These startup questions get asked a lot. Here’s how to think about them.
Each month, we get dozens of questions for our Friday Q & A posts.
And each month, I respond to many of them with links to answers we’ve already posted before.
(I’m not complaining about that, it’s actually the biggest reason that I started publishing the series: so that I could link folks to an answer rather than re-writing it each time.)
Without fail, I see the same handful of questions coming in from those who are:
- Trying to figure out if their business idea is a good one
- Determined that it is a good one, and trying to figure out how to pursue it
- Starting to pursue it, and aren’t sure what to do next
Today, I wanted to share the five most common questions we get from first-time founders, and how I approach each one.
To be sure, my answers aren’t fact—they’re simply based on my own experience—and there are many that are more qualified than me to answer. I hope that you’ll chime in with your own perspectives in the comments.
1) How do you validate a technical business idea if you don’t know how to code?
If your first instinct here is to hire a developer or an agency just to validate an idea, stop.
My advice can be condensed into four words: pick up the phone.
Before my first startup, I started my career as an assistant to my brother, a financial advisor.
Soon after that, I began to get frustrated that there was nothing out there to help us automate the customer management side of things.
Everything—followups, lead nurturing, tracking—was manual.
I thought that maybe if I was having this problem, then others might be, too.
So I put a PowerPoint deck together about the solution I envisioned—a CRM for financial advisors—and then I picked up the phone.
I called other financial advisors in my area, asking if I could have five minutes of their time.
Then I asked them about their own experiences and pains, and learned that dozens of them shared the same burning frustrations that we did.
It was then—and only then—that I decided to team up with my technical cofounder and get the product built.
It’s a process I’ve repeated for all of my startups, and the time I put in early on has paid off exponentially in building a better solution than we otherwise would have.
Without the ability to hack together a prototype, the easiest way to validate your idea is simply to go talk to your potential customers first. You’ll be amazed at how many people are happily willing to share their time and opinions with you.
2) Should I try to raise money to hire developers for my business?
Obviously there’s no blanket answer here that applies to all startups. But here’s my take.
There are things I would’ve done differently (and I’ve blogged about many of them), but raising more money isn’t one of them.
There are so many dangers to raising cash early on that I’ve seen materialize among friends.
One of the biggest is that there’s a really good chance that, like many startups, you may have to pivot to reach product/market fit. The investors who buy into your vision today might not love the thought of your new direction. A lot of people who think they want to invest in startups don’t truly have the stomach for what being involved in a startup really means, and they end up getting scared and becoming a distraction for the founder).
Dilution, too, is a very real de-motivator of founders and teams. You’re going to be paying a premium for capital when you’re still in the idea (or even prototype) phase, versus when you already have traction/customers and can get far more favorable terms.
It depends on your goals, too. For Groove, we wanted to build a sustainable long‑term business rather than a rapid ramp to acquisition. Going slow in the beginning and spending a ton of time talking to customers and refining the vision and product ended up being invaluable in the long run.
3) How do I start marketing from scratch?
It’s always easy to answer a question like this after you’ve already figured out something that works well for you.
So of course, if I knew then what I know now, I’d be doing all of the stuff that ended up delivering huge marketing breakthroughs for us over the course of Groove’s history.
And I’m happy to offer my take on what those big wins were, with the caveat that this is what worked for us, in our market, with our position. These things may not work for you. But if I got my hands on a time machine, here’s what I’d start doing from day one:
- Deep, deep customer development. Before we did anything, I’d spend many, many hours talking to as many customers as possible, learning about their pains, challenges and goals, and thinking about how we could use our marketing to help them accomplish those goals (not to mention using these insights to drive our product development).
- Start publishing valuable, interesting and useful content as soon as we possibly can. I’ve always loved what Rick Perrault, CEO of Unbounce, said in his interview on our blog about the huge benefits Unbounce got from doing content marketing well before they launched their product:
The question we had from the beginning was “how are we going to find customers?” It’s not like people are searching “landing page solution” or “landing page builder.” People didn’t even know to look for us, so how will we go out and find them? So that was a really important challenge for us to tackle, and we made the decision to start blogging on day one. [Ed. note: actually, it was more like day -165, as the product was six months from launch]
We needed to make connections with thought leaders, and to become thought leaders ourselves. So we worked hard, blogging, guest posting and promoting, and by the time we launched, we already had a reputation in the space. The thought leaders we had built relationships with talked about our product and got people interested. I don’t think there would’ve been any other way to succeed.
As a result, the team had a strong launch and signed up a lot of users, fast.
- Drive top, middle and bottom-of-the-funnel traffic to our site. We didn’t launch our support blog until nearly a year after our startup journey blog launched, and already it has nearly caught up in terms of traffic (and gets more customer signups). Both blogs deliver tremendous value to us, and I’d make sure that we get them both launched from the beginning.
- Understand and embrace the power of SEO to drive organic traffic. It took me a while to get over my fear of SEO and realize that it’s not just some scammy tactic. Now that we’re taking it seriously, our traffic has never been higher. I regret not putting in the effort from the beginning.
- Influencer outreach is the reason that our startup journey blog has been as successful as it has been. Especially early on, our outreach campaign gave the blog the boost it needed to build a baseline of traffic that has been steadily growing ever since. We still use many of the same tactics for a lot of our marketing initiatives, and if I understood its usefulness when we launched the business, we’d be in a different place today.
4) How do I make my tiny startup look bigger and more credible?
My first reaction to this question would be a word of caution: be careful with this.
As a small business, especially one that’s selling to consumers, you have a distinct advantage: you can use your size as a selling point.
It’s okay to be a small startup, if that means that your customers get to benefit from more personal support from a business that cares more about each and every interaction, and if the customer gets to feel like they’re supporting a small business, rather than a large corporation. To many people, these things matter.
But with that out of the way, one of the hardest objections to overcome in marketing is “why should I trust you?”
And, if you look like a startup, you have to work a bit harder to answer that question.
Here’s what I would recommend:
Work on producing valuable content that helps your customers with their problems. Whether it’s blog content, video content or visuals, if a customer gets value from you before they buy, they’ll already trust you enough to not care whether your website is polished or not. Here’s how to do it, and here’s how to spread the word.
If you’re concerned with your site not looking professional enough, but can’t afford a designer, consider an upgraded WordPress setup like the Genesis framework paired with a premium theme that fits your industry.
Validation, validation, validation.
- Get testimonials from your customers, no matter how few you have.
- Publish guest posts with influencers in your industry, and afterwards, put their logos on your site.
- Partner with more high-profile companies, and put their logos on your site.
- Build mentor relationships with known people in your industry, and get quotes from them that you can put on your site.
Above all, don’t worry about looking like your corporate competitors. If you try, people will see right through it, but more importantly, you’ll lose a very important differentiator that can bring you huge value in your marketing: you’re small, and the right customers will love that about you.
5) What are your top pieces of advice for first-time entrepreneurs?
I’ve given this question a lot of thought over the last few years, and truly, there are hundreds of lessons that I’ve learned that I wish I knew when I started.
Really, that’s how this blog started. I wish I could’ve read every single post on day one.
But many of the lessons are from mistakes that need to be made to truly learn from.
If I had to pick three pieces of advice that have made a massive impact on me and that anyone can implement as a first-time entrepreneur, it’d be these:
1) Talk to your customers every single day. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, this is priority #1. If you don’t, you’ll lose sight of your product, what people really want from it, and whether or not you’re delivering that.
2) You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Partnerships, discounts on expensive software, guest blog posts… none of these happen without you having the courage to ask for what you want. And if you can’t afford something, don’t be afraid to get creative about it.
3) Make time to learn new things. Read. Understand every part of your business, even if it’s not your “job.” For example, you may be farming out accounting, but understanding what your accountant is doing will help you pick the best vendor for the job and just understand your business more deeply overall.
I hope these answers are helpful in framing how you think about these burning questions, but I’d also love to get more perspectives on each of these in the comments. The more, the better.
Let’s help each other out: how would you answer these questions?