October 16, 2012
Before he started Casual Corp, Thor Ernstsson was a lead architect at Zynga and the CTO at a health startup called Audax Health. Though farm-building games and medical records may have little in common, both companies faced the same problem: getting people to care.
With that in mind, Ernstsson launched Casual Corp to boil down the solution and share it with other startups. They would work with entrepreneurs, help them validate their ideas with real customers, then send them off into the world to build a company – or declare it a no-go. He and his team of 11 play to their expertise, focusing on products that are casual, personalized, and social.
“We’re taking the understanding of those mechanics and applying it to other products,” explains Ernstsson. And sometimes that assistance comes with a small investment. It’s a concept like Science Inc., run by former MySpace CEO Michael Jones.
Casual Corp has worked on products like Momental, which captures your crazy moments in New York City, and Mogo, which helps you coordinate plans with friends. They devote a few weeks to each idea, trying to figure out whether it can grow into a viable business. The first idea that made the cut is Giftorious, which helps you send casual gifts to friends.
To validate an idea, Ernstsson and his team start with Version 0 of the product – basically, enough to engage the interest of a small group of target users. At this stage and later stages, the team has to define who the exact users are – “everyone” is not a valid answer – what value they’re getting, and what the product actually is. Then, they go look for feedback by doing some online marketing, maybe asking for sign-ups, or talking to customers. The ultimate stamp of approval for an idea is money, money, money – customers willing to write a check.
This approach is different from many startup stories, which go something like this: raise money, then build a team, then figure out if your idea’s actually worth it.
“They’ve spent most of their seed money, they’ve spent 9 months. So the window of opportunity may have closed, they may run out of money … and they still don’t know if their original product is something that’s viable or not,” says Ernstsson.
If you want to avoid a similar fate, consider joining Casual Corp’s fellowship program, where you can experiment with an idea and see if it picks up momentum. (To inquire, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
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