No matter what your industry or how well you know your market, bringing new ventures to life always comes with some level of unpredictability – it’s an inevitable part of exploration and growth.
The good news is that with the right validation techniques, you can shine a light on those blind spots and move forward with reliable data backing your every step.
To give you a better idea of how validation works in practice, we asked the head of our Amsterdam office, Jelmer Peerbolte, to answer some FAQs on the topic. Having been involved in the creation of over 20 startups in the last five years, including corporate ventures for BNP Paribas, Telenet and Beiersdorf, he had some valuable first-hand insights to share.
Q: Why should new business ideas be validated? Why is it so important?
Jelmer: Corporates don’t build startups like regular founders do. They make big moves, which is part of their advantage. They have the resources to make big investments early on, and they want to make sure that their resources don’t go to waste on ideas with no commercial appeal.
From a corporate perspective, validation is essential not only because it reduces the risk of startup failure but also because it enables you to preserve speed.
In essence, you want to make sure that people want to buy your product, that the business model is profitable and that you have the skills and technology to build it. Validation provides those answers beforehand – you could save millions.
Q: How do you go about formulating assumptions?
Jelmer: When formulating assumptions, you need to be aware of the reasons you want to validate. In general, you’ll be testing assumptions related to your concept’s desirability, feasibility, or viability. You might also want to test assumptions based on responsibility, so whether or not your product is in line with your corporate social responsibility values (e.g. Does it have a circular design?).
Assumptions usually come up during the ideation process. In an ideation sprint, you move fast. You don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to gather the evidence needed to prove every idea. So you make assumptions, to be validated later on.
We test assumptions that are both crucial (i.e. if the assumption is wrong, the startup doesn’t fly) and unknown (i.e. the answer is more than just a google search away).
Every time you make a decision, you’ll be doing it based on one or more assumptions like “people will buy this product”, or “I have the resources to build this product”. If your decisions are not backed by data, that’s something you’ll want to change.
Q: How do you know which experiment will best match your assumption?
Jelmer: That’s a good one. It’s not necessarily about “matching” your assumption to a specific test, but rather about turning your assumptions into hypotheses, which you build your experiment around. It’s the basic scientific method.
For each assumption, we define what success would look like or what outcome would give us the confidence to move forward. Then you set up an experiment to measure how close you are to the desired outcome.
Some decision factors you should keep in mind when choosing your experiments are:
- Time limitations
- Resources like channels, talent and funds.
- Type, e.g. desirability, viability, feasibility, responsibility, or a combination.
- Phase, e.g. problem-solution fit, commercial fit, product-market fit or scale fit.
If you’re operating on a tight schedule or a limited budget, the experiments you choose should reflect that. For example, it’s easier to validate concepts when you have the right channels or a set target audience. If you’re missing the resources for large scale testing, quick and dirty is the way to go.
Q: When is the best time to validate an idea?
Jelmer: The best time to validate is all the time – constantly and as early as possible.
Validation should be taking place at every phase of the venture, e.g. monetisation phase, MVP phase etc. As a general rule, you should always gather enough evidence in one phase before moving on to the next.
Q: Should validation techniques be used on every idea?
Jelmer: My first instinct would be to validate everything, especially for corporates that might not have the entrepreneurial experience to make these decisions on the fly.
Some companies have niche experts on their teams, who have their own experience and know their market well. You can probably depend on them for part of the validation in such cases, but it’s always a good idea to get feedback directly from your customers.
Q: Should intrapreneurs ever stop validating? Is there such a thing as too much validation?
Jelmer: I don’t think there’s a time to stop validating, but I do believe there is such a thing as too much validation.
Once you have enough evidence, for instance, that you’re focused on solving the right problem, you can move to the next phase, which is coming up with a solution. The trick is to gather the information you need and use it to move forward.
Don’t let the validation process become an excuse for inaction. You’ll never have 100% certainty, and although validation does decrease risk, new ventures will always be primarily driven by entrepreneurial instinct, rather than statistical certainty.
Q: Should the validation process be different for B2B, B2C or D2C? If so, how does the approach change?
Jelmer: I think it does change because it affects the types of experiments you use. For example, if you’re validating a B2B proposition, sometimes having one big client write a letter of intent is enough to prove viability. On the other hand, if you’re validating a D2C proposition one customer isn’t enough, you’ll need a full customer base so a smoke test would make more sense.
Q: Does the validation approach change if you don’t have any evidence vs when you already know a lot about the venture?
Jelmer: The more unknowns you have, the more assumptions you’ll have, and that means you’ll have to do a lot more experiments.
Q: Can concept validation be used to pitch new ideas internally?
Jelmer: I think it’s an essential part of pitching an idea. If you want to convince management to green light a project, you have to show them that you have a solid strategy and that the concept is profitable, desirable and feasible.. Not just on an excel sheet, but in real life. Validation provides that proof.
Q: Can you share some “pro tips” from your experience as a venture builder?
Jelmer: First and foremost, it’s a cliché, but, involve your customer in every step of the development process. Ask them about their problems, show them your solutions, and keep them in the loop in between. Let them try out new products and give you feedback on possible improvements. Feedback doesn’t always have to be explicit. Sometimes it’s as simple as them leaving their e-mail address on your interest list.
The point is, there’s only one stakeholder that knows whether you’re building something worthwhile, and that’s your customer.
Although desirability is the most important thing to validate, don’t discount the importance of the other three topics, feasibility, viability and responsibility. Corporate startups, in particular, usually start with a goal to drive (enough) revenues. Validate this. They also come with limited technological resources – so make sure the solution can actually be built within a startup-friendly timeline.
Ethics also play a large role in any type of business. When starting a new venture, you have a major opportunity to build socially responsible values right into the startup’s DNA.
Lastly, I would definitely say don’t spend too much time validating, spend just enough time validating. Gather the insights you need, and use your experience to make decisions about how to move forward. You’ll never have 100% certainty of success, and sometimes the best way to validate a product is to launch an MVP and put it in front of customers.
Q: What advice can you give intrapreneurs who are about to start their first validation process?
Jelmer: If you don’t have all the technical stuff down, e.g. Smoke Tests, stick to some of the less complicated techniques like paper prototyping, or one-on-one user interviews. These experiments require fewer tools, and you can use basic questioning to gather loads of valuable user data.
About Jelmer Peerbolte
Aside from his role as Senior Venture Builder here at Bundl, Jelmer is currently heading the Bundl office in Amsterdam, and is the founder of Venturism. As an experienced innovation coach, mentor and entrepreneur, he’s written extensively on the topic of validation. To find out more about what he has to say, check out his latest article How to validate business ideas using lean experimentaion.
Validation is the bedrock of our methodology. We can help you map and prioritise your assumptions, and design and run experiments. Find out more.