in products / boostrapping

How do you know an idea is worth implementing?

Ideas are just that. Ideas. They live in your brain. I can easily come up with a thousand ideas. I guess thousands of people claim that they “had exactly the same idea as Mark Zuckerberg“.

But an idea is nothing more then a thought. Who does pay you for having an idea? No one. Nobody will ever pay you for your thoughts. Coming up with a new idea takes 10 minutes. Implementing that idea, the execution (development, marketing, making it real, hiring staff, bootstrapping it or get funded, …), takes weeks, months, or years.

Graphically speaking…

So, from that endless pile of ideas you have, given there is a huge cost/time needed to execute them well, how do you pick the ideas worth implementing?

The golden rule

Basically, it all comes down to this golden rule that every entrepreneur should carve into his heart.


Which ideas are worth implementing? The ones that people are willing to pay money for. The ones that you can sell.

What’s the risk if you first implement and then try to sell your idea? Guess? Yep. You will be building something for months, in order to realize that no one is going to buy it from you. Damn. You just lost half a year of your life!

The worst ideas we see at Y Combinator are from young founders making things they think other people will want.” –


Go hunt customers, and sell your “product” (even if there is no product yet to sell!). There are several ways to do this. This is my top 3 (no order).

1 – Cold calling.

Call up 50 potential customers, explain your (fictive) product, the (fictive) price of it, and ask them if they are interested. Explain them what pain you solve for them, and how much you would charge them. Try to fix a meeting with them to sell them your product, or try to sell it over the phone. Ideally, go as far as the moment just before they would hand you over the money by bluffing. People can pretend that your idea is genius, but when they have to pull out their wallet, they often change their mind. Don’t ask if they would pay you, make them pay you (but stop the process right before). They will not be angry if they learn that your solution is not yet in place. If they have a pain, they will be happy to wait for a few months more. The pain will still be there, and their wallet also.

2 – A product sales website.

Whether you want sell apples, cars, software or tea cups, first sell it, then execute it. Set up a product sales website, include good copy and pictures, and let people “buy” your product on that site. In reality, they won’t be able to buy anything of course. You are right now just figuring out if there is any demand for your product. When they click the “buy” button on your site, you tell them you are out of stock / almost live / working hard on your future product / … and you provide them a field where they can leave their email address in order to be kept informed about your progress. This has 2 advantages. You can (1) see how many people click the “buy now” button (this gives you an indication if there is any demand for your product) and (2) you collect email adresses for the day when you launch (I heard that Dropbox has 250K email adresses of interested users before they launched!). This list of email adresses is worth pure gold the day you launch.

3 – “Naked” Google Ads

You just buy some Google Ads (you know, those things that appear on the right when you search on Google) for one of the ideas you have. You even don’t have to build a website or what so ever. Just set up ads. This will measure demand, since you’ll quickly see how many times people are searching for your idea, and how many people click on the ad. You can point the ad to a blank page. It doesn’t really matter. Your goal is still to measure demand. And this is a very easy way to do so. It will cost you some money, but building something for months without knowing if there is any demand for it, could cost you much more (money, or your health!).

Is this blah blah blah?” No.

Is it easy to measure demand in this way?” Super easy.

Is it a cheap way to see if there is any potential in your product?” Super cheap. A few phone calls or a WordPress site and lots patience and stamina.

Is it motivating if you see that your idea is selling?” Very motivating! Knowing that you have already clients while building your product gives some adrenaline shots.

Do other entrepreneurs do this also?” Yep, sure.

How you know this works?” Since I’m using the same technique.

Currently, I’m marketing/selling a few ideas I have in this way. It’s too soon to tell something on what the ideas are about, but I’ll keep you posted during the coming months on how things go. In detail (dollars made, clients convinced, hours spent.). Scout promise! Subscribe to the RSS in order to stay tuned.

I’m not the only one telling this. Recently, I joined a program, which is about cold calling in order to sell your idea (before implementing it!). Mixergy is founded by Andrew Warner, who used some of his own money in his 20s to bootstrap a $30mil / year (in sales) internet business.

Rob Walling is another successful software bootstrapper that is promoting the “market first” approach a lot in his startup book. I certainly advice any (software) bootstrapper to read it. It pays itself back right away since it will save you lots of hours/days/weeks of worthless development.

What is your experience? Did you ever build something in order to realize no one was waiting for your software? Are you currently bootstrapping something? (I’m looking for guest posts about other startups, successful yet or not, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!)

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  1. Tell Apple this. If they would have asked potential customers up front if they would be interested in buying a gumdrop turqoise computer, the iMac would never have seen the light of day. Good luck making a Naked Google ad for that. Or try cold calling about it.

    Sure, the above strategy makes sense in some industries, but it’s definitely no golden rule for all products/startups. Sometimes trusting on your gut feeling is the way to go. Seeing a use for something while the general public isn’t aware how much they want it. That’s the way innovation happens. Not by market indicators, but by play and passion. True visionaries just know and trust that their product will sell based on how much they love using it and how much they love working on it.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Well, I agree…if you have a pile of money on your bank account for a huge marketing campaign (to create demand for your product). This often not the case in (bootstrapped) startups. For funded startups it might be different.

      “Seeing a use for something while the general public isn’t aware how much they want it.”…then you’ll have to make them aware they need it (=marketing). TV ads, internet advertising etc cost a lot of money and time. If you solve a pain people have already, and are actively searching for on google (cfr naked google ads and clicking on it), you skip that (costly) marketing and demand creation step and you save lots of time.

      “True visionaries just know and trust that their product will sell”… I don’t think so. Nobody knows what will sell until you try selling it. Apple is hot now, but they made some blunders in the past as well.

      It is true that here are exceptions.

    • I hear the apple example a lot and I generally agree. However, lean startups with limited cash cannot live off of platitudes and cliches. None of us have the cash of Apple. They can afford to have flops like MobileMe. A startup that flops like that may have their last startup.

      What is wrong with testing an idea to gauge overall interest and get feedback? Seems this is becoming an entrepreneurial sin in some circles. If you believe passionately enough about an idea to build it anyway, then be prepared to come up with the cash and resources to convince consumers they need it. Or wait until you become the next Apple and you can build whatever you want and simply build something else if it flops.

  2. Same valid points there..

    Apple is hot now, but they made some blunders in the past as well.
    Funny thing is that most of Apple’s blunders came to be by listening to the market. PC vendors told them to come up with a gazillion computer configurations to satisfy different customer demands. They ended up (in the 90’s) with a bloated lineup that was impossible to comprehend for the consumer. ;)

  3. Very good article for ideas that you are not sure if people will want it if you produce it. But people rarely know what they want too. Henry Ford hit it on the nail when he said that if he were to ask the people what they wanted, they would’ve said “faster horses”. Sometimes people don’t realize that they need something until it’s in their hands and they’re using it. Whatever your idea is, it needs to be valuable.

    • But here’s something most people forget about Ford. He went bankrupt the first time because he focused all of his attention on the mechanics but completely ignored marketing. He had a revolutionary idea but failed to sell the public on it. Fortunately for him and us he had enough resources at his disposal to try again. Actually, it took him 3 times to get it right. How many of us are prepared to go bankrupt for our ideas? What if we could get valuable feedback beforehand? What if we started selling the public on the idea ahead of time? Would that not increase our chances of succeeding? What’s the harm?

      Entrepreneurs do this all the time. “I have a great idea that will change the world.” Then, it turns out the world doesn’t want it. I made this mistake in a big way. Some are fortunate enough to hang on long enough for the public to catch up (Twitter, blogspot). Most are not so lucky because they refused to get feedback and simply ran out of time.

  4. Be careful when running tests with Google Adwords. Not only will your clicks cost more if your landing page is thin or ineffective, if you do it too often Google will ban your account. I had this happen a few years ago when I ran a bunch of different tests with a small budget and pretty thin sites. Just something to keep in mind.


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