This post originally appeared as an answer on Quora.Sorry for being late to the party, but thanks Sachin for getting the question on my radar. We had exactly this problem at Brontes. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to start developing a business concept. Founders need a reason to start and cool technology can be a good reason. I’m not sure it’s a great reason to raise money or commit long term to starting a company. Technology alone, not solving a clear problem, typically makes for pretty bad commercialization (think Segway). But I do think technology is an outstanding reason to spend time doing real market diligence and try to figure out if the technology can be applied to solve some real problem. If you’re lucky enough, through lots of effort, to marry the tech to a big market and real applied problem, that’s a great reason to start a company.
In terms of process, Amin Ariana above pretty much nailed what we actually did. Key steps were:
1) We talked through the technology in depth to try to analyse what could be novel and powerful about it as it was further developed. That understanding was key to whether we might have some innovation that matched well to a problem.
2) We brainstormed every problem we could imagine that the technology might be applied to and also socialized the technology to many smart people to grow the universe of potential applications. In the end we had about 35 credible ideas.
3) We did exactly the exercise Amin mentioned above. Each member of the team distributed 100 points based on his conviction of highest likelihood of success. This was key in narrowing the playing field. It’s impossible to do customer development on 35 opportunities even at the highest level. I do think instincts are a powerful filter (although you’ll see below that it can backfire). We used that to narrow down to the 3 highest probability areas.
4) We did tons of customer interviews within the 3 areas to start getting into depth on what might work. In the meantime, we kept an eye out for insights on the other potential applications.
5) We narrowed down to one application that looked very promising and went way deeper. We traveled to lots of trade shows (great place to learn if doing B2B) and talked to over 50 customers.
6) We hit a wall and realised our top application, industrial inspection, was not a good opportunity for us. In the depths of depression we realised that #5 on our original list, dentistry, might have some real opportunity for us. This only happened because we had kept our eyes and ears open while digging deep on our 3 original targets.
7) We dipped our toe in researching the dental application and liked what we learned. We then went really deep and got more and more excited.
8) When you’ve talked to lots of customers and industry experts and start to feel like you’re gaining a clear point of view and reasonably deep knowledge of the opportunity, you’re probably getting where you need to go. Some majority of customers should be falling all over themselves to work with you and treat the potential product as the “cure to cancer” in their business. If not, it may just not be that important a product. Perhaps a “nice to have,” but not a “need to have.”
One warning – it’s very popular for founders to quote Henry Ford when he said something like “if I had asked what people wanted before creating the Model A, they would have asked for a faster horse” as an argument that your customers will mislead you and customer research is not useful – just build product and get feedback. I do not subscribe to this viewpoint. Obviously, taken at face value without deeper questions customers can mislead and often cannot envision the product. The answer is not to look for your customers to create the product, but to really understand their problems and propose potential impactful alternatives. I’m sure if Mr. Ford said to a customer “how would you like something like a horse, but it can go way faster, doesn’t need to feed, and doesn’t need to rest,” he would have received some very positive feedback.
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