was a random idea chosen by my readers. They asked me to do it without using my existing website, traffic and business connections and without spending more than 20 hours per week on the project. On top of that, I limited myself to spending no more than $500 validating this idea.
The experiment was a success
In just two weeks, I built an email list of 565 subscribers without having an actual website. Then, I reached out to a handful of those subscribers and pre-sold 12 copies of a book that didn’t even exist yet, all in less than 30 days. I wrote about the experiment in real-time with in-depth weekly updates, successes, failures and lessons learned along the way, right here in my validation challenge.
Today, I want to share with you the five most effective ways to validate a business idea – quickly and without breaking the bank, based on what I learned through this experiment and from building several other businesses over the years.
1Join an online community
All great business ideas come from solving your biggest frustrations; the ones are also facing with similar obstacles. Want to uncover which problems you could get paid to help people solve? Join a topically relevant group on Facebook, LinkedIn or Slack, where members all have a shared interest.
Start asking genuine questions. Determine what their biggest challenges are in your topic area. Through these conversations, you’ll hear first-hand from your target customers exactly what they want. This gives you an incredible opportunity to create something more valuable, effective and unique to satisfy their needs in ways that others currently are not.
The logic behind guest posting is simple. Get a preview of your upcoming solution, the idea you want to validate, published and highlighted on a more popular website that already has your existing audience built-in.
Within your guest post on the same topic as the idea you want to validate, include links back to where readers can have the opportunity to learn more about what you’re building.
When I wanted to validate the idea for my first online course teaching people how to build a side business, I spent countless hours landing my first guest posts on blogs like Buffer, CreativeLive, The Daily Muse and other destinations, where I knew my audience was already reading.
Shortly after sending a cold email pitch to a writer at Buffer, my first guest post about finding meaningful work went live and in less than a week I’d amassed a couple hundred email subscribers that wanted updates on my course. The phone, email and Skype conversations I had with those early subscribers laid the foundation for the community I’ve grown and the products I’ve built.
If you’re willing to allocate a budget of $100 to $200 for driving paid traffic to your landing page through Facebook Ads, you can expect to get upwards of a couple hundred highly targeted visitors to come check out the idea you’re working on.
With a previous business, my partner and I were able to validate a brand new product line before investing in it. We spent $100 on Facebook Ads, collecting leads by offering a free downloadable guide.
Then we transitioned into phone conversations with those potential customers, before landing our first $5,000 sale in less than two weeks. If you’re ready to try out your first Facebook Ads, get started and do it right.
Choosing to run a contest or giveaway to help validate your idea can be massively successful in terms of growing your list of prospective customers, if you choose the right incentives to include in your giveaway. One of the most common mistake entrepreneurs make with hosting a giveaway, is awarding prizes that everybody would want to win.
Related: 10 Business Ideas Ready To Launch!
If you run a giveaway, the prize needs to be very closely related to the solution you’re planning on building. That means no Amazon gift cards or iPhones. If you want to host a giveaway to validate your photography-related website idea, start by asking what photographers want most, which could be a free subscription to Adobe Lightroom, a new lens kit or a coaching session with a well-known photographer in their space.
Then, make sure you’re using the right giveaway platform to help incentivise entrants to share with their communities. If you can get each giveaway entrant to refer five of their friends, you can quickly go viral and build a large interest list. The Kingsumo Giveaways plugin for WordPress has this incentivised sharing feature built-in.
Want to validate your product idea? Start by combing through reviews of related products on Amazon to see what existing customers like, dislike and complain about most. Focus on identifying the two and three star reviews, where the customers are somewhere between ecstatic and wildly unhappy with their purchase.
Then, click through to the reviewers profile and click the button that says show more; the vast majority of Amazon reviewers that don’t edit their default profile settings, so you’ll likely see an option to send them an email. Reference their review, briefly mention you’re building something similar that’s designed to improve upon the product they reviewed, and ask whether they’d be up for answering a few questions.
At the end of the day, to succeed in business you need to be helping real people solve real problems. More importantly, as serial entrepreneur and TED speaker Derek Sivers shared with me in a recent interview, “Start now, you don’t need funding. For an idea to get big, it has to be useful — and being useful doesn’t need funding.”
The psychological trap of needing more time, money, experience or other resources before starting to build a business holds many aspiring entrepreneurs back from ever achieving their dreams.
You have to work with what you’ve got. Start by simply validating your idea. The goal of validation is to give you relative certainty about the viability of your idea; it’s not a guarantee of success.
Validating your idea today will help prove that you’ll have a growing, paying audience of customers for the solution you plan on building, before you go out and create a finished product or service.
Without validation, you run the risk of creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Begin without grandiose expectations and just endeavour to be useful to people today. Help them overcome their challenges, document what works and see where it takes you.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
The ‘Anything’ Entrepreneur
Most entrepreneurs are told to ‘stick to their niche’ but what happens when you make diversification your key to success?
Traditionally, entrepreneurs are told to stay focused and stick to their niche. But what if this advice isn’t always the right thing to do? What if this isn’t the perfect plan for your business, especially when you are facing a mercurial economy and a complex market? The instructions to build a thriving business aren’t set in stone, they’re as fluid as the customers and markets that inspired their creation in the first place. So, instead of hugging that niche rut, here are seven steps to intelligent diversification that could make a huge difference to your business…
1. The price tag
Having a niche business can become expensive, especially if you purchase stock from a specialised or niche supplier. They tend to charge a premium as they have the expertise and market position that allows them to do so. If you instead look to selling a variety of products and solutions, you can reduce the prices for your own bottom line as well as that of the customer.
Often, you are paying for a brand and not the deliverables so ensure that you’re investing into solutions that add value to your business not weight to your bottom line.
2. Variety is key
To survive in this economy, small business owners can no longer afford to only offer single product lines. By adapting and diversifying, you ensure your business isn’t the one left behind. Your competitors may very well be planning on introducing complementary products and services that boost existing offerings or add value. Don’t be the business that hasn’t been paying attention to the customer’s need for more bang for their buck.
3. Bolt on is bolting in
Offer your customers bolt-on extras where you can. This furthers the value you can add to your service and the value that the customer perceives you are offering to them. Extended warranties and value-added services not only add value, but they add longevity to your customer relationships. This means that you build depth with your customers as opposed to a hit and run sale.
4. Build a fence
When you diversify into a variety of solutions and services, you are giving yourself the opportunity to ring fence client spend. They won’t need to go to a multitude of suppliers as you will become their trusted one-stop-shop. You can then use this as an opportunity to showcase other products and services and to use your relationships to pitch clients into new areas of your business.
5. Client retention
When you have a rich pool of resources and strong client relationships, then you build trust and you prove to your clients that you have what it takes to get them what they need. When you’re trapped into single product lines you can’t offer this level of depth to your clients and they will simply go elsewhere.
6. Communication and collaboration
Diversification also offers you the opportunity to communicate more regularly with your clients. Instead of only selling to your customers seven or eight times a year, you can talk to them several times a week. Instead of just supplying products, you are helping them to deal with their day-to-day challenges and requirements. This allows for richer upselling and even more opportunities to engage.
Read next: 21 Steps To Start-Up Success
How To Forge Your Own Path In Business
Finding your own way doesn’t require reinventing the wheel.
You don’t need to be a visionary to forge your own path in business.
Honestly, you don’t even need to be a business owner to forge your own path. It’s more about a state of mind where you’re able to think for yourself professionally. To clarify, that doesn’t mean you’ve got to be a lone wolf: ideally, you want to be able to to work with and even for others, but without being a follower.
The ability to balance being an independent thinker yet simultaneously remaining accountable for your actions will make you a much more valuable worker, no matter what field you’ve chosen. The good news is that with targeted effort, anyone can adopt this mindset. Here are some of my tips for how to forge your own path in business, and why it matters.
Learn the rules first
This might sound out of place in a post about how to forge your own path in business. After all, aren’t we talking about independence?
Here’s the thing. Before you want to break the rules, you have to actually learn what they are. Take the time to learn the “rules” of your trade before you start trying to reinvent the wheel. You’re likely to pick up wisdom that will serve you, even if you intend on using the rules to inspire new and creative ways of breaking them.
Once again, you might find yourself thinking: Why should I seek out guidance if I want to forge my own path? Picture a cliche movie scene of a parent teaching their kid how to ride a bike. There’s that magical moment where the parent lets go of the back of the bike, and the kid is doing it on his own.
In business, you often need that initial helping hand before you can ride smoothly on your own. Before you can think for yourself, it can be helpful to absorb all of the wisdom you can from others.
One powerful way to do this is to find a mentor, or someone established in your field or a similar field who can give you words of advice and help you avoid making mistakes. Another is to make sure to take part in networking groups and to engage with other entrepreneurs. The more people you connect with and the more knowledge you gain, the better!
Set realistic and specific goals
If you want to gain confidence, become an independent thinker, and a better problem solver, do this one thing: Set realistic and specific goals.
Say that you want to increase sales for your business. It may not be realistic to say that you want to double your sales, but to simply have a goal to “increase sales” isn’t specific enough. However, setting a goal of increasing sales by 20% this year might be more realistic and is definitely more specific.
A goal like this is motivating, as it gives you something specific to work toward. It also allows you to break it down into actionable steps. You can begin to problem-solve, making specific plans for ways in which you could make your goal a reality. As you reach these milestones, you’ll gain more confidence in your abilities, which can help you move forward more confidently in your career.
Observe, but don’t copy
It can be very helpful to look at what your competitors and other entrepreneurs are doing. It keeps you relevant, gives you ideas, and can help keep you nimble in your chosen field.
However – this is important – you should never copy what others are doing. For one thing, it doesn’t work. Say you see someone killing it with a brand new hummus restaurant start-up. You can’t just start crushing chickpeas and expect success. There are lots of inner workings to the business that you’re not privy to, so even if you were to try, you couldn’t quite replicate someone else’s success.
Further, by the the time you copy, you’re already a follower and behind the curve. It’s better to use the information you observe as data, so that you can gain insight on things like effective marketing techniques and aesthetics, and apply these things to your own original ideas.
Think for yourself
You probably already guessed this one, but to forge your own path in business, you need to learn to think for yourself. So…how do you do that? Education is key. You need to absorb all of the knowledge you can, talk to as many people as you can, and observe as much as you can.
It’s almost like you’re forming your own personal library of data and resources. As time goes on, you’ll become better able to use this knowledge that you’ve gained to put your own unique ideas out in the world. You’ll be better able to generate ideas and to come up with intelligent solutions.
Let yourself grow over time
Ultimately, if you want to forge your own path in business, you need to be patient. Expertise, independent thinking, and autonomy won’t all happen overnight, so take the pressure off of yourself.
Remember: Patience is a trait of some of the most successful people. Focus on progress, not perfection. If you want to be successful for the long haul, allow yourself to learn and grow and continue to improve over time. Slow but steady, right?
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
Start Your Online Business For (Practically) Free
5 Simple steps to start your online store on a shoestring budget — no previous experience required.
If you’ve been wanting to release your inner entrepreneur but you’re constrained by a tight budget, an online store is a good place to start, particularly as you can get set up and start taking orders without spending the world up-front.
Your online store can be set up by you (yes, even with no prior experience) and you can get it up and running without needing to hire staff or rent offices. Hopefully you’ll need all of that as you grow, but for now you can set up your online store and start taking orders on a shoestring budget with these five, simple steps.
Deciding what to sell
If you don’t have money to invest in buying products to sell on your site consider selling your services. Ask yourself what it is that you are really good at that other people would be willing to pay you to do? Create this as a service and use your site to promote your offer and to let clients book out your time. You can also consider improving your skill level (and how much you can charge) by doing some online courses on the topic.
If you prefer selling physical items, reach out to people you know in case your network has idle stock in their stock rooms. Negotiate to list their stock on your site and when a customer pays you for an item, buy it from your supplier and send it to your customer. This is essentially drop shipping in its most manual form and until the drop shipping infrastructure in South Africa is established, hustling for work-arounds is the best way to get your online store up and running without investing in inventory.
Decide what website platform to build your site on
Without going into too much detail I can narrow down your options to using WordPress or Shopify as your CMS (Content Management System). This is the skeleton of your site where you add all of your content on the back-end to be organised before you publish it to the front-end, which is what your customers see as your website.
You can establish a WordPress website for free whereas Shopify starts from $29 per month. If you are experienced with websites I’d suggest WordPress, but if your experience is limited setting up a Shopify site is an easier solution that will save you a lot of time when you get started. Either way, don’t be intimidated by the process as the set-up wizards will guide you step-by-step on how to build your website.
Taking online payments
Setting up your store to take online payments is much easier than you think. From day one you can enable manual EFT payments and let customers pay you by EFT (but only dispatch the order once the payment has cleared!). This allows you to start taking payments straight away.
Next, you can easily apply for an account with a South African payment gateway. The account can take up to a week to be approved and the service provider will guide you on how to set it up on your site. Once this is done your customers will be able to pay you by credit card, instant EFT, Bitcoin, Mobicred, Zapper and more.
If you don’t yet have a business bank account, don’t let this slow you down. You can start off by linking the payment gateway to your personal account and then change it later once you’ve set up a business account.
Related: Will Anyone Buy Your Product Online?
Getting your first sales
Here are a few ‘low hanging fruit’ tips for getting easy traffic to your online store to help generate your first sales.
Share your new site with everyone you know. Use any social media networks you may have to announce your new website to your friends and family. Start by asking them for feedback (so they don’t feel that you’re pushing them for sales) then ask them to share your products with anyone they know who might be interested.
Offer launch specials. Now that you’ve got some eyes on your site generate urgency by, offering a ‘launch week 15% discount’. Apart from driving sales, this also lets you test your payment and delivery processes with people who won’t get angry if things don’t go perfectly. What’s more, you can reach out to these first buyers for product feedback, which will be super helpful before you start selling to unknown customers.
Validate your business on Google. Visit google.com/business to add your business details to Google Maps. Once this is approved your business details will show on the right side of the Google results when people search for your brand. This is a great way to build trust and traffic.
Build your newsletter subscriber list. Your exposure to your social media followers can be limited by changes in the rules of each platform. Your list of newsletter subscribers, however, is the only list that you own and control so it’s vital to build this list from day one. It’s a fantastic place to launch deals and subscriber specials and to engage with people who’ve signed up to hear more from you. A great way to grow this list is to offer a free ‘lead magnet’ which people can only access once they subscribe. The best ‘lead magnet’ is a content offering that is truly helpful and desired by your potential customers. Try to get creative and think of what you are willing to give away for ‘free’ to build your database.
Learn the basics of SEO. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the big topic of Search Engine Optimisation. If you can learn a few key principles on YouTube and then build each part of your website with this in mind you’ll see a massive long-term benefit as each part of your site will climb higher in the rankings in the future. Don’t forget to submit your sitemap for indexing; skipping this step will delay your websites’ pages being properly ranked in Google.
“Building your own website on a shoestring budget is not only possible but it’s likely to be easier than you expected. Aim for progress instead of perfection, you’ll have plenty of time to fine-tune everything once your site is live.”
Delivering your order fast and cheap
Trying to use the South African postal service to deliver to your customers may sound like a cheaper alternative than couriers but it’s really not an option as their service is often hit and miss. Customers will also abandon orders on your site if they see that you’re not using couriers to deliver to them.
You need to engage with the courier companies in your area to see which ones offer the best service at the fairest prices. If you’re in a big city you should be able to deliver within the city for around R32 and to other major cities for R45 on an overnight delivery service. Delivering to customers in outlying areas does become more expensive but you can investigate couriers that offer drop-box options so that your rural deliveries don’t cost more than R99.
Of course, the larger the item the higher the delivery cost can be, but if you’re shipping bulky items like fridges or couches shop around for the best prices as you should be able to offer nationwide road-freight deliveries at no more than R250.
Some companies in South Africa offer aggregated courier quotes where you can book through their service and benefit from their mass negotiation with the respective couriers. They can get as much as 35% discounted off the normal rates and this is passed onto you. These systems can also be integrated into your website so that everything runs seamlessly — like true eCommerce should.
South African customers are generally willing to pay for courier fees on their orders up to a certain shopping cart value. The general rule of thumb is that you ought to offer free delivery on orders over R500; however, you need to know your numbers to ensure that the average shipping fee can be absorbed by your gross profit margins once the order value reaches over R500.
Building your own website on a shoestring budget is not only possible but it’s likely to be easier than you expected. Aim for progress instead of perfection, you’ll have plenty of time to fine-tune everything once your site is live. Getting your website live sooner rather than later helps you to recoup some cash from kick-starting your sales, it allows you to get feedback from your first customers which you can use to improve the final site, and, getting your first sales will validate that people are willing to buy what you’re selling.
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