Four Ways to Validate Your Great Startup Idea

You have a great idea for a start-up company.


Validate your idea by answering four simple questions:

  • Is the market right?
  • Is the industry right?
  • Will it make money?
  • Will it need money?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

1. Is the market right?

Determining if the market is right means demonstrating that enough people exist who will purchase the product or solution you have developed, you can find them, and you can turn them into customers. For this you need to understand the size of your market and the characteristics of the buyers that personify your market.

Size of market

How large is your target market? You want your potential market (called the total available market, or TAM) to be quite large. But you want your initial target vertical market to be relatively small. By being focused, you can align your product features and marketing messaging with the unique pains/needs of this unique market.

And then you can claim you “penetrated 25% of your target market” instead of having to claim that you “penetrated .02% of your target market.” Sure sounds better to future investors!

You can measure the size of both your TAM and your initial target vertical market in terms of:

  • Number of customers
  • Dollars spent on products like yours
  • Units sold

Targeting Customers

NeedleHow easily can you find potential customers? Will they find you? Or will you find them? In either case, how? It is very easy to say “oh, we’ll just use Google AdWords and we’ll get tens of thousands of visitors every day.”

It is much harder to actually attract qualified leads. If you plan on finding the leads, how will you reach them and engage with them until they become customers?

Converting Customers

Catheter Solution 2Converting customers is not only influenced by the severity of pain your product is addressing. It is also influenced by how you position your solution and your messaging. Your target market must be able to identify with what pain your product resolves. The three bullets shown above demonstrate how one company, Adapta Medical, has honed their message to align perfectly with their target markets, C6-C7 quadriplegics and hospitals.

I like to use the words “clear and compelling” to describe the right message, i.e., when a lead hears or reads the message, they can relate immediately to the pain they are feeling and see clearly how your product will alleviate that pain.

2. Is the industry right?

If you want to do a thorough analysis of whether the industry is “right,” check out Porter’s Five Forces. But as a start, make sure you have a thorough understanding of your competitors, your potential partners, and your differentiators.


Few things turn off investors more than hearing entrepreneurs claim that they have no competitors. Every new company has competitors. If you really are the first to do something, then how are your target customers surviving currently? Here are some examples:

  • You’re “first” to provide on-line retail sales of gourmet food. Your indirect competitors include storefront retailers and catalog retailers of gourmet food. And your future competitors include on-line retailers of non-gourmet food (because they have all the logistics in place to add SKUs for gourmet food and thus become direct competitors).
  • You’re first to provide regular helicopter service from Denver to Colorado’s ski resorts. Your competitors include airlines, van shuttle services, rental car companies, and so on, all of which satisfy your target market with this capability using different means.

The way to determine if a company is a competitor is to imagine being a potential customer. If the customer could make a list of companies (including yours) and evaluate the pros and cons of each alternative (including price, convenience, safety, etc.), then those companies are competitors.


Look upstream and downstream on your supply chain. Who will you need to work with? Have you established those relationships yet? How easily will it be to establish? Can they control you (e.g., with price changes)? Or can you control them?


Think again about that list of competitors that a potential customer could create. What makes you special? Nobody cares about what you think makes you special! What will a potential customer think make you special when compared with the alternatives?

3. Will it make money?

In his February 20 article, Martin Zwilling explained how critical it is for you to use a financial model to determine if your company will be financially successful given the assumptions you currently believe to be true. I couldn’t agree with him more.

After creating such financial models for many dozens of startups, I would add that it takes many precious hours to create and debug such a model.

I would recommend that you use an online tool that has already considered and built in all the elements you must consider to be successful. Such tools allow you to enter your key assumptions one time, and they create your entire financial model. Then when any of your assumptions change, you just have to change one number, and your new financials are instantly created for you.


Offtoa Screen1

Martin provides 5 great examples of such “assumption changes” that are typical:

  • What if customers don’t want to pay the price for your product that you though they would?
  • What if the market size ends up being different than you expected?
  • What if your sales growth is different than expected?
  • What if your investors offer you an investment amount different than your expected?
  • What if your customer acquisition cost changes?

In reality, there are hundreds of such assumptions that could change.

4. Will it need money?

Another benefit of assumptions-based financial modeling is the automatic creation of monthly pro forma cash flow statements. You can easily scan the bottom row of these statements to determine exactly how much investment money you will need and when.

In summary

To prepare yourself for investors, you should thoroughly validate your business before you enter the shark tank. This article summarizes the key elements of such a validation. To summarize, here is the checklist:

☐ Is your total available market large enough?

☐ Is your initial target vertical market focused enough?

☐ Is it easy to find leads?

☐ Is it easy to convert leads into customers?

☐ Do you know your competition?

☐ Have you lined up your business partners (suppliers and distributors)?

☐ Are your differentiators unique and compelling?

☐ Will your startup make money?

☐ When your assumptions change, can you instantly see the financial effects?

☐ How much money do you need?


Alan DavisDr. Al Davis has published 100+ articles in journals, conferences and trade press, and lectured 2,000+ times in 28 countries. He is the author of 6 books, including the latest, Will Your New Start Up Make Money? He is co-founder and CEO of Offtoa, Inc., an internet company that assists entrepreneurs in crafting their business strategies to optimize financial return for themselves and their investors. Formerly, he was founding member of the board of directors of Requisite, Inc., acquired by Rational Software Corporation in 1997, and subsequently acquired by IBM in 2003; co-founder, chairman and CEO of Omni-Vista, Inc.; and vice president at BTG, Inc., a Virginia-based company that went public in 1995, acquired by Titan in 2001, and subsequently acquired by L-3 Communications in 2003.


Offtoa is a subscription-based SaaS that leads you, the entrepreneur, through a series of questions and transforms the assumptions you provide into a complete set of pro forma financial statements, including even a capitalization table and expected internal rates of return for the investors. Armed with this intelligence, you and your team are able to demonstrate to investors that you know your finances, understand your market, and have a winning proposition.

If you decide to subscribe to Offtoa because you read this blog, send me an email at and I’ll email you a coupon good for 50% off your first month’s subscription. This offer good only until May 31, 2015.

Needle in a Haystack photo by James Lumb (Creative Commons).