Starting a Business

Validate Your Business Idea -- Quickly -- With These 5 Steps

Do you have a business idea? Of course you do. Why else would you be reading this article?

If you are like most aspiring entrepreneurs, however, the problem comes in the immediate stage following your "ah-ha" moment, when the idea lingers as a passing thought or a series of sticky notes in a journal until the enthusiasm passes. Then, a few months later, you see your idea on the shelf at a local retail store or in the iTunes App Store.

We have all been there.

Related: Eureka -- a New Product Idea! Now Ask These 5 Questions.

Ideas stall because the process of getting them to market can seem overwhelming. In reality, if you validate your idea -- prove it has worth beyond the bar napkin on which it is scribbled -- the process thereafter actually gets much easier.

Here are few things to consider the next time you have your next big business idea.

1. Look for it. When I hear that someone has the next big business idea, I pull out my iPhone and within minutes can often find an existing product or service with a search on Google or YouTube. Before you even get wrapped up in an idea, save yourself the time and do a thorough search to find out if it already exists.

If you find it does, do not give up on your inspiration too hastily. Perhaps there are ways to improve on the existing product? Can you offer value to the business already producing it? Could the market be satisfied better? If you answered "yes," move to the next step.

2. Seek feedback. Talk to others about your idea, especially people you trust. At this stage, what you want is brutally honest feedback. Entrepreneurs have a tendency to get stuck in "idea lock," when they are hellbent that their idea is a winner, regardless of what others say. If you are the only person who truly thinks the idea is good, then it is time to reassess.

3. Build an MVP. If your idea has support, then consider developing an MVP, or minimum viable product, to determine if it is a product you and others would really use. Channel your inner "MacGyver" and build a working prototype, or look to a resource that has the ability to leverage newer technologies, such as 3D printing, to help.

If you have a technology idea, such as a smartphone app, look to crowdsourcing or a StartupWeekend event to find the assistance you need. Once you have the MVP, use and test it and have others test it as well. If it turns out to be a product that you and your friends would never really use, scrap the idea.

4. Start building your identity. If your testing goes well and you feel that you might have a winning idea, start building a brand around it now. In today's fast moving and innovating business environment, an idea that is validated today may be knocked off or even obsolete tomorrow, so do not linger.

More importantly, unless your idea is founded in a groundbreaking and proprietary new technology, more than likely it is already being conceived by someone else already. It is off to the races.

Related: Test Your Idea With These Simple and Inexpensive Steps

At this point, some fear that "exposing" their idea may lead to someone stealing it. This is a completely valid concern, but these days, you should go on the assumption that someone will steal it or develop a newer and better iteration eventually, so the key to success will be to be first to market.

Also, while patenting is a great way to protect your idea, it is also a very expensive process that is not guaranteed to protect you. If you have the resources, engage a patent attorney and pursue the protection, but if you do not, then turn your focus on building your brand.

Start by choosing a great name and securing the website domain to create, at a minimum, a sharp business landing page. Next, secure your business name with every social-media site you can. Even if you do not use them, it protects you from others securing and using them, and it will ultimately improve your search-engine optimization. Then start leveraging these resources to build a fan base.

5. Hash a customer acquisition plan. Before you dive into a lengthy business plan, which more than likely will be obsolete before you even launch, focus on two questions:

"How do I get my first customer?"
"How do I get my n-th customer?"

You may have the best business plan in the world, but without customers, your business is nothing. Create a thoughtful customer-acquisition plan and marketing strategy and be prepared to explain it to investors, partners and stakeholders, as this will undoubtedly be the first questions they ask.

I was fortunate to recently be selected as part of the inaugural cohort in Startup.SC, a business incubator that focuses on scalable business ideas in South Carolina. All of the ideas are all in varying stages of development, but the primary criteria for the incubator was idea validation. Once validated through the steps above, it is much easier to proceed to the next steps.

Just remember, it is much easier to build a business around a demand than to build a demand around a business.

Related: 9 Entrepreneurs Reveal How They Validated Their Business Idea