First you start by admiring the irony of staring at a blank document titled "Where do you start when you don't know where to start?" Then you shake of the cobwebs and put the proverbial pen to paper.
This is a question that, while not often voiced, is implicit in many of the projects in which I get involved. It's the subtext behind questions and statements like:
Essentially all of the above are variations on "We want to accomplish this. We know it's possible and we know that technology can help, but we have no idea where to start..." (Luckily for us, they're often followed by "Can you help?" Yes, yes we can.)
We (humans) encounter this deer-in-the-headlights moment all the time, whether it's an overwhelming brunch spread or an empty search bar in our Spotify app. That moment is often referred to as "choice paralysis" — the tendency for humans to freeze up when there are too many options to assess quickly. Of course, when it's the brunch spread it's easy: simply overload your plate and try a bit of everything. When the plate is your business, however, it's not reasonable to make those choices without careful consideration and budgeting.
This is where a product mindset shines. An engineer can make a piece of technology work to accomplish a task. A designer can help make that task easy to accomplish and potentially fun to do. But before those people ever set out to design and execute technology that can accomplish a task, someone needs to carefully define what that task is, who's doing it, what they hope to accomplish, and what's the benefit to both the doer and the entity on the other end (if there is one).
In my experience, the moment that leads to the "where do we begin" question is a result of not pushing hard enough on the initial idea. Often people and companies will get to the point of a succinct statement of purpose and then...stop. Let's take one of our examples above:
At face value, the statement above is enough to get heads nodding. If you were the owner of the statement, you might test it out by repeating it to friends and family to gauge their reactions. That's a great starting point. But the statement is just enough to sound carefully thought out and get heads nodding affirmatively, giving you the illusion of clarity, support, and validation.
But what next?
I have a couple of exercises in my back pocket for exactly this situation. The first exercise applies the following questions to the goal statement: Who are we? What do we do? Why do we do it? Who do we do it for? Why do they care?
The first couple of questions are easy — we've already answered them...
But now we get into the nitty-gritty and force ourselves to step beyond our initial validating statement...
Now we're getting somewhere... By asking a few questions, we've pushed beyond the initial validating statement and forced ourselves to define our target market, key participants in the ecosystem, a point of differentiation, and value propositions.
Another way to get to a similar end goal is simply asking why repeatedly — like a child might:
This is a classic "product" approach to digging deeper, although I'm not personally as enthralled by it for exactly the same reason that we don't like it when children go down this path: it's exasperating. The open-ended "why" doesn't do as thorough a job, in my opinion, of forcing folks to thing through the nuance of each step — however, that's what makes it a great exercise for less defined opportunities.
Pick your poison; either can work.
Without getting into a detailed how-to for creating new products (there are plenty of books and articles on that), let's take a quick look at what comes next... further validation. It's easy to get friends and family to nod their heads affirmatively. They're your support system and generally they want to see you succeed. The key here is to move beyond your personal support system and get validation from folks within your target. There's a nearly endless list of ways to go about this, ranging from fast and cheap to detailed and not-as-cheap...
This could be as simple as slapping your value prop on a website with a "leave your email if you're interested" field and see how many responses you get. There are a number articles and books that explain this process and tools that can help you accomplish it:
Our questions above are an effective way to add more meat to the bones of an idea, but when push comes to shove, they still don't answer the obvious questions of What is it? and How do I use it? These are questions that will likely come to the minds of folks who visit your quick-and-dirty landing page with your value prop. Unfortunately, the reality is that you probably don't know what "it" is or how someone might use it...yet.
This is where a process like a Design Sprint comes into play. In the past, getting from the quick-and-dirty validation to true market validation required a substantial period building before we could put something in front of potential users. Technology has changed that; now we can mock up a clickable prototype that feels real in as little as a day. The Design Sprint process can help us get through the initial product definition and prototyping in short order, culminating in a day of qualitative user testing that gives us real feedback and validation.
Suddenly we've gone from an idea statement to a product mock-up that's been either validated or invalidated, all in just a short period of time.
I've described everything above as though it's second nature — something that just anyone can hop-to and execute at a moment's notice. And, while nothing here is prohibitively difficult, it still represents a learning curve for the uninitiated. This is why Apollo 21 exists. This is what we do — we help validate and execute product and service ideas to bring new ventures to life.