Which ideas will catch fire?


It was just another Friday night in 2009 and Amanda Palmer found herself all alone at home with no plans and feeling like a loser. She decided to vent her frustration on a (then) up-and-coming social media platform called Twitter, where she came up with the hashtag #LOFNOTC: “Losers Of Friday Night On Their Computers.”

At the time, Amanda had a relatively small but loyal following on Twitter because she was the lead singer of a punk cabaret music duo called The Dresden Dolls. Her fans tended to be outcasts and misfits, people who empathized with her loneliness — and eventually, their conversation turned #LOFNOTC into a trending topic.

Amanda Palmer Smoke Test

At one point, someone suggested they make a t-shirt. The user posted a sketch of what the design could look like and said they’d be available at $25 each. In less than two hours, Palmer sold over $11,000 worth of t-shirts she hadn’t even printed yet! As the saying goes, “fake it till you make it” — and now there was a sizable audience of real people who were, indeed, ready for her to make their swag.

Promoting a new product or service before it’s even built is a popular technique among entrepreneurs. It’s called the Smoke Test, or the False Door, and it helps us identify which ideas are most likely to take off and catch fire… and which ones will fall flat and burn up.

Important decisions on what to build are often made in the absence of data: Someone has an idea and runs with it. Other times, these decisions are made by searching for evidence ineffectively. Hypothetical questions like “If I made this, would you buy it?” are more likely to generate hypothetical answers, not cold hard facts that companies can rely on to determine their next moves, as entrepreneur and YCombinator alum Rob Fitzpatrick mentions in the book, The Mom Test.

In 2019, Elon Musk announced that a vehicle called the Tesla Cybertruck would be available for preorder with a $100 refundable deposit. Musk announced that over 250,000 reservations for the Cybertruck were made within a week of unveiling the vehicle. Skeptics doubted whether any Cybertrucks had even been made yet and suggested that the vehicle Musk had unveiled was just an early prototype. (Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Tesla would begin production on the Cybertruck but not until the end of 2023.)

Tesla Cybertruck

On a smaller scale, picture a restaurant doing something similar to gauge interest in a new item they’re considering adding to their menu. Similar to Musk and Palmer’s t-shirt maker, they could advertise a new “cold-pressed vegan protein shake” to their customers, among their current offerings. Whoever picked the shake would then be informed that it was currently out of stock — but the number of attempted orders would actually be the key metric to decide if it was worth developing the new drink in the first place.

Running a Smoke Test can be easy, affordable and fast. All you need is a campaign to spread the word about the product or service. It can be in the form of flyers or online ads to drive to a landing page with a call-to-action (CTA) like “learn more” or “buy now” to ensure real commitment from potential customers.

The Smoke Test can also be applied to all sorts of different fields, including B2B businesses. For example, NOBA was tasked to validate interest in a new, not-yet-built coffee machine for hybrid office setups. We developed three different concepts for the coffee machine and launched several LinkedIn campaigns targeting office managers. We even hired a team of sales reps to call offices in South Korea, Germany, the United States and France who pitched the concept to real people! It was precisely by looking at how many of these people then asked for quotes that we could understand their real level of interest.

Fundraising platforms like Kickstarter are also great channels to run these types of tests. Many of the campaigns on those websites feature not-yet-built products and services, too. However, the jury is out on whether they only plan to use the refundable pledges to gauge public interest or they’re already in the production stages.

Do you have an idea for a new product or service? Then what are you waiting for? Start evaluating your idea today with real data when you set up your own Smoke Test.

For those who were curious, this article, by the way, is definitely not just a test ;)

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