When to Kill Your Startup Idea

by | Product

When to Kill Your Startup Idea

We all know the story about an idea that someone stuck with for a long time, in its original form, until it eventually worked out. In my experience, however, that’s typically the exception to the rule.

When you come up with your big idea, it’s essential to consider it to be the first iteration of the product – and recognize that you have a bumpy road ahead, even with the best of ideas in the best of circumstances. As you work toward launching a product, you’ll need to recognize the early signals for how to either improve or “kill” your idea. 

Quick iteration is essential for startups. You need to validate the product’s first draft quickly so you can move on to the next steps. Validate it by putting your idea in front of potential customers by building some form of an initial prototype.

There are certain things you need to look out for when you start trying to validate ideas to figure out whether you should kill them or keep going.

Step 1: Talk to People

The first step should always be talking to the people for whom your idea is solving a problem. The goal of the conversations is not to simply affirm that your idea is good but to understand the issues they are facing. 

You don’t want to begin by only asking about the problem your idea solves, because it can magnify it and make it seem like the biggest or one of the biggest problems they face. You need to find the position of your idea in their overall problem stack. 

In order to iterate successfully, you need a clear picture of the problems faced by your target group and how big they are. 

Keep in mind when you are having these discussions that people are busy and are dealing with one or more challenges at any given time. What you’re trying to learn through this exercise is where your problem ranks on their priority list. If it’s significantly lower than others, that’s a strong signal to kill your startup idea at stage zero. 

Your early discovery conversations should reveal if a solution to their problem is a “nice-to-have” or “must-have.” If people give you better solutions to the problem than the ones you’ve presented, listen and improve upon your idea.

On the other hand, if people give you solutions that aren’t ideal but are something they would keep using, you might have a problem, especially if you get this feedback from multiple conversations. That response tells you there’s not enough pain for them to switch from their current solution and use what you’re building. In this case, you won’t be successful trying to force your new solution on them.

If you’re able to get people excited about the idea and your approach to solving the problem, then you’re getting closer to the stage where you’re ready to start building.

Step 2: Market Research

The next step is to start researching market size. If the market size is small and there’s no clear path to market size expansion, you should probably kill the idea. Small market size isn’t necessarily a red flag, but you need to see that the market will expand. 

Another important element of market research is engaging with your customers. If within the first 90 days of your idea you’re not getting deeper insights or engagement that inspires emotion from your customers, you should think about killing the idea. 

If you’re also not surprised by your customers’ insights after talking to them repeatedly, that’s a problem. This means you’re not getting any new knowledge about the market, its problems, how people solve them, and what they face – a sign of customer apathy.

If your customers are indifferent to what you’ve built, you should probably kill the idea.

At this stage, you want three things:

  1. Large market opportunity
  2. A clear path to revenue expansion
  3. An idea that generates feedback and addresses the true pain of your customers

If you don’t have all of these, you should be intentional about killing your ideas as close to draft 0.0 as possible. The more resources you put into building your product (even just time researching), the harder it is to sunset it.

No matter how brilliant you think your idea is – if you can’t generate any emotion or insights around it – the best thing you can do for yourself is to end the journey.

A hard thing to grapple with is that the most brilliant thing you can do may be to kill your startup idea mercifully. Keeping a bad idea alive is a waste of energy and resources that never ends well.

Step 3: Create Rituals Around Ideation

It’s easy to get disheartened by the process of validating, iterating, and retiring ideas, but it’s an essential part of the entrepreneurial process. Killing an idea also doesn’t have to be permanent. You shouldn’t rule out resurrecting an idea in a different form later if market, social, or regulatory conditions change and it suddenly makes sense.

It can be helpful to create a ritual around revisiting your ideas. Write them down, review the list periodically, bounce them off of other people–and you may be surprised at what you find.

The same idea in a different context or from a different perspective can become a very, very valuable idea.

For instance, you may be looking at an idea from a convenience standpoint, but someone else might see it from a risk mitigation standpoint. If you build it as a risk mitigation solution, there could potentially be market traction for you. The market and economic landscape also change constantly. What wasn’t a problem six months ago may be one now. 

The End in Mind

Most idea owners don’t start the product creation process with the end of their idea’s journey in mind. We’re generally optimistic creatures, but it’s wise to keep the end in mind when entering the idea validation process.

In the long run, you will have more successful ideas if you know the signals to move on. As the Eagles once famously sang, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”