You Don’t Need a Business Idea, You Need a Sale

Photos: Dan Burton & Federico Bottos | Illustration: Matt Sandrini

I sold an online course that didn’t exist. OK, maybe that’s putting it a little strongly. It existed, sort of. In my head, enough that I could post it for sale online.

Here’s how it started.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and thought about what valuable information I could package in a rapid but high value course. Paper and pen, I wrote down things I accomplished and assets I could leverage. Remember, you can do the same thing: we often take our skills and accomplishments for granted, so much so that they become invisible to us.

In the end, I decided to create a video and checklist about how I research and plan content ideas: it took me a long time to find a process that works for me, and it’s something I get asked whenever I have a conversation with a company that wants to use content for their engagement.

I decided to structure the launch as an experiment, to see if the idea I had for the course would sell, and I didn’t want to waste all of that time creating it if it wouldn’t. So I created a Fiverr gig, uploaded a thumbnail and description, and…waited.

I had my first sale within 24 hours: the experiment was a success.

As soon as I saw the sale come through, I had an expected challenge: I didn’t have the course, video, or anything else to send in exchange for the order. Since I wanted to test the proposition first, I spent 100% of my time on selling, and none on the backend until after validation.

So I quickly left my mobile office (Starbucks), went (run?) home, and sketched out the outline for the course by hand on a piece of paper to transfer it from my head to something I could read. I turned on my camera and hit record. Edited and uploaded. Within three hours of selling the course, I had created and shipped the product.

A week later, I had four $50 sales and 100% 5-star reviews.

It being a digital product, each extra sale didn’t require any extra work (other than sending a message with a link).

The first 10 days (image by author)

I took this approach because I know what I would’ve done otherwise. I’ve been there. With no customers waiting on delivery, I would have over complicated the whole process. My course outline would have been seven times longer than it needed to be. I would have re-recorded multiple times because I didn’t have the right shirt on, or my smile in the introduction wasn’t quite right, or my voice faltered at that one point.

I would’ve wasted my time postponing for perfection. Meanwhile, I also would’ve been missing out on sales.

There are two parallel methods for starting a business and getting your product or service out into the world. There’s the “me first” method, and the “customer first” method. I’ve tried both, but only one truly works.

The ‘Me-me-me’ Method

This is how most entrepreneurs start their venture. They have an idea, and it’s a really good idea. They’ve talked to a handful of close friends and family members about their idea, and everyone agrees. It’s a really good idea. They wouldn’t buy it themselves, because, well, it just isn’t right for them. But they’re sure it’ll do well. They’re very encouraging.

So the entrepreneur works on that idea. Makes it just a little bit better week by week, adding some features and changing others. Perfecting the product until it’s finally ready for production and public consumption.

Meanwhile, any time not spent on product improvement is used to get the business side of things ready. Product and business names are mulled over. Domain names are researched and purchased. Logos are designed, discussed, and redesigned. The entrepreneur considers what title to give themself. CEO? Owner? Founder? This alone occupies the better part of a day.

The entrepreneur spends a couple of weeks working on their website. After all, that’s their storefront. It has to be top-notch. Welcoming. Colour schemes and layouts are studied and tweaked. Fonts are examined. Finally, they give in and call in a professional, and the process starts all over from the beginning.

This doesn’t even mention the paperwork. Patents, business registrations, legal documentation. And of course, there’s business cards, which need to be reprinted three times with each tweak to the logo.

Finally, it’s all ready. Time to go public with the website and launch the product.

And… cue the crickets.

Matt Sandrini

A couple of sales trickle in, but the reviews are lukewarm. One of them even mentions an adjustment to the product that would make it so much better. But by now, it’s too late to turn back. And anyway, the product is perfect as-is, isn’t it? The entrepreneur worked on it for so long, how can it not be?

These entrepreneurs stay plenty busy, and yet they don’t get anywhere. They get no feedback during their development cycle, never interact with others, and keep business internal.

They firmly believe that “if you build it [perfectly], they will come.”

The ‘Ask Them First’ Method

While all the others are out there perfecting their product ideas and polishing their websites, these entrepreneurs don’t even have a finished product in mind. Yet.

Instead, these entrepreneurs are thinking about problems they can solve. Sure, they have ideas. But they’re wise enough to realise that any successful idea needs to solve a problem for someone who’s willing to pay for it. And the only way to figure that out is to talk to potential customers, analyse what’s currently on the market, and test potential solutions.

They understand that “if you build it, they will come” is just a catchy line from a classic film about America’s version of cricket. They’re successful by flipping this phrase on its head.

First, they need customers.

Well, potential customers. They figure out who that target audience is, and then they figure out a solution to a problem that the target audience has. Most importantly, they involve that target audience in co-creating the solution (not simply a product or service) that works for them, perfect or not.

They involve their potential customers in creating the product, adjust to feedback along the way, and eventually get the sale.

Illustration: Matt Sandrini

The process looks something like this:

  • Find a problem you can solve. Make sure to be clear about who you’re solving it for, too. Your solution will resonate better if you know exactly who it’s intended for.
  • Reach out. Find members of your target audience to engage with. Ask for some of their time to help them with a problem they have. Talk to them to understand the problem fully, and why current solutions aren’t adequate.
  • Brainstorm. Come up with as many ways as you can to solve the problem or improve on existing solutions. Select the best of these ideas and flesh them out a little bit.
  • Reach out again. Float your solution ideas past the same people you talked to earlier. Don’t sell, listen. Don’t talk about how great your ideas are, listen to the feedback around your idea’s viability. Ask probing questions, and listen fully to the answers without getting defensive.
  • Adjust. Tweak your idea per the feedback you heard.
  • Reach out once more. Share your adjusted idea, ask for more feedback, and maybe ask for the sale. If your potential customer is willing to place an advance order, time to get to work and create the actual product.
  • Get to work and create the actual product. Deliver.

Your customers will be co-creators.
And who can resist a product they helped create?

It’s Like Perfecting a Stand-Up Routine

I used to think comedians were just naturally funny. That they’d get up in front of an audience and the jokes would just come to them. The truth is quite different, and it’s a great parallel with business — I’ve written about it here.

Comedians write jokes the way that successful entrepreneurs create products. There’s lots of testing involved. Jerry Seinfeld is famous for showing up unannounced at small comedy clubs around New York City to try out new jokes he’s working on. He uses the reactions he gets to make adjustments, then makes another surprise appearance to see how the tweaks work. How much louder are the laughs with that subtle word and timing change? By the time he’s ready to go on tour, his act has been through thousands of hours of writing, testing, rewriting, and more testing.

As it turns out, business isn’t much different from stand-up comedy.

Don’t write your full stand-up routine in a vacuum. Write a little bit, gauge your audience’s reaction, and adjust. Then do it all over again.

In the same way, entrepreneurs must test and even develop their ideas with their audience, quickly gain information, and then use it to adjust and decide their next moves.

You can leave it to chance, work alone and hope that your ideas will resonate. Or you can be a professional and test and develop your idea in front of your audience.

Working on your idea behind the scenes sounds more comfortable…until you find out that no one cares.

By Matt Sandrini