You’ve got this great new idea. You’re going to start a business. Maybe it’s online, maybe it’s not — whatever, that doesn’t matter. You’re going to do it! And it’s going to be amazing.
So, you get to work. You create your product. You put in all the work. All the hours. All the blood, sweat, and tears. All of your life savings. And even more than that, if you go into debt.
Oh, man. This is going to be good.
You create your marketing materials. Business cards. Facebook ads. An email list. You build your website, take your headshot, write your bio. You’ve done everything the gurus say you need to.
You. Are. Ready.
Finally the day comes. You take a deep breath and you leap.
Just like they all say you’re supposed to. You ship that shizz. Seth Godin would be so proud!
Except . . . Nothing happens. No one buys your product.
Or worse, just enough people do that you wind up working full-time for three customers, making like two bucks an hour because you can’t bring yourself to just refund their money and shut the whole stupid thing down.
Maybe more people will figure out how cool your thing is and join late. You leave the cart open a couple extra days. You drop the price. You add a bonus. You try everything, but none of it works.
You leaped and you landed in a pile of crap.
How could this happen? You did everything you were supposed to. Everyone says you’re supposed to ship, right? You’re supposed to leap. And you did!
So why aren’t you one of those six-figure success stories?
The answer is actually pretty simple — although you probably won’t like it very much.
The problem is that you skipped a step. You created a product and you did all that work — but you didn’t take the time to make sure that your audience actually wanted it first.
I love the movie Field of Dreams. I’m a sucker for a good sports movie. But the thing is, in the real world, if you build it, they won’t come unless it’s something they really want and need.
I can say that with certainty, because if you’d taken the step to validate your idea, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
And I know that, of course, because I’ve been there.
Let’s define ‘validation’ real quick. Validation means taking your idea to the people you are creating it for and asking them.
Hey, guys? If I make this thing, will you want it?
Radical idea, I know. But if you make sure that you create something that your audience really needs and wants, when you launch, you’ll have a far different experience.
This is my story.
Three years ago I created the Ninja Writers Club. My idea was that I’d have a membership program and instead of trying to sell expensive online courses that were getting tougher and tougher to market by the minute, people would pay me a small monthly fee and I’d never have to sell anything else, ever.
Oh, I loved this idea. Because I hate selling. Launches are no fun at all for me and if I could find a way to teach without having to do them — that would be awesome.
I wanted to try teaching new things, but the idea of having to sell those classes too was just overwhelmingly yucky.
So, I thought I’d build this club and then I‘d just create willy nilly to my heart’s content and I’d have a paying audience already all lined up.
Perfect! Instead of stressful semi-annual launches, I’d just have one or two people a day join my club via — oh, I don’t know. Osmosis? Some kind of email funnel, I guess.
And bang! I’d never have to sell again.
Right. That was my grand plan. For two and a half years.
And in all that time, the only people who were part of the Ninja Writers Club were the people I offered it to for free. I could barely give it away, much less sell it.
I tried, but I couldn’t get it off the ground.
The problem was that when I created my product, I made what I wanted. I didn’t make what my students needed.
This spring, I decided it was time to get serious about shifting away from selling online courses. It’s a model that was working less and less well each year — and I hated that the cost left so many people out.
I sold my signature course, A Novel Idea, for the last time in 2018.
That course has supported my family since 2016, so not launching in 2019 was pretty scary. I offered small-group workshops instead, which tided me over and gave me an idea for how A) I might enjoy working more one-on-one with writers and B) Ninja Writers might react to a different format.
And in May I did a lot of work validating my membership program and turning it into something my students actually wanted to participate in.
Validating means making sure you’re creating something you have an audience for.
Imagine spending weeks planning and paying for and crafting a surprise party for someone you kind of know. Not your best friend or your sister. More like the barista who makes your coffee every morning or the lunch lady at your kid’s school.
You really believe you’re doing a super nice thing. You put a lot of effort into it and spare no expense with the bells and whistles. And then the day comes and everyone who is invited is polite, if they show up at all, but it’s all kind of awkward. And no one really has much fun.
Now imagine sitting down with someone and asking them exactly what kind of party they’d like to have. You figure out every detail of their perfect dream party, get to know who their friends are and make sure that they’re going to be excited when they see what you’ve planned. Instead of a random surprise that, let’s face it, is designed around what you want, you create exactly the experience that the person you’re serving wants.
When that party day arrives, it’s a whole different experience. Everyone wants to be invited and they’re happy to be there. You don’t even have to try very hard to make sure they have fun, because you’ve made sure that you’ve designed the whole experience so that there’s no other choice.
That’s the difference between creating a product and then trying to sell it — and validating an idea before you create it.
Some ideas for validating your idea.
All validating really means is asking your intended audience whether or not they’re interested in your idea before you go to the trouble and expense of creating the product.
There are a few ways to do that.
The easiest way is just to talk about your idea.
If you don’t have a formal ‘audience’ yet, talk about it with your friends and in places where potential customers hang out.
One big reason people don’t do this, of course, is because they’re afraid their idea will be stolen. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you that never happens. I’m sure’s happened. But I can tell you from the experience of running a community with more than 50,000 people in it — most people don’t act on ideas.
Sad, but true. Most people are big thinkers. It’s so rare for someone to follow through on anything that the risk of someone stealing your idea and doing anything with it is, in my opinion, pretty rare.
But you might get a feel for how excited they are about you following through.
Here’s how I validated my membership program.
I hired a business coach this spring to help me figure out how to get my membership program to work. This is what he walked me through doing.
I created a sales page in a Google Doc and a Google Form for feedback. Then I picked fifty Ninja Writers who I was pretty sure (based on links they’d clicked in emails I’d previously sent) might be interested in my program.
I personally emailed them (one at a time from my Gmail account, not all at once via my email server) to let them know I was working on something and asked if they’d be interested in taking a look and giving me some feedback. If they said yes, I sent the sales page and the feedback form.
My goal was for ten percent of the people who said ‘yes’ to join the club. It took a lot of work. I replied to every question, reached out when people didn’t fill out the feedback form, sent a couple of sales-type emails to try to entice them to join the club if they seemed interested it.
In the end, about 18 percent of the people who said ‘yes’ to that group of 50 joined the club.
So I made changes to my sales page based on the feedback and I did it again — with 100 people this time. Same goal of a ten percent success rate with the people who said ‘yes’ to giving me feedback.
And then, after all that work was done and successful, one more time with 150 people.
Whew. It was a lot of work and a whole mountain of emails. But in the end I had a rock solid sales page and more than 100 new members to my membership program — which meant that suddenly it was a viable product.
And I knew for sure that it would work now.
By the time I was done talking to all those people, I knew what I’d done wrong in the past. I knew what I was doing wrong before and why people weren’t signing up in the two-and-a-half years I’d failed to make it take off.
Prior to validation the Ninja Writer Club had 85 members — most of them with free memberships because they’d purchased the first round of my signature course. My income from the club was about $150 a month.
After validation I had 207 members. After the $5 initial month, assuming everyone stayed for month two, that increase in membership would bring an additional $3,050 monthly income.
Because I had a much stronger idea of what my audience needed (and wanted,) I was able to create a series of emails that introduces new email subscribers to the Ninja Writers Club when they sign up. Since May, I’ve added one to two new members every day.
Which was my goal when I started the club in the first place.
I’ve done a couple of community-wide efforts to encourage people to join the club, when we have something big happening. But that slow, steady daily growth is the really exciting thing for me. It’s been six months and my membership community has 415 members now. It’s absolutely thriving.
I’m not talking about the income, although I can’t tell you how happy I am that my plan worked. The Ninja Writers Club is a viable replacement for selling that expensive course. My recurring revenue last month was about $7500.
But what makes my membership community thrive is that I’ve created what my audience needs by actually talking to them about it — instead of making things and hoping that they’d want them.
It’s thriving because it’s a living, breathing community of super talented, engaged, writers who show up and get excited about their own work and each other’s work. And because I’m part of that community, instead of standing above it creating what I want and begging them to buy it even though they never asked for it in the first place.
Taking the time to validate your product before you create might not sound like a barrel of laughs. It’s hard work and you might find out that the idea you’re super excited about isn’t something that you have an audience for right now.
But it’s worth it. Because trust me, as hard as it is, you’d rather find out that no one is going to come before you do all the work of building it. Instead of placing blind faith in your untested ideas, put your faith in your audience.
They’ll tell you how you can best serve them.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.