After 20 years as an entrepreneur, believe me when I say that you don’t know when an idea is worth pursuing. The operative word there is you.
The people who know whether an idea is worth pursuing are your customers, or prospective customers, and the proof of concept is in soliciting their advice to ensure that you’re a) actually solving a problem and b) that the problem you’re aiming to solve is worthy of a solution. Entrepreneurs have a tendency to fall in loveL with their ideas and refuse to hear what the market tells them. This isn’t an indictment of the entrepreneurial mindset – it’s just reality. I’ve seen too many entrepreneurs go down with a sinking ship (their ideas) by ignoring customer requests in order to focus on “solving the problem the customer doesn’t know they have.” What they’re really doing is “solving a problem that no one has.” And that doesn’t help anyone.
People say that if Henry Ford had listened to customers he would have built a faster horse and buggy. They also quote Steve Jobs’ contempt for customer research as an excuse to ignore customer feedback. In reality, both examples are taken wildly out of context. Neither Ford nor Jobs ignored their customers – quite the opposite. In fact, it’s because these two entrepreneurs were such great students of their customers that they were able to manifest clever evolutions within well-established product categories.
In the case of my own company, Bullhorn, “a business idea worth pursuing” didn’t appear in the flash of a pan. In reality, it took several years of studying the staffing industry and speaking with our staffing agency customers to understand their real business challenges. We then customized and pivoted our product from a freelance marketplace for hiring creative talent – a cool concept that was slightly ahead of its time and therefore wasn’t gaining traction – to becoming a SaaS-based applicant tracking system and CRM that comprised the technology backbone of a recruiting agency’s operations. And once we had a viable product on which to base our product development and sales outreach, it still took another several years of refining the system to address the needs of our customers, which required daily dialogues with them. I was a cook sitting on the phone taking custom orders and tweaking spice levels by the hour – not some fancy chef conjuring up elite creations and wowing a room full of captive diners. That’s not how software development works. It’s not how startups work. And it’s not how companies succeed.
All in all, it took four years of constant learning, iteration, and customer feedback until the Bullhorn ATS/CRM product was widely adopted within the market and truly outpaced all the incumbent competition. Our success wasn’t derived from inventing an entirely new product category – in fact, the vast majority of never-before-seen technologies don’t succeed because the market isn’t ready for them yet. Additionally, our success didn’t come from a huge marketing splash or insanely creative song-and-dance routines. It was much less glamorous, much less celebrated, and frankly, much more stable.
The short answer to the question of whether or not a business idea is worth pursuing is that you don’t know, and you won’t know until you seek objective counsel from the people the idea is designed to impact. You have to spend time with customers and be willing to actually listen to them, even if it means the process of going to market is slower than you’d like. And you need to be humble about your own judgment as far as transforming other people’s lives. Smart people think up cool inventions every single day. The ones that take off are the ones that people want to buy and use.
At the end of the day, it’s not up to you. It’s up to them.