3 Questions to Answer Before Building Anything Online

September 22, 2010
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I am obsessed with ideas. Ideas by themselves are both incredibly important and totally-overrated. As such, they are completely misunderstood. Simple ideas can transform world but the mean value for an idea approaches zero. I’m in a position where I get to hear a lot of ideas from passionate people wanting to do something incredible. Since ideas have the power to change your life, for better or for worse, it’s my duty to help people stay grounded and test their ideas before jumping head-first into something. Here’s how to do it.

I am obsessed with ideas. Ideas by themselves are both incredibly important and totally-overrated. As such, they are completely misunderstood. Simple ideas can transform world but the mean value for an idea approaches zero. I’m in a position where I get to hear a lot of ideas from passionate people wanting to do something incredible. Since ideas have the power to change your life, for better or for worse, it’s my duty to help people stay grounded and test their ideas before jumping head-first into something. Here’s how to do it.

As I see it, there are three questions you should ask yourself before taking any steps forward with a web project:

  1. Is there a need for what I want to do that isn’t being fulfilled somewhere else?
  2. If there is a need, is what I’m trying to build going to fit that need in a way that people will use it?
  3. If there is a need and what I’m trying to do will properly fit that need, is it built in a way that makes it easy for me to keep fulfilling that need?

These questions are the Holy Trinity of ideas on the web. Extrapolated a bit further, these are the questions anyone should be asking before making anything to sell to other people but I’m going to keep the scope with web ideas since I want to speak from my experience rather than just pontificate (I’ll be doing a bit of that too, though).

This list is not a check list (“yep, yep, yep… cool, let’s go!“), nor is it any guarantee of success (“JoshCanHelp’s simple rules to endless fame and fortune“). These questions should serve as the very minimum of research you should do before paying anyone to design, build, or otherwise create anything. If you don’t take the time to answer these questions to the best of your ability then you’re not investing your money, you’re gambling it. If you do take the time to answer these questions, you will improve your chances of succeeding greatly.

Let’s walk through these one-by-one but do please note that I use “site,” “project,” “tool,” and “app” to mean whatever you want to build online:

Is there a need for what I want to do that isn’t being fulfilled somewhere else?

This is the all-important “market research” question. First, you’re figuring out if there’s anyone out there that has a need for your idea. If you decide that there is, you need to figure out the competition for your idea and get familiar with that competition.

This is going to be the big soul-searching one. Ask yourself:

  • What, exactly, are you trying to build?
  • What will this site or tool be used for?
  • What are you offering to people?

Answer these questions honestly, not in market-speak. This isn’t a pitch, this is an inquiry. You need to be able to summarize what you’re trying to build in a sentence or two. If you can’t do that then keep working until you can.

Once you’ve defined what you want to do, you need to do a little research. Ask yourself:

  • Are there any other sites doing anything like this? If your answer is no here, look a little harder.
  • What sites are doing something similar?
  • If there are already sites providing this, how is this one different?
  • How are we different? Same but cheaper? Premium?

You don’t need to go to business school to start the preliminary research on this and spending any money before you’re at least marginally familiar with the landscape is a big mistake. Answer the first section of questions to be clear on what you want to do, then Google your way to answers on the second one.

Second, will people want to use what I want to build to fulfill this gap I’ve found?

This is probably the hardest thing to answer because you will always be biased towards your own ideas. Of course people will use it, I really need something like this!

I’m fighting the urge to call this the most important step, partly because it’s easy to overlook or gloss over and partly because it’s hard to fix once to fix the problem once you’ve realized that it’s what you made that is failing to perform. But I won’t call it the most important step because then you might just ignore the others.

The only real way to solve this problem is get in contact with people who might be using it. Talk to 5 – 10 people in the target audience (re: the people you would expect to use this site) that you want to appeal to. Spend some time coming up with a survey and ask people. Friends, family, doesn’t matter who as long as they are the type of people that would be using this site.

A few sample questions:

  • “Do you currently use a tool or website that does _____?”
  • “What do you like about this tool? Dislike? What would you change?”
  • “Would you use a tool if it did _____?”
  • “How much would it take to make you stop using tool X and start using tool Y?”

Draw pictures, diagrams, schematics, comparisons… whatever it takes to communicate, clearly, your idea and get a sense of whether it would be worth it for someone to start using it. These are the preliminary baby steps towards user-testing your product once you have a working prototype.

Third, is this market-gap-filling tool that I’ve made easy enough to maintain and administer?

This is an easy step compared to the others. The purpose here is to be sure you’re building something that makes it easy for you to serve your audience. Remember that there are two sets of people using the site: the admins and the users. There will be many, many more users than admins but don’t fall into the trap of “it’s ok if my job is hard, as long as theirs is easy” because it’s going to suck later. It should suck for you instead of the users but the goal is for it not to suck at all for anyone.

The best way to go about this step is to list every possible way that you will be supporting the features you described in step 1 and step 2. You’re looking to create what are called use cases, the specific ways that admins will be using the site. Use something like FreeMind to organize your thoughts hierarchically or just start with a simple list of functions and branch out from there. Get it all down: from “must have” to “would be nice” all the way down it “I wonder if it’s possible to…” You’re looking for all the ways to make your life easy creating the stuff that people will come back over and over to use and see.

After that, get this list to whomever is building your site and walk through it item-by-item. They’ll tell you whether something is too hard to be worth it or an easy fix. If you find the right one, they’ll also help you figure out your other on- and off-line processes to make the whole thing work better.

Again, don’t sell yourself short on this one. Just assuming your life will be hell for a period of time while you get things figured out will only serve to stress you out and set the tone for the rest of the site (“hey, it couldn’t get much worse than this, right?“).

Recap

So, every morning when you wake up with the next big amazing internet idea, I want you to do these things, in order:

  1. Calm down
  2. Whittle your idea down to a few sentences that actually make sense
  3. Try explaining your idea using these few sentences to someone that might use it and see what they say
  4. Repeat #3 several times; listen carefully
  5. Write down everything you would need as an administrator to make this idea happen
  6. Email me

I love feedback so leave your comments, good or bad, below. Am I off my rocker? Speaking nonsense? Let me know.