Spanx Founder Sara Blakely Says This Business Idea Validation Step Can Be A Big Mistake

It's often one of the first things aspiring entrepreneurs do.

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By Nick Wolny • Nov 4, 2020

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Whether it be an inkling for a side hustle or a wildly audacious startup, it's normal to want validation and encouragement around your latest business idea. But according to Spanx founder Sara Blakely, there's one group of people from whom you shouldn't be soliciting feedback at all as you kickstart your entrepreneurial journey.

Blakely's meteoric rise to self-made billionaire CEO has come from her founding and leadership of Spanx, a textbook tale of B.Y.O.B. (That's "bootstrapping your own business," obviously). Armed with $5,000 in savings and a day job selling fax machines, the founder built a shapewear empire that now rakes in an estimated $400 million in annual revenue. She also retained 100 percent ownership along the way; in 2012, Forbes declared her the youngest woman to reach self-made billionaire status.

Before Spanx was everywhere, however, it was kept secret for nearly a year. Blakely resisted the urge to tell the people in her life about her forthcoming patent, and in retrospect says this was a smart move.

According to Blakely, many entrepreneurs who aspire to bootstrap a unicorn of their own give up before they ever really start because of one common mistake: Asking friends and family for feedback on their business idea.

Related: 6 Tips For Hearing Tough Feedback

Why we crave validation

For new entrepreneurs, market validation can be one of the most complex and disorienting stages of business. In addition to challenges from the usual suspects, such as funding, manufacturing, positioning and sales, it's easy to allow your mindset to become misguided. Blakely says oversharing an idea in its infancy makes us overly weigh the feedback, opinions and validations of people who already know us and our work.

"Ego's invited into the mix. And then you end up spending all your time defending it, explaining it and not pursuing it," Blakely says in an episode of How I Built This.

Related: Is Your Ego Limiting Your Ability To Succeed?

Ego can stifle and even strangle the next fledgling multi-million dollar business idea of an aspiring entrepreneur. Consider the ample research available on why your brain tries to talk you out of your next entrepreneurial pursuit:

  • Research has found that 55 percent of people say their self-worth is often, more often or always tied to what other people think;

  • Time spent on social media likely exacerbates our desire to be liked and accepted;

  • And a study published in the Journal Of Business Venturing found that fear in new entrepreneurs, and specifically the fear of failure, is a normal experience that has seven different sources.

Mindset is critical for a successful launch, but that doesn't mean you should let the praise from loved ones in your life define and direct your business strategy.

How to properly validate your business idea

So if asking your mom or notoriously agreeable roommate to validate your business idea is off the table, what should you do instead? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Talk to prospective customers. Look to forums, groups or trusted confidantes to get authentic feedback. When possible, set up informational interviews; ask participants to describe their problems, hopes and dreams; and listen for trends in how they describe what they're looking for.

  • Iterate relentlessly. Obsess over the small details in your product. What works? What doesn't? Be positive, but also ruthlessly honest with yourself.

  • Be committed, but not attached. There's a fine line between being committed to your product's success and feeling attached to your journey playing out in a certain way. Lean toward the former to keep your fire burning bright.

Related: Why Not Being Confident Can Sometimes Be A Good Thing

Market validation can be a slippery slope for a new entrepreneur. The people you ignore when it comes to feedback and direction can be just as important as those whose advice you choose to heed. Stay focused on your product, maintain a positive attitude and you might one day stand tall as the next bootstrapped billionaire.

Nick Wolny

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Writer, Speaker, and Consultant

Named a "40 Under 40" by Houston Business Journal, Nick Wolny is the founder of Camp Wordsmith, a business and writing membership for entrepreneurs. His weekly longform newsletter on online business, "The Slide Grease," goes out on Sundays. Wolny currently resides in Los Angeles.

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