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Want to Test Your Business Idea Without Spending Much Money? Use the "Mousetrap" Model Instead of building products and then learning who wants them, you can test demand before really investing your time and energy.

By Paul Cheek

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There is a common misconception that entrepreneurs should build products and then sell them, but there is a different order of operations that can increase odds of success.

In this article, you will learn to:

  • Build a mousetrap to rapidly test value propositions with your target end users out in the real-world
  • Identify the most appropriate advertising platform, set a budget, and plan a digital advertising campaign targeting end users with your value proposition
  • Develop an understanding of the metrics that matter when running early advertising experiments
  • Turn those who responded to your ads into a list of individuals who are interested in your quantified value proposition - who might be your first customers!

Your Overall Marketing Strategy

Your business will employ a variety of marketing approaches over the course of time and will require a comprehensive well-rounded marketing strategy. This tactic looks specifically at how you can leverage online advertising at the earliest stages. Why? Because online advertising platforms provide you with the most control regarding input data such as who you would like to target and when compared to other means of marketing when you do not yet have customers or are looking to experiment with new customer segments. Not to mention that online advertising is also relatively inexpensive and allows you to run micro-experiments with small ad buys.

Because you can set very specific parameters for who will see your online advertisement, you have more control using these platforms than with any other medium. Unlike a billboard — where a broad audience sees the advertisement and the only targeting parameter is location — online advertising gives you control over exactly who will see your ad. This control saves you money by only reaching those people in your beachhead market and saves time by only generating leads from that limited pool of prospects.

Online advertising also provides you with data on current and previous campaigns to inform future decisions, including further refining your messaging and visuals. Lastly, online advertising provides you with the ability to make rapid changes and run quick experiments to test new hypotheses.

While extremely helpful for an early-stage startup or a business looking to expand with new products or market segments, in the long term you'll need a holistic marketing strategy to optimize the cost of customer acquisition. And online advertising may not be the best for you - that's up to you to decide. Your business is unique so while you may choose to employ a different advertising medium initially remember that you need the same level of control to target exclusively those in your beachhead market. Keep in mind also that while you might be focused on direct, outbound sales to get your first customers, every business needs some marketing as well to bring in new leads and build a scalable, repeatable sales process.

How to Use the "Mousetrap" Model

"Mousetraps" are a way to determine whether your prospective end users are enticed by your value proposition before ever building the product. You provide the "bait" (i.e. messaging and imagery around your quantified value proposition) and see whether people take the bait and get ensnared in the trap, which in this case is simply adding their name and email to a waiting list, subscribing to a newsletter, registering for a live demo, or even preordering. Much like you might try out different foods for bait to catch a pesky mouse (a little cheese one day, some peanut butter the next), your mousetraps can test how your value proposition and messaging perform as bait for potential customers.

Luckily building these landing page moustraps is quite easy and cheap. You really don't want much at all on these pages; the more that's on there the less certainty you'll have regarding which element turned prospects off or compelled them to sign up for your mailing list.

These landing pages usually just need one image that evokes the persona, the problem, or the solution to draw in the target audience, along with a headline and just a few lines of text. Resist the temptations to get creative with catchy taglines or spout off a laundry list of features and functionality, particularly if you haven't built any of them yet.

Once you've built a mousetrap, setting it involves running an ad on a digital advertising platform targeting your ideal user or buyer persona. The advertisement should have the same or similar visuals and messaging as the mousetrap with a link to the landing page.

After the ad is run, you can determine end user interest based on the number of click-throughs from the ad and then, subsequently, how many provided their information via the landing page form. This data offers an indication as to whether the target end user actually desires the quantified value proposition.

Because it's such an easy lift to create these mousetrap landing pages, it might make sense to create multiple versions of your landing pages and ads that tweak the messaging with different potential quantified value propositions to optimize your ultimate go-to-market approach. Emphasizing different parts of the value proposition, using different phrasing and terminology, or even just rearranging the order of selling points on the page enables you to compare results between multiple mousetraps to identify which particular combination of messaging and end user targeting works best. Now when you start committing larger dollars to lead generation, the team will have more confidence that the venture is putting its best foot forward.

This is part of 15 tactics I detail in the newly released book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: Startup Tactics, drawn from lessons I teach at MIT.

This article was excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Disciplined Entrepreneurship Startup Tactics by Paul Cheek. Copyright © 2024 by Paul Cheek. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

Paul Cheek is a serial tech entrepreneur, entrepreneurship educator, software engineer, author, and patented inventor. He is the Executive Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship: Startup Tactics.

Paul was MIT’s first Hacker in Residence and has since taught, mentored, and advised thousands of entrepreneurs around the world. Paul was named to Forbes 30 Under 30, the definitive list of young people changing the world. Paul is a co-founder of Oceanworks, a for-profit company with a mission to end plastic pollution and previously co-founded Work Today, a venture-backed digital staffing and recruiting company. Paul advises startups and both speaks and consults with Fortune 500 companies and universities globally to advance entrepreneurship.

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