Some weeks ago I’ve subscribed to Quora and started answering lots of questions, especially in the virtual reality, startup and blogging categories. There’s one recurring question in the startup category: what to do to transform your startup idea into a concrete startup and so I’m going to give you some advices here once for all.
This question comes in different flavours, like “What’s the first thing to do after you’ve had your killer idea?”, “How do I get investments after I’ve had a disruptive idea” and so on… the funny thing is that I’ve also seen someone asking a question about the step before, like “What’s a 10 million startup idea?” (man, if I had an idea worth 10 million… why should I tell it to you???), but this is a topic that maybe I’ll cover in a future post.
VR and AR are currently fields were there are no set-up standards, there are still no dominant figures and so there are enormous possibilities for us all to found a startup that disrupts the market. Smartphones are currently a mature technology, so all app startups that pop out just find themselves inside a crowded market, where they often fall into obscurity. With VR it is instead very easy to stand out and get noticed inside communities for the only reason that you bring some innovations. We at Immotionar, for example, had our share of visibility thanks to our full body virtual reality system… in the end we had to shut down, but that has been due to our errors. So, it’s the right moment to found a VR or AR startup.
And then we come back again to the title: you had a fantastic killer idea for a VR startup, the one providing people the VR killer application. What to do next?
Your idea sucks
The first thing to do is accepting the fact that your idea may just suck. I know, it’s hard, but you must accept it.
I’ve heard lots of people telling me “I’ve an ultra-innovative idea that will disrupt the market” and then hearing it, I was like
Of course this rule holds for me, too: if you’re following my devlog, you surely remember the fact that I had a game idea that I thought was good, but in the end Max showed me it was actually something terrible.
So, most of the time your idea is not that “disruptive”, or it is cool but not feasable, or it is cool from a technical standpoint but awful from a business one. You see it as super-cool because it is your idea, your creation, but other people may have a different opinion on it.
Remember that a startup is all about money: you need to produce something that people will like so much that will want to spend money for. You’re not just doing something that you love… if you want to do that, just find a new hobby.
So, your idea may be good or bad. How to understand it? Well, just ask.
Get generic feedbacks
First thing you have to do is asking feedbacks about your idea to everyone you know.
If you’re an unexperienced startupper, you may think “WHAAAT? TELLING MY PRECIOUS KILLER IDEA TO ANYONE??”. Yes, exactly that. You have not be scared, being scared for talking about your idea to people is the typical error of an unexperienced startupper, senior ones haven’t this worry. On the contrary, the more people they tell their idea, the better. Why don’t you have to be scared?
- 99% of people are not interested in stealing your idea: maybe they don’t have the technical skills; or they have already their idea that they’re trying to develop; or just don’t want to set up a business; etc… There may be a thousand reasons, but the rationale is they just will just not develop your same product. On the contrary, you’ll discover that most people are just interested in helping you: since startup life is hard, most of us startuppers just help each other because we understand each other’s pain. Other people will help you to feel as part of the process of creating something new. Others will help just because they’re your friends. No matter why, you’ll have lots of feedbacks from people wanting to help you and most of them will just want to see you succeeding;
- What counts is not the idea, but the execution. This is a well-known sentence in the startup world. You can have the best idea of the world, but if you execute it poorly, you are doomed to fail. With “execution” here I mean “transforming your idea into a practical product and sell it to people”. So even if you had the best idea of the world, if you can’t transform it into an actual product, you’ll fail; if your team breaks up during the development stage, you’ll fail; if you make a wonderful product but can’t do proper marketing, you’ll fail. The idea has really a little importance: Facebook wasn’t the only social network at that time, neither it was the first or the most popular. But in the end it became the most powerful because Zuck was able to execute it well. So, what it counts is how you do transform that idea in reality;
- Even if you don’t tell your idea, someone else on the other part of the world will surely have your same thoughts. Trust me. You’re never the only one. At the beginning we of Immotionar kept our idea super-secret, just to know that in 2013 someone had made something similar to us!
So, talk to all people you know and tell your idea. Tell it to different kind of people: other VR developers, business guys, gamers, random friends… and get generic feedbacks.
Refine your idea
You didn’t get all those feedbacks just because it was fun collecting them. So, use the first feedbacks to validate your idea.
People told you it was a valid idea? Did they sincerely liked it? Did they tell you that they’d pay for that product? Did they think that the idea may serve lots of people? If the anser is not to at least one of these questions, you have an issue.
If you have an issue, you can work on it by modifying your initial idea. For example if people told you that no consumer would spend 2000$ to have your fire-extinguisher-shaped VR controller to play VR fire-fighting games, you may pivot and start thinking about selling it to safety companies to make safety courses on fire situations. They would be happy to spend that money for a product that works.
Refine your idea until now it makes more sense.
Get specific feedbacks
Ok, now it’s time for another shower of reality. Take your idea v2.0 and show it to your potential customers. Which are your potential customers, it’s up to you to define. If you’re making a VR game, then all VR gamers and enthusiasts; if you’re making a VR fire-fighting safety course, then all companies that make safety courses and are open to use VR. Identify your potential customers and contact them asking for feedbacks.
How to do that? Well, sometimes is easy, sometimes is not.
If it is possible, the best way is to ask some communities. Hacker News, Reddit, Linkedin, Quora… are all places where you can ask for honest feedbacks from people. “Guys, I’ve had this idea for a full body VR controller using Kinects… what do you think about it? Would you buy it?”. This is basically what you have to ask, of course in a less direct way (“would you buy it” is a question a bit strong 🙂 ).
If this is not possible, just cold-contact people. So if for example you want to target safety courses companies, search all safety courses companies in your surroundings and cold-email them, telling that you’re going to make this fire-extinguisher-shaped VR controller and that if they’re interested you can keep in touch. Ask them what features they would like to see from this controller and the price they would ideally pay for it. Ask if it actually solves a problem they’re having or not. If possible, instead of e-mails use alternative means like Linkedin to target directly the most suitable person inside the company of interest. Most people won’t answer, that’s pretty normal, don’t worry about it. Again, if it is possible, use someone to introduce you to these kind of companies, it would be surely easier: so if your high-school friend now works for a safety company, ask him to introduce you to his boss.
About how to showcase your idea at this point, it’s up to you. You can just use words, or make a fake video, or use some artworks. If you want you can also make a landing page, so you send people to your landing page and if they want, they can leave their email to be notified when the product will come out.
Refine your idea v2
Take the feedbacks from the last point and refine your idea again. If something didn’t work, you have to change your mind. For example if safety companies have said to you that they’re not interested in simulating fire-fighting in VR, you may think about selling it to someone else, like people building fire-extinguishers and return to the previous step. Or you may understand that your idea is cool, but needs some features you didn’t even thought about, so you can add them. Or you may understand that your idea is just terrible and throw everything away.
Keep in mind that the goal is having an idea for something that people would buy. So “it would be cool” compliments are useless; “I would buy it” are the magical words here.
At the end of the previous stage you have finished brainstorming your idea. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty and craft the actual product. Or, better, to produce a prototype (we startuppers love calling it MVP = Minimum Viable Product).
Build a prototype: not a finished version of the product, but the minimal version of the product that is able to convey the idea of what the final product will do. You’ll need to develop it pretty fast.
Remember: you have to identify the main feature of your product and just develop the bare minimum to implement it. So, if you’re making a VR fire-extinguishing experience, you may just show an office room downloaded from the Unity Asset Store with a fire particle system downloaded from the Unity Asset Store, that vanishes when you use your VR controller next to it… and if you don’t extinguish the fire in a certain period of time, you lose. We all know that the final experience will require scared people running away from the fire, different type of fires and so on… but all of this is useless at this point. You have just to make people understand if extinguishing fires in VR has sense or not.
I want to make clear one thing: the MVP shouldn’t seem a crappy product. It should be just the bare minimum required to appreciate your idea but it has to be complete regarding that minimum. So, for example, talking about software, it may appear non-completely polished, it may not support all the platforms, it may have some issues, but it can’t be super-buggy.
Refine your MVP
Again, make all people try your MVP and get feedbacks. Modify your MVP accordingly, adding all features that your customers retain fundamental.
At the end of this stage, your MVP should be very simple, but at the same time, able to satisfy your customers for at least one of their needs. Time to sell it.
Sell your MVP
Start selling your MVP. It’s time for a marketing push, so spam all communities, social channels, press releases rooms possible. Cold email everyone you can. Go to events. Contact journalists and magazines and ask them to write about your product. If you can, use some targeted Facebook ads. Of couse you have not to become a real spammer, you have not to annoy people, but you have to make people notice your product. You’re just spreading the word. As techies, we hate all this marketing fluff, but trust me if I say you that it is fundamental to succeed. If you don’t spread the world, the product will fall into obscurity.
Try to get the most number possible of people to use your product and if possible get some money from them. Of course they’re using a prototype, so you can’t charge them a lot of money, but you can offer a super-discount since they’re in beta and still get some. If you can’t charge money, offer the product free for a limited amount of time (until v1.0 will come out).
Refine your MVP v2
If you can’t obtain a decent amount of users over time, it may mean that your product isn’t good enough. Try again to ask feedbacks and understand what is going wrong. Some surveys to your users may help. You may understand at this stage that your product is good, but not good enough for people to buy it and so you may decide to give up. Or maybe you’ll discover that you’re using the wrong pricing model.
If things are going good, ask feedbacks the same, to be able to understand what are the next features that your users are interested to.
Improve your MVP & get money
If you obtain enough traction of users, continue improving your product adding more features. In the meantime, having enough users, you’ll have your first little flow of cash.
Having paying customers, it’s to time to make a concrete business plan, then go to some investors and get your seed round to further develop your product. Congratulations, now you’re a startupper!
That’s it. As a final caveat, you have to know that these are general rules and things don’t always go this way. For example sometimes even developing the MVP is too expensive (this is true especially for hardware), so you’ll need to get an investment to build the MVP itself. In this case you’ll have to be sure that your idea is really well refined and that you’re sure about your customers’ interest. Sometimes it has no sense to contact communities before having something to show to them, so you build a crappy MVP immediately and then ask for feedbacks. Sometimes after you have the idea, you just try crowdfunding to get the money to build directly the product. So, don’t take this article as a complete vademecum. You have to adapt it to your particular case.
What is important is the concept that you have to build your product incrementally and ask continuously feedbacks to your potential customers. These are the foundations of the Lean Startup model. Your customers will be the ones giving their money, so you have to satifsy them, you have to adapt your product to their needs. Even who goes on Kickstarter has surely spent months in making a super-crappy prototype, then trying to get feedbacks about it from people… just to get money from backers in the end.
As a last advice: if you can, take a mentor with you. If you’re an unexperienced startupper, try to find someone experienced able to guide you in the first stages of your adventure. Otherwise, you will make lots of bad errors due to your unexperience. You can find them in accelerators, incubators, startup events and such things.
And that’s it for this post, hope it will be useful to other VR startuppers! Good luck!