We'd all love to believe we're born inventors, but more often it's good research and development that leads to market-making products. But how do you perform good product R&D as a solopreneur or the leader of a small team? It's actually easier than you may think.
In The Lean Startup, author Eric Ries argues that your best approach for testing a market is to first prove the need and sell, and then make your prototype. Conceptually Ries calls this idea building a minimum viable product instead of over-investing upfront.
"You could spend five years of stealth R&D building a product you think customers want and then discover to your chagrin that they don't," Ries said in a 2013 speech to Stanford Technology Ventures.
Getting to Minimum
Even if you agree with Ries' approach, the trick is deciding what to include in a minimum viable product. These three ideas can help you to scout demand while also building an audience of potential customers.
Start a podcast: Others may be addressing the problem you're thinking of solving. Why not interview them for ideas and solicit questions from your audience? You may find gaps in their offering, and inspiration for a product of your own. Let's say you think there's a market for older consumers who've spent a lifetime hiking but who now need boots that are a bit more supportive. A hiking podcast might attract a wide audience, including the demographic you're targeting. Booking an interview with a podiatrist to review different fits and support could give you ideas while serving your future customers.
Start a newsletter: So long as you have an interest and interesting content to share, you can find an audience with a newsletter. Turn it into an R&D machine by including surveys in your content and an email address for even more in-depth interaction. Returning to the hiking boots example, a survey about the types of boots your readers wear could prove instructive for your own design efforts.
Start a blog: Potentially the most powerful of all your platforms, a blog allows you to establish a unique voice and take a firm stand on any issue you choose, and take as much space as you need to explain yourself. Think of it as stream-of-consciousness R&D. Write passionately about a problem that needs solving and see what reaction you get — if it's visceral, you just might have the makings of a market. For the hiking boots example, it could pay to profile older hikers you know and what they use to "gear up" for a trip.
Or you could try something entirely different, such as an event or networking group. The key in every instance is to better understand how others experience the problem you're seeing, and how they solve it currently. Only when you take the time to really understand the market you're serving can you aim to reshape it with a new product.