I’m going to let you in on a secret: I didn’t know anything about starting a business when I started one. I just decided that it was something that I wanted to do, so I did it.
That didn’t mean it was good for people. That didn’t mean people wanted it. That didn’t mean anybody would buy it. It just meant that I was going to tell people that I did it.
As I look back on the experience of starting a business, there’s something I would advise anybody to do before launching:
Give your product or service away for free.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but here’s why I think it's key:
1. It helps you understand the problem you’re solving
When you first had the idea to start your business, you probably imagined a ton of genius and clever solutions to a problem. But there’s one issue: You might not fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve. And how would you? You probably can’t afford high-end research and you probably don’t have access to perfectly-curated focus groups.
So you give your product away in exchange for feedback.
You let people test the product and you listen to what they tell you about it. Let them tell you about their problems and how your product or service is (or isn’t) a good solution for what they need. Then, imagine new and better ways to serve their needs and adjust your prototype in the process.
2. It's not just you talking about the product
Giving away your product or service for free gives you a pool of people you can use for testimonies, references or referral sources. And I can tell you from experience: This is very important.
When was the last time you bought something without getting any outsider opinions? We all glance over Amazon reviews before buying... well anything. We pull up the Yelp app when we're trying to figure out where to eat. And we ask our friends about their experience with the products or services they use. We live in an age where positive reviews are vital for your business.
3. Move from dream zone to work zone
It’s fun to dream about business ideas, but there’s real work attached. And moving from dream to work is hard. And the hard part isn’t just starting, it’s the daily rhythm of maintenance. When you decide to give the product away for free to a group of people testing the product for you, you not only move from dreamer to do-er, you’ll get a taste of what running this business will feel like.
You might discover you need to add a person to your team, or that it’s going to take more hours than you thought. There’s opportunity to acknowledge: Does the work energize me the same way as the idea did? And sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t.
Build your prototype, structure your service, and start giving it away for free until you feel like you've gathered the feedback, fans, and day-to-day experience you need to run it well when you have paying customers.