On a brisk night this February, founders, students from Wentworth’s Accelerate program, and nonprofit organizers gathered to hear from one of Boston’s leading digital innovators to answer a critical question: “Is your product idea a good one?” Ian Cross, a longtime marketer with companies including IBM and TJX, is currently the head of The Center for Marketing Technology at Bentley University. When we start our own organizations, whether for-profit or non, service or physical product-oriented, founders want to know: will people use it? Is there enough demand for it to build a long-term organization? What else can we do to serve our constituents? How do we identify needs?
Cross had the audience laughing with fun insights on the often topsy-turvy world of marketing. Yet, underlying the lively discussion was the serious business of identifying the right product or service offering to build a sustainable organization, one that fills a critical niche. Here, he walked the audience through a series of steps to determine if their product idea is a good one. His advice can be summed up as asking the right questions. His tactics include:
- Know Whether You Have a Safe or Experimental Idea: Some ideas are incremental improvements on known products or services. People can more quickly see their value. Feedback is more challenging if your idea is experimental, requiring people to conceptualize new ideas. Be aware of how challenging your idea is; prepare for a longer evaluation time if it’s something radically new.
- Make Connections: Get out and talk to constituents. Meet people where they are. Be prepared to leave your studio/lab/space and go networking, ping your network, and actively engage with a wide range of others.
- Look at Social Forces: Anticipate trends. Many companies start out ahead of the curve yet later become complacent, or simply stop listening. Be aware of broad social trends; connect them to your product. Case in point: Gillette’s sales have dropped since men’s fashion has favored beards; anticipating this trend, they could offer trimmers, grooming products, and other alternatives to their core razor products to maintain their status as a leading men’s grooming brand. Are you a life coach? Look at trends in the workplace, such as flex work, and consider how your services can help people make the most of new work options.
- Absorb and Learn; Build and Solve: Never consider your product finished. Listen actively when constituents give you feedback. Solve for their challenges, and always think about what the next one is.
What About Tactics?
A growth mindset is key; you also need tools in place to get the feedback you need to grow. Here’s where Cross offered concrete methods founders can use to survey their customers:
- Keep Surveys Concise: Ask as few questions as you can to get answers. Never ask 20 questions.
- Use Open Questions: Ask: “How can we improve our programs?” vs “Would weekend classes interest you?” Rather than suggest solutions, ask the big questions for better input
- Ask Creative Questions First: The audience enjoyed working through prompts such as “if your personality were a landscape, what would it be?” So will end users, whose ability to creatively problem-solve spikes when primed with off-the-wall initial inquiry.
- Use Free Tools: Google Forms allow for soliciting and analyzing feedback. So does Survey Monkey.
- Tap Into Community Resources: For demographic data, you can use Census.gov. Expensive industry reports are beyond the budgets of many startups and nonprofits. College classes in marketing usually have access, and faculty and students are often willing to help as part of a class project.
Cross left his aspiring audience with these thoughts: develop personas for your constituents. Know who they are; engage empathetically with their needs. Think about how they will use your product or services to better their lives. With that mindset, you can be on the way to a business idea that is, indeed, a great one.