During the month of December 2016, I embarked on a 30-day challenge to validate a business idea, limiting myself to spending less than $500 to make that happen.
I asked you to tell me what idea I should validate, too. The consensus: A hiking guide for California.
In just a few short weeks, I pre-sold 12 copies of a hiking guide (that didn’t even exist yet), generated $108 in revenue without a website and built an email list of 565 email subscribers who wanted to learn more about my upcoming hiking guide.
This was all done without using my existing audience, business, website, traffic or any other resources aside from my skills and the system I teach students who want to validate a business idea in 30 Days to Validate.
I even had time to take a week-long vacation and visit my family for the holidays while validating this idea.
I’m telling you this because you can do it too.
In fact, you can take my system for validating a business idea and be far more successful than this little challenge was. I’ve used this system to generate more than $5,700 in pre-sales of a physical product for a previous business of mine. I’ve used it to pre-launch an online course and drive over $1,091 in one week without a large audience. I even used this strategy to land a $120,000 consulting contract and validate my content marketing business before quitting my day job.
If you want to start from the very beginning, read more about the rules of the challenge and dive deep into my weekly updates with an insane amount of detail around the execution of each tactic, click right here to jump down and begin reading from the day my validation challenge started.
For now, I want cover all of the major lessons I learned during my challenge to validate a business idea in 1 month.
After analyzing all of the steps I went through during this challenge, looking back at how I built my previous businesses, interviewing dozens of entrepreneurs on this subject and applying my system from The Launch Formula, I’ve boiled it down to just 9 simple steps to validating a business idea.
But first, let’s quickly cover what validation actually is, what it isn’t and why it’s important. Note: My definition of validation has been formed over years of experimentation myself, from all of the best business books I’ve read and the online business courses I’ve both taught and taken.
Validation is designed to give you you reasonable certainty your business will have a sustainable, growing, paying audience in a matter of days or weeks, rather than wasting months or years building a final product nobody will pay for. It’s as much a way of thinking, as it is a step-by-step process. The end result validation attempts to achieve is most often meeting a desired number of pre-orders or waiting list subscribers who’d purchase a basic proof of concept of your idea—a minimum viable product that solves the most simple form of the problem you’re attempting to address.
Validation isn’t a guarantee of success and it most certainly isn’t easy. It’s not as simple as putting up a waiting list and hoping people miraculously discover your offering & fork over their hard-earned money for something that doesn’t exist yet. It takes work to build confidence, inspire trust and convince a community that you’ll be able to deliver enough value in exchange for the price you’re asking. Validation is designed to give you your first paying customers and foundation for future growth.
I’d recommend reading this post all the way through from top to bottom, but if you prefer to jump around, here’s a hyperlinked table of contents that’ll take you straight to each stage of validating a business idea.
1. Find a Profitable Niche (That You Care About).
Business ideas don’t just fall down out of the sky. They’re not delivered by a magic genie. And while you can find a lot of inspiration on the types of businesses you should consider starting, you shouldn’t pursue a random idea just because someone told you it’s a good idea.
In a study by CB Insights covered on Forbes, a whopping 22% of failed startup founders cite their primary reason for failure as either never having a true interest in what they were building or losing focus on the goal they set out to achieve.
Put simply, they were never really interested in their business concept.
The best business ideas come from your strongest areas of interest.
I’m so adamant about only building a business around a real interest of mine because I’ve chased pure market opportunities in the past, without really caring about what I was building…it doesn’t end well.
When the going gets rough (it will), you need to be motivated beyond just the lure of dollar signs. If you’re only in it for the money, you’ll either give up or be quickly pushed out of the market by people who genuinely care about what they’re doing and the people they’re helping—they’ll be more motivated than you.
If you’re not sure what your interests are, or which of them may potentially lead to a profitable business opportunity, start by answering these questions:
- What are your hobbies?
- What is the most meaningful part of your day?
- What are some topics you could enjoy writing a 1,000 word article about?
- What do you love doing?
- What is an achievement that’d make you feel particularly proud of yourself?
- Are there any specific aspects or functions that you love about your job?
- How about any childhood dreams you still find intriguing?
- If you had to choose just 1 thing to be remembered by, what would it be?
For my challenge to validate a business idea, I went through these questions and landed on 3 general topic areas I knew I could potentially build a business around—I didn’t know how or what, but that’s not important at this stage.
What’s important is that I focus on the next incremental step that’d get me closer to my goal of validating my idea. For now, that meant choosing the right niche, not worrying about how I was going to make money with the idea.
So, first things first. That brought me to my top 3 options of hiking in California, cooking hacks or long distance running.
My favorite personal litmus test for choosing these was whether or not I could write a 1,000 word article about the topic and actually enjoy doing it. To me, that proved I was actually interested in the subject matter and have enough confidence in my knowledge to publicly share about it.
If you don’t personally identify as a writer, consider Joel Saltzman’s thesis in If You Can Talk, You Can Write, where he teaches people how to become writers by starting them off writing only about the interests they find themselves talking about most—which is also the clearest indication as to what you could potentially build a business around.
2. Leverage Your Skills and Outsource Your Weaknesses
If you want to become successful as an entrepreneur, you need to be great at what you do—and you must focus on giving yourself as much time as possible to leverage those abilities (in addition to #1, being interested in what you’re solving). Here’s why.
It’s proven that focusing on your strengths makes you more confident in your work (via Psychology Today).
Choosing to work with your strengths also helps you unlock more creative solutions to the problems you encounter, because you’re more comfortable and in your element.
Studies have also found that those who engage their strengths on a daily basis report higher levels of positivity, which helps create a buffer against the negative effects of stress, fatigue and trauma.
When you choose to leverage your strengths within your business, you’re maximizing your opportunity for success by setting yourself up to be more confident, creative, positive and less prone to becoming overly stressed.
In business (and in this challenge to validate a business idea), you’ll constantly be racing against the clock to achieve meaningful results. And when you’re operating outside of your core strengths, you’ll encounter more unexpected challenges, thus having to account for more of a learning curve along the way.
When it comes to validating a business idea, fast and simple is the name of the game.
To move as quickly as possible without wasting time and money, you need to focus on the skill set you already have and make it work—which I promise you is possible. This is the foundation for how I manage opportunities within my business.
Focusing on leveraging my strongest skills translated directly into this challenge to validate a business idea, as a clear sign that I wouldn’t be investing time in any of these areas outside of my current expertise:
- Not going to build a website
- Not going to design any fancy visual content
- Not going to create an app
- Not going to make a physical product
- Not attempting anything else far outside of my current skill set
That left me with having to lean primarily upon my skill of writing to validate this business idea—which I view as one of my strongest. If I hoped to have any chance of success validating this idea, I didn’t have time to go out and learn new skills, take classes or meet with coaches for weeks or months.
It’s not that investing in new skills is a waste of time—I wholeheartedly believe education is always a good investment in your future. However, in order to validate this business idea, I didn’t need to build new skills. And you don’t either.
Delaying this challenge in any way because I felt I didn’t have the right skills would’ve been a major excuse. I’m not into making excuses.
“But Ryan, you already have clear, marketable skills…”
Stop wasting time complaining. Seriously. You need to become the master problem-solver in your business (and life).
Today, that means working with the skills you have and doing everything you possibly can to validate your business idea with real, paying customers before going out and investing time or money into building skills for your project.
If you decide to really make this happen despite any obstacle ahead, you can build a business that’s uniquely suited for you.
You can do it without having to go out and learn complex new skills, as long as you’re willing to be honest with yourself about what’s outside of your expertise. Then, you’ll have to actively outsource those tasks to contractors on platforms like Crew.co, by bringing in complementary business partners or hiring the right employees.
For this challenge to validate a business idea, I knew I’d have to focus on leveraging my writing skills. No complex tech tools or fancy integrations. All I used was a series of (free) Google Docs and Google Sheets that’d allow me to side-step wasting time on anything outside of my wheelhouse.
On top of just the hard skills I planned on leveraging for validating this business idea while keeping my core business running at full speed, I knew I’d have to get serious about managing my time in order to make this happen.
I’m a morning person (4:30am is a casual wake up time for me), so I turned to some great advice from my friend, Chris Winfield on how to construct a morning routine that’d help set me up for success with this project.
Each weekend, I scheduled blocks of time on my calendar for when I’d be dedicating time to working on this project during the week ahead—everything that makes it into my calendar gets done. If it’s not in the calendar, it probably won’t happen.
Now that I had these ground rules set in place, I could move on to the first critical (often neglected) stage of validating a business idea: Creating an early feedback group.
3. Create an Early Feedback Group
One of the biggest takeaways from my challenge to validate a business idea last month was that sharing your work is hard, even for me still.
You’re exposing who you really are, making yourself vulnerable and creating opportunities to be judged on the quality of your work.
The more people I shared my broad hiking website idea with, the more great things started to happen for me.
The goal of creating an early feedback group of people who are within your target market, is to make sure that you’re building something they’ll actually need—and want bad enough to pay for.
But, before I could start telling people about my idea and asking them to join my feedback group, I had to at least have a rough idea of what I was pitching them—a guess about the main problem I was seeking to address.
Crafting a quick elevator pitch.
Here’s how I did this in-action with my challenge to validate a business idea related to hiking in California.
With a focus on value, I sat down and wrote out a list of what I thought was missing from current sites that tried to be hiking guides, adventure manuals and general resources for doing cool stuff outdoors in California.
Surprisingly, I found that most of the websites talking about hiking and outdoor adventures in CA had pretty mediocre content—images were often stock photos, the written content tended to be overly generalized and not very helpful for hikers seeking to capture great photos while they’re on a hike (a narrow niche I think I can address very well).
I thought there could be a serious opportunity for having hiking guides and outdoor adventure resources that have a significantly higher quality of images and other content.
So, my hypothesis was that by going into content mediums like drone footage and 360 cam images (that others aren’t trying in this space yet), I’ll be able to win some readers that appreciate new innovations and higher quality.
After 20 minutes of research, I came up with this short elevator pitch that I could customize for each person I’d be reaching out to:
Hey [First Name]! I’m building a new site I thought might be up your alley as a fellow adventure junkie.. it chronicles all of the best places to find adventures in California, go on awesome hikes and capture unique photos from each spot while you’re there. I’ll be grabbing photos, videos, drone footage and 360 cam images to make this really awesome. Would you be interested in getting updates on this?
Is it perfect? No.
But that doesn’t matter. I’ll refine as I go and tweak it over time as I learn more about what my audience wants.
Manual outreach to create your early feedback group.
Once you’re ready to start reaching out, begin closest to home. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily want your mother and father to be in your early feedback group unless they’re actually a good potential customer.
Before I started my outreach for my challenge to validate this business idea, I did my best to quickly make sure these friends would be within my target so I wouldn’t waste time presenting an idea they wouldn’t be interested in.
With my specific idea, being within my target market meant that each friend I reached out to needed to (1) live or frequently spend time in California and (2) have a somewhat active lifestyle, which would indicate to me that they’ll probably be interested in adventuring and hiking. Protect the quality of your community.
Here’s a screenshot of my first round of text message-based outreach (by far my highest response rate medium) to start building my feedback group. Note that each of these messages is customized based on my relationship with the person:
Working this process for just 1 week netted me 47 email subscribers for my early feedback group.
Now, it’s your turn.
Begin by working your way down this list:
- Friends & family
- Former co-workers
- Other professionals you’ve worked with
- Classmates or former classmates from school
- Teachers or professors you’ve had
- Fellow members in clubs, societies, groups or meetup networks you’re in
Scroll through your recent text messages.
Browse through your last couple hundred personal emails.
Head into your Facebook friend list, LinkedIn connection list and check out your Twitter followers.
Look for people you know, who you think may have an interest in what you’re building.
Then, out of the people who express interest in your idea, ask them if there’s anyone else they know who comes to mind—that might be excited about what you’re building. Double down and get more qualified referrals so that you can keep having conversations with your target audience.
I personally recommend tracking this process rigorously so that you can see the growth of your community and keep their contact information all in one (free) place. Enter: Google Sheets.
Each time I came across someone from my text messages, emails, and Facebook friend list who I thought could be right for checking out my site idea, I added them to a Google Sheet so that I could easily keep track of all my leads.
I stopped after getting to 100 potential people I could ask to join my early feedback group.
Expanding your early feedback group beyond your personal network.
With my personal challenge to validate a business idea, I didn’t need to take it this far. I was able to track down enough people interested in hiking in California that I personally knew by combing through my text messages, personal emails and Facebook friend list.
However, if you don’t have the right personal network for your project or you don’t feel comfortable starting with those whom are closest to you, there are still TONS of ways to manually build an engaged early feedback community.
Enter: Online groups and communities.
Now, when it comes to actually starting a conversation in these groups without coming across as spammy or too self-interested, keep in mind exactly what your goal is at this stage: to have conversations with your target audience. Nothing more—we’re not selling anything to anyone yet.
You’re going to best achieve this goal of having great conversations by posing a very open-ended, genuine question to the group without asking people to visit a website, fill out a form or complete any action other than replying with comments in the beginning. Keep it simple.
Here’s a copy/paste script inspired by one of my mentors, Ramit Sethi, that you can use to post in online communities and start meaningful conversations with members:
“Hey guys, I’m thinking of [starting a website, creating an app, building a product]around [topic area]. When you talk to your friends about it, what do you say? What do you think is the biggest problem around [topic area]?
Here’s this posting tactic live in action with one of my TLF students, DJ who was able to quickly generate 25+ subscribers for his early feedback group by posting a variation of this in 10 Facebook Groups:
Depending upon how active the group is, you can get anywhere from zero to dozens of comments with thoughtful replies to your question.
Once a few people start responding to your post, nurture those conversations, keep them going, stir up a debate, share your thoughts on the subject matter.
After the post begins to lose a little momentum, send a personalized (private) message to the people who seemed most engaged in the conversation—asking them if they’d like to get updates on your project. If they’re up for it (some will be, some won’t be), ask them for their best email address so you can keep them in the loop and ask a couple more questions.
Replicate this process until you’ve built up an early feedback group of ideally, at least 25 – 50 people so that you’ll begin getting some diversity of opinion within your community.
Finding the right online communities.
From my experience, here are some of the best places and methods for finding potential early feedback group members to give you feedback on what you’re building (even if you don’t know what exactly it’s going to be yet):
Standalone Online Communities.
- AMEX Open Forum for Small Business Owners (broad)
- Angel.co (focus on startup community)
- Inbound.org (focus on marketing)
- GrowthHackers (focus on growth & marketing)
- HackerNews (focus on startups and more technical projects/news)
- Quora (broad)
- ProductHunt (focus on startups and tech)
- Bonus: Amazon Reviews (if you’re building a physical product)
Facebook Groups (Topical).
It’s best if you can find topically relevant groups to join—that’s where you’ll know without a doubt that your target audience already exists.
For example, if you’re working on validating a photography-related business idea, you should consider joining groups like Nikon Digital Camera & Photo Enthusiasts (26,000+ members), Nikon D750 Users (27,000+ members) and Nikon UK Photography (13,000+ members). I found these groups by searching for “Nikon” and clicking the ‘Groups’ sort tab at the top of the menu.
If what you’re building is relevant to anyone with a DSLR camera, you’re sure to find enough people who’d be interested in giving you feedback on your concept from within those groups.
Facebook Groups (Entrepreneurial).
If you aren’t able to find many Facebook Groups with a decent number of members (think 5,000+), it might be a sign that your niche market is too small. However, you can still take to building a feedback community by activating members of entrepreneurial Facebook Groups where members are already conditioned to helping each other with projects like this.
Start with these ones, which I chose specifically because they’re not riddled with spam:
- Freedom Hackers Mastermind (39,000+ members)
- The Smart Passive Income Community (28,000+ members)
- The Joyful Entrepreneur (37,000+ members)
- Heart-centered, soul driven entrepreneurs (16,000+ members)
- Coaches, Authors, Entrepreneurs (13,000+ members)
- Women’s Entrepreneur Network (32,000+ members, women only)
- Super Hero Entrepreneurs (10,000+ members)
LinkedIn Groups (Entrepreneurial).
- On Startups (626,000+ members)
- Future Trends (474,000+ members)
- I ❤️ Startups (248,000+ members)
- Entrepreneur’s Network (33,000+ members)
- Band of Entrepreneurs (26,000+ members)
Keep in mind as you begin posting in communities and forums, that you need to provide value before asking for anything in return—that’s how you build relationships with people and eventually ask them to join your feedback group.
Don’t expect to get stellar results from simply cold emailing a bunch of people you don’t really know, asking them to support your idea.
4. Have One-on-One Conversations With Your Target Market
Once you’ve started to build your small community of early feedback subscribers, you need to keep the conversation going with them. And you can continue building the size of your feedback group throughout this process.
At this stage however, your goal now shifts to focusing more on determining the right mix of highlights, features and value propositions that’ll be most appealing to your target audience.
It’s time to narrow in on what exactly your business is going to be and you’ll solidify this even more in the next stage: Developing a competitive advantage.
Again, since we don’t want to build a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist, this requires as many one-on-one conversations as possible. Yes, it takes time, but it’ll save you countless hours later by getting your solution right on the first shot.
During my challenge to validate a business idea, a few conversations with my early feedback members naturally transitioned into brainstorming sessions in which my audience started telling me what they wanted.
Check out this text about my hiking site idea, from my friend Michael that lives in Los Angeles, a traditionally very tourist-heavy city.
He identified one of his major pain points when it comes to finding good local hikes and adventures to do that aren’t touristy like hiking up to the Hollywood sign. He lives in LA, so he’s already done all that—now he wants “off the grid, local and culturally interesting experiences.”
Two other friends of mine, Bryan Lemos who worked with me at CreativeLive and loves photography, and Alan who’s an active outdoor enthusiast in his own rite over at Love to Camp, now work together and talked about my website idea at lunch after I had texted them both earlier in the day.
They came to me (in a Slack group we have together) with a great idea for a service that they wish existed in the hiking and outdoor market.
Providing a monthly subscription service where I line up a curated, local adventure and discounted deal for my subscribers to go on once a month. Dead simple and pretty easy for me to implement each month.
Do everything you can to foster this type of idea flow in your conversations. If you listen hard enough, for long enough to your audience, they’re going to tell you exactly what they want.
While you can have these conversations over text, email, Slack or another digital media, nothing beats meeting up in-person for a quick coffee or picking up the phone for 15min to get more meaningful feedback from your target audience.
Here are a few of the top questions you should be asking your target market, with the goal of learning more about their motivations and needs as it pertains to your business idea:
- What are you most looking to achieve (as it pertains to your topic area)?
- What are some of the current solutions you’re using, or have used in the past?
- What frustrates you most about current solutions out there?
- What features would you most like to see (as it pertains to your topic area)?
- Do you have any fears (as it pertains to your topic area) holding you back?
- Would you be willing to pay for a solution that does XYZ for you?
I recommend adding a few additional columns to the Google Sheet you already made for keeping track of your feedback group, so that you can add notes with their answers to these key questions.
By this point in my challenge to validate a business idea, I was starting to get a more clear picture of what exactly my audience wanted from me in the California hiking space.
After thinking more about the two ideas I got from my feedback group—a monthly adventure planning service or a guide to the most under-rated, off-the-grid hikes and adventures in California—and running them by a couple others, I got more votes for the off-the-grid hiking guide.
Once you’ve been able to collect this depth of feedback from at least 10 – 15 people in your early feedback group, it’s time to really formulate your competitive advantage and solidify (at least for now) what you’re business is going to represent.
I pushed forward with the tentative plan of creating the off-the-grid hiking guide.
Now it was time to figure out how to make it significantly more unique, useful and better than existing hiking guides.
5. Develop a Competitive Advantage
By this stage of validating your business idea, you’ve had a number of meaningful conversations with your target audience and you’ve built a small list of people who are interested in getting updates on your upcoming solution—based on the simple elevator pitch you’ve sent them so far.
Now it’s time to expand a bit on that elevator pitch and pull some more insights out of the feedback you’ve been gathering from your conversations with the people in your community.
All with the purpose of developing a competitive advantage that’ll make your upcoming solution uniquely valuable to your audience. The worst thing you can do is rush to market with an identical solution to what’s already out there.
A competitive advantage is defined as your unique advantage that allows you as a business to generate greater sales or margins, and/or acquire & retain more customers than competitors.
In short, it’s what makes your business, your business.
Your competitive advantage can come in many different forms, including:
- Your cost structure
- Product offering
- Distribution network
- Customer support
- Your own personal skill set (like being able to tell great stories)
- Your experience
- Industry knowledge
- Strategic relationships
- A powerful personal brand
- Large and engaged audience you’ve built
The strength of your competitive advantage will greatly affect your early results in validating your business idea.
With my challenge to validate a business idea in the California hiking space, my competitive advantage for my upcoming website (that didn’t yet exist, mind you), was that I’d be delivering content in a new medium (VR/360°), with a level of quality and depth that was unmatched in an industry full of web 1.0 style websites with stock photos and short descriptions.
To land on the competitive advantage(s) for your side hustle idea, start by carefully combing through all of the feedback emails, conversation notes and ideas you’ve recorded from your target audience conversations so far.
Look for commonalities, trends, surprising insights and particularly interesting ideas that catch your eye. Highlight them as potential value propositions to come back to for developing your competitive advantage.
6. Grow Your Email List
Despite what many profess, growing your email list (further) is actually an optional step in the process of validating a business idea.
Here’s why: If you’ve already manually built an email list of 100 or more subscribers through the various audience building tactics we covered in #3 (which you could definitely do given enough time and effort), you likely already have enough people to validate your idea with.
Sure, more of the right subscribers would help increase your chances of successfully validating your business idea, but anything more than ~100 or so, is bonus points for the sake of this validation test.
Revisiting our initial goal for setting out to validate a business idea in the first place, it’s to give us reasonable confidence in the future success of our solution.
Put simply, you don’t need more than 100 subscribers to validate an idea and get at least 10 paying customers.
If you’re sitting below that magic number of 100 subscribers or you feel strongly about needing to acquire a larger audience before building a proof of concept, let’s get into growing your email list beyond where it’s at right now.
I’ve written about a lot of list building tactics that have worked well for me over the years, but here are a few of my favorites for quickly growing your email list beyond the limitations of manual outreach.
1. Guest Posting (to Grow Your List and Validate Your Business Idea).
While guest posting is significantly more effective in the long run once you have a live website or blog of your own already, it’s not necessary in the context of validating your idea quickly.
All you need is a very basic “landing page” that gives you the opportunity to capture the name and email address of any readers who are interested in learning more about what you’re planning on building—based on a brief description written on your landing page. This landing page will be a foundation for the proof of concept you’ll be building in the next step anyway.
Within your guest post that’s topically relevant to what you’re planning on creating, you’ll tastefully link back to your landing page so that readers can click through to learn more and sign up for updates.
Here’s an example of a guest post I recently wrote for Lifehacker, one for Forbes, one on Inc, another on CreativeLive’s blog, General Assembly’s blog, and ConvertKit’s blog. You’ll notice that I always make sure to include at least 1 link back to a specific post, landing page or project I’m seeking to promote (or validate) within the first few paragraphs of the guest post to make sure I’m maximizing my chances of driving back readers who are interested in signing up to learn more.
Again, you do not have to build a website before guest posting. Your landing page can be as simple as you allow it to be. I’ve created basic landing pages from (free) Google Forms, (free) Google Docs, (free) Gumroad sales pages and through free trials with a more robust tool like Instapage.
What’s most important about the basic landing page you build, is that you’re able to (1) write a brief description of your upcoming solution and (2) ask readers to sign up with their email address for updates. You can collect their email addresses by using a Google Form, which will store them neatly in a Google Sheet you’ll be able to refer back to later.
Here’s an example of a guest post I wrote for the Desprenuer blog (right here), a popular website that gives designers the tools they need to grow their businesses.
You’ll see that I included a link back to the post I wanted to promote on my own blog (about side businesses), within the first paragraph of this guest post. This guest post took me about 30-45 minutes to write and was a shortened derivative of the original post I linked to in that intro paragraph up top.
I know, I know…you don’t have a ton of blog content of your own, so you “can’t” do this, right?
Not quite. If you think you don’t have the content for writing a guest post, you’re mistaken. Take all the bits and pieces of conversations you’ve already been having with your target market, identify the value propositions they’ve been resonating with most and start expanding on each of those points.
Now, let’s talk about pitching a guest post & identifying the right destinations and people to pitch to.
All it took to land this guest post on the Despreneur blog, which drove back a couple hundred visitors to my site, was a quick email to the editor, Tomas Laurinavicius. I mentioned a recent podcast episode he recorded with another entrepreneur, which showed I took an interest in what he’s doing and established relevancy by noting that I’m also a Forbes contributor.
Then I pitched him on writing a guest post:
This worked particularly well for me because the content I referenced on my blog was already performing well and Tomas also had some mutual connections with me (via Forbes), so there were fewer barriers between us.
But you probably don’t have a strong personal brand or contributorships on major publications… sure, that’ll make this more difficult. However, my very first guest post was landed on Buffer’s blog (1 million+ monthly readers) back in 2015 long before I had any semblance of an audience or credibility. I cold emailed one of the writers on their team with a few strong topic ideas I knew she’d be interested in, then she asked to see a draft of one and the rest is history.
Success with pitching guest posts begins with choosing realistic targets, but never doubt the power of asking for what you want—tons of other people have also been able to land high value guest posts without any “street cred” of their own yet.
Now let’s dive deeper into my 5 step process for cold pitching guest posts.
Step 1: Create a landing page (or blog post/proof of concept).
Nearly every post I publish on my blog is treated as a proof of concept for a potential course topic I can cover in the future. I choose to use blog posts for all of my proof of concepts because that’s what I’m good at and I can do it quickly. For your purposes, this landing page can be in the form of a simple blog post, sales page, product description, video or otherwise—this is the destination that’ll serve as home base for when you’re ready to go out and pitch guest posts.
Step 2: Build a list of publications, brand and blogs.
Once I publish a post to my blog, I’ll create a shortlist of 10-20 different publications, blogs and brands that I think I can realistically land a guest post with—on a topic closely related to my landing page back on my own website. I’ll vet these websites and make sure it looks like they accept content on my topic and that they have engaged readers for the subject matter, otherwise it’s not the best utilization of my time. Once I have my list, I’ll rank everyone on it based on how much traffic I think I’ll be able to drive back to my website from a guest post.
Step 3: Create outlines of derivative works from the original post.
Next, I’ll break down the sections of my original post and start outlining what a more detailed post could look like—expanding upon each of these sections from my original. For example, from my post on the 10 Steps to Starting a Business While Working Full-Time, I could choose #2 on the list (Inventory Your Strengths and Interests) and outline a more detailed post that expands upon actionable strategies for finding your strengths and interests. Now, I’ll start to pair up these new post outlines with the target websites I want to get a guest post published on.
Step 4: Find the right point of contact at my target websites.
This is key. You need to pitch a real person and make sure it’s the right person. That’s someone who (1) cares and (2) can do something about your guest post idea. For that reason, I always look to target a marketer, writer, editor or blog manager at the destination I’m looking to secure a guest post on—these people will all be on the same page when it comes to the constant need for solid content and they’ll either have or know the people with the decision-making power to grant a guest post.
Step 5: Reach out with a value-driven approach, then pitch.
Most of the time before pitching someone on a guest post, I’ll first go back to my original landing page or post on my blog and add in a relevant link to a piece of content on the blog of the target destination I’m trying to get a guest post on. That way, when I reach out to the marketer, writer or editor, I can keep the message related to just my mention of them in the post on my blog—providing value first.
I’ll ask them to give it a quick look to make sure I’m citing them properly and linking to the best possible destination for them; two things they’ll care about and it’s not a big ask. That gets them to my website where they can see what the post is about and a bit about me. Then once they respond, I’ll pitch them on the guest post topic that I believe to be most relevant to their readers.
It’s a lot of work and you definitely want to spend some time promoting the content and making sure your guest post does well. But by building relationships that are founded on delivering value before asking for anything in return, you’re going to plant the seeds for a relationship that has the potential to grow and evolve over time.
This strategy will also set you apart from the 50 other people that email in every day asking to guest post.
If you don’t have a website up yet, you obviously can’t use this exact approach verbatim. Instead, you’ll have to compensate by reaching out to more people. It’s a numbers game, but I promise you can make it happen. If you want help strategizing, shoot me an email at email@example.com and I’m happy to help.
2. Facebook Ads (to Grow Your List and Validate Your Business Idea).
If you have a little budget ($50 – $200) for testing paid traffic, Facebook Ads are going to be your biggest bang for the buck, by far. With that budget range, you can generally drive a couple hundred extremely targeted visitors to your landing page and see how they react to your proof of concept.
For one of my past businesses, Case Escape, we were able to validate the concept of offering our Startup Kits—a business in a box style package that helped people start their own phone case business—by spending around $100 on Facebook Ads for a week to generate leads which led to phone conversations and making our first $5,700 sale.
3. Giveaways (to Grow Your List and Validate Your Business Idea).
In my experience, giveaways are a very mixed bag. Sometimes they work very well and give you a ton of qualified leads, but other times you’re left with a worthless list of people who signed up solely to win something cool.
My advice: Keep your giveaway item as closely related to your upcoming solution as possible (and keep your costs as low as possible). Spending meaningful amounts of money before you have a clear path to making it back is dangerous.
I recommend hitting the pavement to visit local stores, picking up the phone and doing what you can to try and broker discounts on your giveaway items before purchasing—in exchange for some advertising exposure to your audience.
Giveaways only make this list because they’re a potentially viral marketing tactic that’s worked well for me in the past. I used one during my challenge to validate a business idea and generated 565 email subscribers in just 6 days for a GoPro and Osprey pack giveaway thanks to the built-in viral sharing that the KingSumo Giveaways plugin has.
The idea behind a giveaway is simple: Run a sweepstakes and give away an awesome, relevant product or service for free in exchange for asking entrants to sign up for your email list.
Incentivize them to share the giveaway on the backend after they sign up by offering a few “extra” entries into the giveaway for every friend they refer to my giveaway, which KingSumo Giveaways does very well.
Starting with just 47 people in my early feedback group, I was able to grow that number to 565 in just 6 days thanks to their sharing. That means they referred an average of 12 friends each.
For the specific copy/paste email templates I used to kick my giveaway off with a bang and help make sure it succeeded, jump down to my Update #2 of the validation challenge.
Now, once you’ve built your email list to a size you’re comfortable with (I recommend ~100 subscribers), it’s time to start building your proof of concept.
7. Build a Proof of Concept.
Now you have a small (but growing) audience. You know the specific offering you want to validate your business idea with. In my case with this validation challenge, that was an off-the-grid hiking guide to the most under-appreciated adventure destinations in California—documented in VR/360°, drone footage and video.
But I didn’t have the time to go out and shoot all that content, get it edited and HOPE people paid me for it. That’d take months and probably a good amount of money.
Instead of pausing here to invest weeks or months into building your course, writing your book, developing an app or creating a complex website to highlight your freelance skills, we still want to make sure there’s a (paying) demand for what you plan on building—before you actually go out and build it.
That’s where building a simple proof of concept comes into play.
A proof of concept is a realization of your method or idea that demonstrates its feasibility.
Well constructed proof of concepts are designed to achieve these 3 things:
1. Verify that your solution solves the problem you’re attempting to address.
2. Confirm that your solution is valued by your future customers.
3. Determine whether or not people will pay for your solution.
Setting your proof of concept goal.
Once you have a more clear picture of what your specific product or service offering is going to be (based on your target market conversations and research) and you’ve developed a competitive advantage that’s going to make your offering unique in some way, it’s time to set a goal for what you want your proof of concept to achieve.
Only that which is properly tracked and measured, improves.
Your proof of concept goal will be unique to your business and it needs to give you relative confidence in the future of the solution you’re building.
There’s no definitive, across the board success metric for all proof of concepts, but I always recommend setting a proof of concept goal of generating a specific amount of revenue from a pre-defined number of paying customers.
Here are a few popular examples of proof of concept goals:
- 10 pre-orders for your upcoming product or service
- $100 in affiliate commissions generated
- 100 listeners on your first podcast episode
- Getting a book proposal accepted by a publisher
- 100 waiting list subscribers
- Fully funding a Kickstarter campaign
With my challenge to validate a business idea in the California hiking space, I set my proof of concept goal at 10 pre-orders of the hiking guide I wanted to create. If I could get 10 people to pay me for a book that doesn’t yet exist, that’d give me enough confidence to go out and actually shoot the content & create the book.
Now that I had the goal I wanted to achieve—10 book pre-sales, it was time to create a (simple) preview of what that would be, so I could start pitching it and asking my subscribers to buy.
Here are a few examples of the many different forms a proof of concepts can come in:
- Google Doc (like the one I created to validate my hiking guide)
- Blog post (like the one I wrote to validate my first course idea)
- Explainer video
- Portfolio of your existing work (like this free one on Contently)
- Hand-built prototype (like my $100 iStash prototypes)
- Simple product sales page or website
- Rough demonstration of your software solution
- Email or email newsletter (like how ProductHunt started)
- Self-published book
- Facebook or Slack group (like #Investing, a group created by a reader)
So, going back to leveraging my core skills (which we covered the importance of in #2 of this post), I took a couple of hours and wrote out a simple Google Doc Proof of Concept that was just a few pages long, to serve as my proof of concept for this hiking guide idea.
You can check it out and grab the template for it right here.
I kept it ridiculously simple (721 words). I whipped up a quick header image and just wrote what I wanted the guide to be—while focusing on how it would benefit readers.
It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t highlight absolutely everything it could have, but I ran it by one of my friends (a subscriber) and we came to the consensus that it was good enough to get the job done and help me secure pre-orders.
Note that at the end of the proof of concept page, I wanted to include a link to where people could immediately go and pre-order the guide. Giving readers the option to go and buy the guide without me first directly asking them to purchase would tell me a lot about how excited they are for this guide.
Now it was time to pre-launch it to my subscribers and see how it’d go.
8. Launch and Get Pre-Orders From Your Email List
You’ll need a secure way to accept payments from your subscribers before asking them to buy.
That could be as simple as asking them to PayPal you the dollar amount, using a free card reader from Square to accept CC payment or setting up a simple product page on a platform like Gumroad (I chose this option for my validation challenge).
I chose Gumroad because they have the quickest setup time in my experience, and I knew they offered the option to pre-sell products without charging the customer’s credit card until the guide is actually finished—something I really wanted to highlight to my potential customers so they’d know they’re not getting scammed.
Even if you’re looking to sell handmade goods and eventually plan to sell them on Etsy, choosing to first use a simple pre-ordering flow through Gumroad is going to be much quicker and less overwhelming in the short term.
Choosing a realistic price point.
Next, you’ll need to choose a realistic price point for your offering—a price point that helps you achieve your proof of concept goal.
I wasn’t worried about the dollar amount I earned from pre-sales of the guide, since my goal at this stage is to validate my business idea—not make thousands from it this week. This is something that so many aspiring entrepreneurs neglect to see the importance of, which often leads to failure, loss of motivation and disinterest in an otherwise great idea.
You have to use the tools at your disposal, especially as you’re just getting started. One of those tools is choosing to offer an otherwise very low price point for your product or service when you go out to pre-sell it to early subscribers.
That discount is in exchange for them giving a vote of confidence and waiting while you actually produce the solution—in turn, you get to prove that there is a paying market for your product before investing in it.
As a starting point for pricing my digital guide, I decided to take a look around and see exactly what others were charging for similar hiking-related guides and see if I could price myself in the same ballpark.
I took a few minutes to do a little research and found that Lonely Planet, an outdoor reviews site amongst many other things sells their digital eBook destination guides for $8.99 on average.
Despite knowing that my guide would explore California’s destinations in new content mediums, with greater depth and more careful curation, I decided to (again) keep things simple and price the pre-sale of my guide right at $9 since that’s what many consumers are currently conditioned to for a guide of this type… if not free even.
I made it clear on the product page that the price point would be higher ($29) for the guide once it’s finished, to increase the urgency for those who are interested, to pick it up right now.
Now that I had my proof of concept Google Doc and a live product page ready to go, it was time to try and drive in some sales.
Getting your first sales.
Your first sales need to come from manual, individual conversations with your subscribers. You can’t mass email a link to your proof of concept or sales page and expect people to immediately buy (or even understand the value in buying).
Before emailing my list of 565 subscribers I had acquired from my giveaway, I wanted to go back to the 4 friends I had consulted about which product ideas sounded more interesting. I texted them a customized variation of this message—skipping the proof of concept Google Doc and linking them straight to the purchase page to see how they’d respond:
1 of them bought.
That gave me a quick vote of confidence.
Next, I revisited ~15 the individual email conversations I still had going with the friends & acquaintances who’d joined my early feedback group. I was still familiarizing myself with selling this guide & learning what was most attractive about it.
Since some of these people I’d reaching out to via email weren’t my closest friends, I didn’t want to immediately ask them to directly buy my guide. I wanted to ask for their opinion and gather their feedback on my proof of concept document first.
So, I turned to using my Feedback to Pre-Order Sequence (you can download the copy/paste email scripts right here) I use to pre-launch courses and other products. It’s another extremely useful strategy & toolset we’ll be covering in my new course, 30 Days to Validate.
Here’s how the Feedback to Pre-Order Sequence works:
Step 1: Ask the person to check out your proof of concept and complete a short survey leaving feedback about it.
Step 2: Genuinely answer their questions (from the feedback survey) and ask them if they’d be confident enough in your [product] to pre-order it at a discount today.
That’s it. So simple it’s ridiculous.
Important: In the survey, it’s incredibly important to ask the yes or no question of whether or not they’d buy this [product]. You can prioritize your time on the people who pre-qualify themselves as being interested in buying.
Meet their objections head on and be honest about whether or not you think your solution will be a good fit for them based on the feedback they’re giving you.
Now, here’s my Feedback to Pre-Order Sequence in action with a former co-worker and photographer, Matt who’s been giving me feedback on my California hiking guide project for the past couple of weeks.
That now brought me up to 2 pre-orders.
So, I continued to replicate this approach manually with more of my most engaged early feedback subscribers.
The pre-sales continued to climb throughout the next couple of days.
Here’s another example conversation I had with a former co-worker, Brooks who’s relatively new to California but loves finding cool new hikes off the beaten path in the bay area.
Did it take time having these 1-on-1 conversations with more than a dozen people? Definitely.
But with every conversation and feedback form that rolled in, I learned something new about both my audience and what my product represented to them. I was getting a step closer to validating this business idea each day.
A lot of people really resonated with the idea of getting curated adventure recommendations that aren’t mainstream, touristy and crowded—that fueled my motivation every time I got positive feedback.
This experience also gave me a more clear sense of how to sell this guide more effectively moving forward—I could see first-hand which selling points were getting the most thumbs up.
By the end of the last week of my challenge to validate a business idea, I was sitting at 12 pre-sales totaling $108 in revenue.
I achieved my validation goal (10 or more pre-sales).
Could I have kept going and made several hundred more over the next few days by keeping the one-on-one conversations going or sending an email broadcast to all my subscribers once I had my pitch down?
Probably, but I already achieved my validation goal so I wanted to move forward.
What comes next after you complete your pre-launch sequence?
Keep going. Continue building with even more confidence. Engage more with your subscribers and customers to make sure you’re still providing them with something they want.
9. Continue Building and Tweaking With Feedback
If you’ve successfully validated your business idea, the real work has just begun—and that’s exciting as hell.
As responses roll in from your pre-launch pitches, you’ll undoubtedly collect valuable feedback that’ll help you make your solution even more effective for your audience, if you listen carefully.
If your pre-launch didn’t go as planned and your validation test failed, don’t give up.
This is just the first of many setbacks that’ll be coming your way as an entrepreneur. Failure is a natural (necessary) part of the journey. It’s what you decide to do next that defines you. Trust me, I’ve been there many times.
It’s time to digest all of the feedback you’ve gotten and determine some possible causes of why your validation test failed.
Some common reasons validation tests fail are:
- Pitching to the wrong audience
- Not getting in front of a large enough audience
- Not creating enough perceived value in your proof of concept
- Not incorporating or highlighting the right value propositions
- Pricing the pre-order of your solution above what your audience will pay
- Existing solutions on the market are already “good enough”
So, what comes next for you?
Ryan Robinson is an entrepreneur writer, and freelance content marketer helping entrepreneurs build a successful, profitable side business. Follow along at ryrob.com, where this post originally appeared.