Use the Broken-Promise Strategy to validate your startup

When Mike Chen responded to his friend’s email, he had no idea it was about to change his life, and really mess up his week.

Mike loves side projects and keeps about three ideas going at a time. Some were half-baked prototypes, others just a landing page with a headline and an email input. Whenever he got excited about one idea, Mike sent out an email to a group of friends. This time, he sent out a link to a landing page for a site called Magic. His idea? What if there was an Uber-for-everything site where you could chat with someone and the thing you needed would just come to you? The landing page took an hour to build – it listed a phone number to text and a few examples of what to say. Things like “Get me a vase of flowers” or “Send a case of beer to my house” – that’s it. Without any tech or infrastructure, the idea was strong enough to prompt this response from one of his friends: “this is cool, mind if I send the page to a few friends?”

Mike said yes. Within 36 hours, his landing page leaked to the front page of HackerNews and Product Hunt. He scrambled to recruit friends and even his girlfriend to start answering the flood of incoming texts. In the next week, he’d gone from 30 users to thousands.

The lesson? Some ideas are just ready to grow. Mike didn’t discover a mythical marketing strategy or read 11 articles on growth hacking. He tested out ideas until he found the one that was ready to take off. It’s the marketing secret few want to hear: it’s only hard if your idea or product isn’t loved.

First-time founders usually push too hard with their first idea. They watch one Gary Vaynerchuck video, and in the spirit of “hustling”, force the first wave of users. They growth hack and market their way to 100 users, and then try to double down when growth stalls. In some ways, zero users is better than 100 if your idea isn’t the right one.

Growth isn’t always a good thing. For wantrepreneurs, the first sign of growth is an indicator to go full-speed ahead on a project. But when they falsely project that initial bump will lead to thousands of users pouring in, it can lead to making a stupid decision, like quitting full-time jobs or emailing VCs. But YC founder Sam Altman’s advice is solid, even for bootstrapped startups: the quality of growth is not the number of signups, but how deeply those first users connect with your product.

“If your product isn’t loved, you might get early users, but growth will get hard later on. You’ll have to rely on inorganic means like ads, marketing, or PR to maintain your growth, and this gets very hard to sustain.”SAM ALTMAN

The most famous examples? Facebook and Airbnb. Facebook took off from day one. People loved the idea. Airbnb had to relaunch 3 times, and in the first 1000 days, users were skeptical of the idea and didn’t love the product. The team had to figure out 1) how to stay afloat while building something people loved and 2) how to build something people loved. Even with users still skeptical about the idea, they built a web application users loved. And from there, word spread and the business succeeded.

A central tenant of validation: do you have an idea or product that people love? You only need one or the other. And since most of us don’t have 1000 days to figure out how to build something people love, here’s a shortcut: use a technique like Mike Chen’s called the Broken Promise Strategy to figure out which of your startup ideas is going to be the easiest to grow. It’s pretty simple:

  1. Send out a few early landing pages/code-free MVPs to a group of 10-15 people
  2. Ask them not to share with anyone
  3. Track email signups
  4. See which or any of the pages gets signups outside of the group you sent it to (broken promise = formula for growth)

It’s not exactly scientific, but people can’t help themselves when they come across an idea or product they love. If the first thing that pops into their head is “oh man, George would love this” then they will automatically send it to George. And if you can measure that broken promise, your idea is ready to grow.

While I usually favor the principles and human behavior behind strategies, this one requires paying attention to tactics. Here’s how I executed this strategy to build a six-figure education business last year:

The idea: I knew I wanted to build an education-themed website, so I created a landing page with four different course ideas. Each course idea had an email capture area to sign up. I sent out the early page to a few of my friends. Here’s where human nature got to me: I actually started working on one of the courses that I thought would take off. It was about online learning, and it was a hot topic considering that year MOOCs like Coursera were getting a bad rap with falling completion rates. I had the problem solved in my head and started working toward a solution. This is the clear danger of confirmation bias in the startup world: if we read an article that confirms our existing theory, our heart rate rises and we’re ready for the idea.

Measuring Depth of Early Useage: While I set out building the content for that course, I ignored the email signups to another course, “Don’t Learn to Code”, as they started to trickle in. Only when I looked back later did I realize that one of the friends I shared it with put the course page in a Facebook group. Broken promise = growth indicator.

This is why looking at depth and quality of sharing is so important. When you are just starting out, favor human behavior over metrics. By looking at numbers related to market size and opportunity, I clouded my judgement and ignored the very real sharing happening around my other idea. It took about 3 months and some wasted effort to realized my mistake, but it was worth it. By the time I was ready to launch my “Don’t Learn to Code” course, it had morphed into the Code-Free Startup. With the exact same launch sequence I’d used 4 months prior testing the prior idea, I got 600 more upvotes on Product Hunt when I launched this one, which translated to over a thousand users in a day.

When you decide you want to start a company, don’t start a company. Start building projects, start sharing ideas, and keep the language informal. I’ve talked before about how labels affect startup failure rates, and this also applies to the labels around growth. The worst thing you can do is start a company and try to grow it. Focus instead on the “before” – before a company is a project, before growth is measuring depth of connection with users. As Paul Graham pointed out, a successful company is rarely the result of a brilliant idea executed, but the idea is different enough to evolve into something people love.

The danger is that promising ideas are not merely blurry versions of great ones. They’re often different in kind, because the early adopters you evolve the idea upon have different needs from the rest of the market. For example, the idea that evolves into Facebook isn’t merely a subset of Facebook; the idea that evolves into Facebook is a site for Harvard undergrads.PAUL GRAHAM

If you’re stuck now, make a small commitment to a “before” – projects is a great place to start. One project idea a week, shipped in the form of landing page or code-free MVP. In a month, you’ll have 4 ideas to send around to a group of friends. A few weeks after that, you can measure depth of engagement and decide if any of those ideas are ready to take off. If it’s 0/4, be prepared for that as well, and repeat the process until you find the right results.

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