Once we’ve got a list of market niches worth exploring (see Customer Focus) and a list of assumptions about the pain point and market you’re addressing (see Initial Alignment), it’s time to validate or invalidate each opportunity as quickly as possible.
You’ll do this by learning everything you can about each segment.
- How do the people in this market niche live and work?
- Where do they hang out online and in real life?
- Where do they look for information? Who do they listen to?
- What are their most acute pain points?
- How do they talk about those pain points? What are the specific words that they use? What words don’t they use?
- Does your articulation of their pain points and your value proposition resonate with them?
Run the exercises below with each segment, starting with the highest scoring one.
📌 As you follow the activities below, iterate on your message. E.g. If you learn that people in your niche tend to describe products like yours as “software” rather than as an “app”, update your messaging to use the word “software”.
Exercise: Interview People
Step 1: Find people
Where do these folks hang out? Will they respond to cold outreach or do we need a warm introduction them them? Will they read a email or do we need to contact them via LinkedIn, Twitter DMs, standing in front of the grocery store with a clipboard? Meet people where they are already.
One thing we’ve learned running this process many times is that it’s a good idea to set up a project with a research platform like UserInterviews.com asap. You may lack clarity on who you want to talk to and what you want to ask them, but given that it can take time to find candidates and schedule calls, it’s a good idea to get something set up asap. This means once you have a script and a clearer idea, you’ll already have conversations scheduled.
📌 The surest way to find product-market fit and keep it is to be constantly listening to your market, so it’s important to get into this habit as soon as you possibly can. If a week goes by where no one on your team has talked to your customer, you are already falling out of sync with them!
Step 2: Recruit people
This will be folks’ first impression of your brand, so it’s important to give your outreach methods and messaging some thought.
1) Figure out how people in the environment you’ve identified expect to be approached. E.g. If you decide to approach people on LinkedIn, the best results usually come from either getting a warm intro from a mutual acquaintance or else sending a connection request with information about why you’re reaching out.
2) Draft multiple outreach messages and A/B test them. This is the first test of your messaging! The response rates can help guide you towards a better articulation of the pain point you’re addressing and your value proposition around solving it.
3) Customize your outreach whenever possible. People are far more likely to respond to you if they feel like you’re reaching out to them for a special, specific reason. Continuing our LinkedIn example, this could be something like, “I saw that you’ve been at Cisco for five years and recently posted about supply chain woes. I would love to learn from your experience in this space…”
4) Be mindful of the spam policy of the platform you’re using. E.g. If you’re sending cold emails through Gmail, sending more than 5 of the exact same email in an hour will get your address flagged as spam and you won’t reach people’s inboxes.
📌 While you want to be thoughtful here, you also don’t want to belabor getting started. Find a few initial prospects, draft your messages, and send them! See what kind of response you get and iterate forward from there.
Step 3: Develop an Interview Script
This is a high-level conversation about your customer’s life, work, pain points, and goals. Great starter questions are therefore very open ended, e.g.
- “Tell me about your role at your current company.”
- “Tell me about shopping for groceries.”
You are here to learn about them and to validate your assumptions about their pain points – not to validate your solution. Great questions therefore focus on their experience, e.g.
- “What is the most frustrating thing about your job?”
- “What is the most frustrating thing about meal planning?”
Ask about things they’ve actually done in the past, the more recently the better! E.g.
- “Tell me about the last time you planned a meal."
Avoid asking about hypothetical future behavior or about ideal scenarios. Humans are notoriously terrible at projecting what we’re likely to do in the future!
Refine the script as you learn:
- Add follow-up questions that you find yourself asking every time
- Remove questions that never seem to lead anywhere interesting
- Reorder your questions based on how the conversation tends to flow
More on developing a script: https://thoughtbot.com/blog/steal-this-interview-script
Step 4: The actual interview
For tips on conducting the interviews themselves, check out our resources here:
Step 5: Learn, Share, Align, Repeat
After each interview, reflect on what you learned. Create a summary that contains:
- Details about the person. For B2B interviews, this could be their company and title, how many years they’ve been in this role, and/or a LinkedIn profile. For B2C, this would be relevant demographic information such as age, location, number of kids, car they drive, etc.
- Highlights. Top insights, quotes, things that were validated or invalidated.
- Anything about the script that didn’t work that the team should know about going into their next interviews.
Share the interview summary with the rest of your team ASAP! Every time you talk to someone, your thinking on what you're building and who it's for will shift. You need to bring your team with you on that evolution.
Iterate on your script and outreach messaging as you see patterns in what works and what doesn’t. Bring your team along with you!
If you’re interviewing a sufficiently specific group of people, you’ll start hearing a pattern within 5 interviews. Within 10 interviews, you’ll start being bored by the predictability: Every person will be saying the same sentences to you, using thes same words, in the same order. It might actually feel creepy, or like someone is trying to prank you – how are all of these people saying the exact same thing?! That's when you know you've found a niche you can build something for.
📌 If you aren’t hearing the same vocabulary and sentences by 12 interviews, you’re likely talking to too many different types of people. Create a market segment out of each interviewee you're talked to and then head back to Customer Focus to figure out which one to focus on.
Exercise: Observe People
Observing your market niche in action should be an on-going, daily practice.
Join communities where these folks talk (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, etc.) and watch the conversation as it unfolds.
- DO search for recent conversations and note how people framed questions, how people responded, and what the tenor of the conversation tends to be.
- DO post in the comments with follow-up questions to things people said.
- DO NOT post about what you’re building. You want to be able to learn from folks in as unbiased a way as possible for as long as possible. Once you announce that you’re building something for people, it can alter how they interact with you about it. If you’re actively marketing or selling to them, it could get you banned from the community.
Go to where they hang out and take notes!
- If your customers are skateboarders, go to a skate park and watch people skate.
- If your customers are homeowners shopping for new appliances, go to Best Buy and watch them shop.
Exercise: Test Your Messaging at Scale
Running small, targeted ad campaigns online can give you a ton of data relatively quickly and cheaply.
The basic components of a market messaging ad campaign are
- The ads
- Where the ads take users who click on them
An example of a very basic workflow would be to set up a campaign in Google Ads that sends users to a Typeform where you ask some questions and take beta signups.
Let’s break down each part of this.
Decide where you’re going to run ads
This should be related to where people in your niche tend to hang out (see above) or look for products.
Choose one platform to start. Add new ones only once you have a process running well on the first platform (or you’ve determined it isn’t where people from your niche are)
Research what ads look like on your target platform:
- How long are ads expected to be?
- What type of assets do they involve (e.g. text, image, video)?
Decide where you’re going to send users from your ad
If you already have a website, and especially if it already has some analytics tracking set up, definitely send users there!
Your goal here is to learn more from folks – why did they click your ad? What are their pain points? You can continue the conversation in myriad ways:
- Put a beta signup form on your website, then email the folks who sign up
- Send them to a survey (the exercise above for developing an interview script can be similarly helpful in developing survey questions)
- Send them to a calendar app for scheduling a conversation with you.
Hosted websites. Squarespace is the easiest of these to set up. Competitors include Webflow and WordPress. Similar to Typeform, Squarespace has a guide for setting up trackable links on their websites.
Hosted survey tools. The service we mentioned above, Typeform, is a hosted surveying tool with a user-friendly interface. Competitors include Google Surveys, Tally, and Survey Monkey. If you choose to send users to one of these tools, make sure you turn on source tracking so that you can see which of your ads is resulting in which survey responses. Here’s an example of how to do that with Typeform.
Write your ads
Once you have an idea of where you’re going to advertise and what the rules of that platform are, brainstorm ad ideas.
Do this work away from the platform tools for running ads. You need space to be messy and creative at first, without instant feedback from the platform on whether it’s good
Return to your Assumptions Board. Ad copy is a great way to test some of those assumptions.
- E.g. if one of your assumptions is that your market niche no longer wants to shop for products online, your ad headline could be something like, “Sick of shopping online?”
Come up with several versions per target persona. If you’re struggling with this, ask ChatGPT to brainstorm some ad copy for you!
Pick your best 2-3 ad ideas to run as tests. You’ll be coming back to iterate on these, so don’t worry about making them perfect out of the gate!
Set up the ads
Advertising platforms want to make it as easy as possible for you to set ads up and get value from them, so their getting started guides tend to be excellent:
Monitor the ads
This is where it becomes clear why running many campaigns concurrently is so useful for testing messaging. With multiple campaigns you can compare:
- Which message is getting served most often?
- Which has the better click-through-rate?
- Which has more clicks overall?
As you learn what is resonating and what isn’t, add new campaigns and sunset the unsuccessful ones. Return to your Assumptions Board as you validate or invalidate the assumptions that you’re testing through your ads.
You really do want to know everything you can about your market niche, and that includes data that others have collected. This is typically high-level, demographic data about trends, but it can still be very helpful in guiding your efforts.
Places to look: Gallup, Forrester, Pew Research, Vice Media, StackOverflow, Brookings Institute, MarketWatch