The Lean Startup Machine’s Validation Board Could Save Your Startup

Early this month, Lean Startup Machine released a free version of their validation board, a tool for startups to test their ideas before even building a product.

The validation board was honed over the course of 50 Lean Startup Machine workshops, which teach lean startup principles to entrepreneurs around the country.

“We’ve seen just tremendous demand. In my last workshop in Vancouver, people were literally fighting – ripping them off the walls,” says Adam Berk, the director of entrepreneurial science at Lean Startup Machine. “We knew then that everyone should have access to this tool.”

Here’s how to use it to figure out which startup ideas have potential, and which should go into the reject pile.

Start with hypotheses about your problem and customers. A common mistake is starting with a solution. But solutions are worthless if the problem isn’t a real problem. Time and time again, Berk has seen entrepreneurs throw solutions at the problems of waiting in line or forgetting names, only to find that they weren’t a huge issue for people.

As for your customers, choose a “segment” rather than a demographic: not travelers ages 20-30, but maybe people who travel to gain cultural understanding. That allows you to craft a specific solution for a similar group, rather than a diverse group of people who happen to be the same age or gender.

List core assumptions about the problem. For example, list why it’s a problem. If you think tourists have a problem finding local places to visit, is it because they don’t speak the language? Because other websites lead them to tourist traps? Or everything’s too expensive? Depending on the answer, the ultimate solution will be different.

Test your riskiest assumption. For example, you might riskily assume that people want to see non-tourist traps. So “get out of the building,” hit the streets, and start offering free tours. Do people get excited about your neighborhood cafe, or are they clamoring for the Coit Tower? Ask them why they’re willing to follow you around. At one Lean Startup Machine workshop, a team actually went out and collected DNA samples, defying protestations by the judges that people would keep their saliva to themselves.

The key here is not building a product yet; you’re just testing. “People really overestimate, ‘Oh, I need to build it. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to learn this without building it.’ And it’s just wrong. It’s not true,” says Berk.

Look for a “minimum success criterion.” This is the lowest possible response that will validate your assumption. For example, for the impromptu tour guide, it might be that 10 percent of people are willing and happy to take your quirky tour. Or, even better, that 10 percent of people are willing to give up something, like an email address for future updates. If your assumption is validated, test the next riskiest assumption; if it’s invalidated, your problem hypothesis is wrong, so come up with a new one. And so on.

The validation board may not be a magic bullet – it can’t come up with problems and solutions for you – but it can save you lots of wasted time and money.

In November, Lean Startup Machine is hosting a workshop in San Francisco along with the Lean Startup Conference. Get your tickets here, or view other events around the country. 

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact
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