Lean Market Validation: 10 Ways to Rapidly Test Your Startup Idea

Lean Market Validation ProductPlan

This article outlines the advice I gave students and includes updates on some of the concepts to my current thinking on lean market validation. For many first-timers with great ideas, the process is exciting but also a bit intimidating. I believe that the tactics can help both entrepreneurs and product managers launch better products with a higher chance of succeeding in the market.

So, What is Lean Market Validation?

What is market validation? It’s a question I hear a lot, especially when mentoring newer entrepreneurs and product managers.

Market validation is the process of determining whether your product is of interest to a given target market. Market validation involves a series of customer interviews with people in your target market, and it almost always takes place before you’ve made a significant investment in your product/concept.

The goal for my talk at Startup Weekend was simple: To layout a few practical tips for entrepreneurs to quickly validate their ideas. I also wanted to help them understand that even first-time entrepreneurs can launch successful products by taking a few easy (and often free) steps.

After using lean market validation to launch several software products, including ProductPlan, I’ve discovered that with the right process, even inexperienced entrepreneurs can bring exceptional products to market with excited buyers on the first day.

10 Ways to Rapidly Test Your Startup Idea

Here are my tips for using lean market validation to confirm whether you have a product/market fit with real customers. By simply engaging with real people and asking the right questions, you can confirm if your idea solves a problem, who your potential buyers are, and ultimately whether or not there’s a market for your product.

1. Write down your product concept.

Just the simple act of writing forces you to consider things you may have previously glossed over. I’m not talking about writing a “business plan.” (For startups, a business plan isn’t the best use of time and will change as soon as you start talking with prospective customers).

I’m talking about answering a few key questions that you can go out and test. These are your assumptions, and the sooner you can test them, the less risk you will have when launching your product.

Download the Anatomy of a Product Launch ➜

You can start with the questions below or use a tool such as the Business Model Canvas to guide your thinking.

Write down some basic assumptions that you can go out and test:

  • Who is your customer? If you say “everyone,” you are already setting yourself up for a tough time. Be sure to get specific. For example, if your customer is a business, answer: What kind of businesses? How big or small is the typical business? In a particular market? What is the title of the buyer?
  • What problems are you solving? Many entrepreneurs think about the product first — they fret about the features, launch the product, and then wonder why their product has trouble getting traction. My suggestion is to start with the problem first. What this means is being explicit about the problems your product solves. By writing down these problems, you can validate whether customers also see them as problems. And, more importantly, whether customers think they are problems worth solving.
  • How does your product solve those problems? Only after writing down the problem do you move to the product. From here, you tie the value of your product directly back to customer problems. How does solving their problems make their life better? Does it make them more money? Look better?
  • What are the key features of the product? The features need to be more than cool — they need to solve specific problems—the more quantitative (e.g., time saved, money made), the better. I encourage you to think Minimum Viable Product and limit the feature set as much as possible (you need to provide just enough value for some customers to buy).

2. Decide.

At Startup Weekend, 54 hours go quickly. The same concept holds for startups and new products in the real-world. Time and resources are scarce. There isn’t time to agonize over details that, in the end, may not matter.

For that reason, lean market validation helps successful teams get just enough information and data to make decisions. And then they make them. I like to adhere to the 80% rule — get just enough (valid) information from customer interviews and other data sources and then decide. In the end, you will never get to 100% certainty, and getting close will eat up an excessive amount of time.

3. Most of what you write down is assumptions.

This brings me to my third point: All the writing you do, the discussions (and debating) you have, are assumptions. Teams often take these discussions (and what’s in their heads) as facts when they are simply assumptions that need to be tested.

I like to think of the scientific method when reviewing ideas — how can they be tested?

I often see teams (at Startup Weekend and at startups) debate minor details, waste valuable time rather than make a guess (a temporary decision), and then get out into the real world to test whether it’s the right idea. It’s essential just to make a guess and get started because your assumptions may turn out to be wrong, and you’ll have spent valuable time (not to mention the toll on team dynamics) debating something that didn’t matter in the first place.

4. Find the truth by getting out to test your assumptions.

As soon as you’ve made some basic decisions, and written down your assumptions, get out to test them to see if they resonate with potential customers. I encouraged Startup Weekend attendees to get out on the street and save valuable time by getting on the phone if the customer type warrants.

Lean market validation relies on customer interviews with potential buyers of your product. You can also test your assumptions by interviewing experts (for example, analysts for the industry, people who have been employed by the industry, consultants, etc.). There are also some great ways to test digital ideas with landing pages and inexpensive ads.

Download the Product-Market Fit Book ➜

5. Start with your network.

I’m often asked how teams can easily find prospects to speak with. I recommend working with your own network and the networks of friends, mentors, investors, and others to reach potential customers.

The downside of interviewing people in your network is they are friendly to your cause. This means that you are introducing some potential bias into your learning. But my attitude is that some bias is better than not interviewing and getting closer to the truth.

6. Interview your customers.

When I mention interviewing, I’m not talking about a cursory conversation (or worse, a survey). Start with a list of questions but deviate from the questions as you learn more information. Approach the conversation with a sense of curiosity about the customer’s problem and needs, and you’ll get some really valuable insight.

Download our Customer Interview Tool Box, including templates you can use to track your interviews.

7. Ask, “Why?”

“Why?” is by far the most important question you can ask. With it, you can get closer to the truth from customers. Unfortunately, this question isn’t used often enough — too many people ask a question and then take the answer at face value. It’s a missed opportunity to understand motivation and validate what someone would really do.

The Five Whys is a great technique for getting to the underlying reason — the real reason — behind a customer’s motivation.

8. Find the value proposition.

I encourage entrepreneurs to focus less on features and more on explaining the value proposition for their product. What does that mean? A value proposition is the expected gains that a customer would receive from using your product. Value can be quantitative, such as time saved or additional revenue earned. Measuring this is usually straightforward.

But value can also be qualitative, such as pain relief or lifestyle benefits your product provides. By thoroughly understanding and documenting this qualitative value through customer interviews, you can set your product apart from the competition.

For example, it could be time saved, more revenue, or maybe some social benefit (like looking good). Whatever it is, these value propositions are directly tied to the problems that you have previously discovered.

9. Liking your idea is not the same as buying your product.

Unfortunately, validating a product idea with prospective customers is subjective. There is no black and white answer. In fact, because people are generally nice and want to please you (especially the friendly university students at Startup Weekend), you need to be careful about accepting their answers at face value.

When someone tells you enthusiastically, “it sounds great,” or “that’s an interesting idea,” your first reaction should be to follow-up with “why?” It’s important to understand that someone liking your idea is not the same as buying the product. Your challenge during your lean market validation process eliminates as much of these “false positives” as much as possible.

10. Jump off the cliff and have fun!

My advice to the group (and all entrepreneurs) is to take a risk, jump off the cliff, and have fun with the lean market validation experience. It’s taking chances that are the hallmark of successful entrepreneurs, and using these techniques helps you get closer to success.

Post Comments


  • David Telleen-Lawton

    Jim: What a great, quick summary of the heart of “getting out of the building”! I know from experience your core guidelines work just as well for hardware products and of course service products.

    That’s great that you stepped up to share your hard-won insights with tomorrow’s business leaders. Thank you for keeping Santa Barbara’s startup eco-system thriving.

    • Jim Semick

      Thanks David! Always glad to share my experience with new entrepreneurs.

  • Steve WIllson

    We find, working with everyone from start-ups to multi-nationals, one of the most difficult challenges happens in 6 and 7. Getting them to ask the right questions and follow the interesting threads, and getting them focused on WHY. Once you can dig deeply into why it opens up the possibility of learning. Once you continue learning you can develop products and services that address real problems, not the ones you have created in your own mind. Do the customer understanding work before you doing the pitch. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it gets the more you try.

    • Jim Semick

      Steve, thank you for the comment. I agree with everything you said. Asking the RIGHT questions is so important, and then following the interesting threads to uncover more insights is so essential.

  • Lawrence De’Ath

    Some great points here. Practical too – this is actionable. I like the select references to established tool. Here they are put into context and sequence – something that I find start-ups and the like struggle with: “What do I do now?” These techniques tend to be applied to software startups – apps and engines for number of obvious reasons. David Telleen-Lawton points out they can be used with Hardware products – things change a bit when prototyping and testing with an MVP here of course. There is also huge potential in corporates and larger businesses (horror to some!). Bringing greater agility. I’ve been working to bring appropriate selected methods in that space. The velocity is slower (decide often needs senior approval, filling templates etc) – but it is faster than typical corporate process since it introduces new ways to think about problem solving. However, once you break that barrier and get buy in for using “startup” type methods (while meeting corporate needs) then it can fly. An a couple of Execs can easily sign of that critical $200-500K Seed ! Good luck with ProductPlan I look forward to more from you.

  • Victor Fria

    Really great. It clarified so many things to me. I will apply those steps for sure.

  • Jahnavi

    I think this is one of the best posts for product validation I have comes across.
    Thanks for sharing valuable inputs.

    • Jim Semick

      Thanks Jahnavi!

  • Liz Baker

    Thanks for your insights! I’m currently trying to validate my idea for a B2C business, so advice like this is extremely helpful to me. Just one thing to add on the bias when talking to your network: To get a first impression on my idea’s value and to avoid this exact bias, I found ideacheck.io very helpful. They use a large panel of respondents to provide you with feedback from your actual target audience. The respondents don’t only answer “closed” questions, but also give open feedback which was quite insightful for me – to be honest, it wasn’t what I _wanted_ to hear, but that meant I could really learn from it… Maybe this will help somebody else, too.

  • Azman Nabi

    Completely agreed with you on “Liking Your Idea is not the Same as Buying Your Product”.
    That’s why I suggest validating the idea for MVO (i.e. Minimum Economic Viable Product) instead of MVP.
    Usually, people tend to be polite and generous towards you and will give you positive replies. But don’t let them too generous and ask if they would like to pre-order your product.


    very interesting article that I will advise my students. Thank you for your participation in the enrichment of my courses in entrepreneurship.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your insights! I’m currently trying to validate my idea

  • Anonymous

    wow, so clear and concise. thank you for the knowledge share

  • Swapnil

    What if while getting a feedback to your idea, a person from whome you getting a feedback copies your idea by somehow managing to decode what you are trying to do and implement it before you do? What then?

  • Pavel

    There is a term – Pretotyping – it means testing an idea without a prototype like your product already exists on the market. The cheapest and fastest way to check the idea before realisation.
    A very good tool for pretotyping – Tryit.app – The platform for making pre-launch tests of future mobile apps or games. Without development and for free.

  • Hayzay

    Thank you very much for this article. My question is what is if your target audience is in the diaspora, how do you carry out this interview and market validation since it can’t be done one on one

  • Promise

    I Gained so much from this Article.
    Am at the verge of launching an Internet based service company and i spoke with a dear friend of mine based in Washington and she recommended i do the Lean Market Validation Test to ascertain the viability of my idea.
    This Article helped a lot. However, my concern is this: What’s the place of self conviction and dexterity in entrepreneurship, especially judging from history that most successful brands are born out of Negative Perception of Men that the idea is worthless? E.G Alipay
    And I love to know, how best can an Entrepreneur determine his Customer Base??

  • ioanna

    great insight

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