As a person in technology, how many times have you had someone tell you that they have a great idea for a new app? Okay, it isn’t always an app. Sometimes it is a web platform, a new idea for using ML/AI or a new hardware device. It can pretty much be anything that is based on an idea that relies on technology to solve a problem.

I have had a number of those conversations over time. A conversation that centers around a great idea for a mobile app speaks more to our aspirations to build something that can turn into quick money. It is almost like buying lottery tickets. You have this “feeling” in your gut that this might be the time. You start thinking about what you are going to do with all the money if you win or if your app gets 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 users.

App ideas are a business plan in disguise

Don’t get me wrong, I have had those same thoughts. Having a great idea for an app is the starting point for a conversation to turn the app idea into a plan for a business.

I have learned not to judge the potential of an app, a web platform, or any “next big thing”. I don’t go into those conversations trying to determine if it is going to be big or be a flop. The last thing I want to do is play devil’s advocate as a way of convincing them that they should change their dream or their passion for solving the problem they were willing to share.

The trick is to recognize the opportunity to transition from a discussion that focuses on all the features the app will have to a discussion of the business, that is yet undefined, that the app conversation is currently masking.

More times than not, by the time we have talked through a few angles of what they are looking to do, we can identify a way to advance their business idea without having to wait to build all the features of the app. Sometimes you can even advance the business idea without starting with the app at all.

Yes, now it is a business idea, not just an app idea. They start to see that the app was just a way to codify what they were excited about. Their true passion to solve a problem for people can often be masked by their approach to talking about it, which is initially by framing it up as an app.

There are a few steps I always take with someone who presents a great idea for an app. These steps are what turn an app idea into a plan for a business.

Describe the business you are looking to build

My starting point is to help that person dig a little deeper into defining the business that they will build with the support of the app. The key to this thought process is to focus on the business they are thinking of building, not the app that started the dream that they were passionately willing to share with me.

The approach is to help them channel their excitement for the app and to redirect that excitement into a path to help them understand how they can turn their idea for an app into a business.

This is the time to introduce questions that tease out the details about the business that are being hidden by the conversation about the app.

  1. What problem are you solving?
  2. Who has the problem? (more about this later)
  3. Have you seen other businesses doing something similar?
  4. What makes your approach stick out compared to the current solutions?
  5. Who will you charge for the use of your service/product?

These questions should not be delivered prescriptively. This isn’t meant to be a test. The approach needs to be built on your true curiosity to understand what they are trying to do and in so doing you will help them better define their idea. Most of the time they have been talking in broad-stroke generalities about their idea and haven’t had the sounding-board that enables them to hone their idea.

This approach never fails to get a positive reaction from the person as they realize the specific form their idea is taking. Before, the app was their way of coalescing their idea into a form. Now that you have applied your curiosity and some structured questioning you have given them a new way to understand their idea more clearly.

Build that picture in a Lean Business Canvas

The goal of brainstorming about the business is to get them thinking broadly about their idea. After we have spent some time whiteboarding their thoughts about the business, I will introduce the process of building a Lean Business Canvas. The Lean Business Canvas structure is a much easier way to define an initial business plan. Instead of 15-30 pages of words and graphs, you have a one page, 9-cell layout that captures the aspects of how the business will be structured to start growing.

When done correctly and iteratively, you can create your first draft of a Lean Business Canvas in about 20 minutes. The information you use will be from the brainstorming and whiteboarding session that was just completed. Sometimes you might even create two or three canvases to capture the breadth of ideas without cluttering one canvas with too many options.

The hardest part of the Lean Business Canvas process is to get them to limit their initial client base to a group that is highly refined to the point that it feels too limited.

Refine your addressable market

No, I mean really refine it. Think tiny. If you are thinking your market is 18-23-year-old vocational or college students who will need help planning how to transition from school to a career, you are thinking way to broadly.

Instead of focusing on your generic definition of the potential market, think about a person you can call and talk to that you think would want your product or service. If you can’t figure out who to contact or how to contact them, then how would you expect to market to them when your business is up and running?

When you get to this point, you realize that you aren’t looking to sell to 18-23-year-old vocational/college graduates transitioning to their first career. Instead, you are looking to sell to 18-23-year-olds from HighPower Community College that will graduate with an Electrical Associates Degree and will need to relocate as they transition to their first career.

Test Your Business Idea with Real People

It may seem too simple, but by thinking about a specific person (future customer?) to contact you will have taken a real step to determine how to truly describe your customer. You can now ask yourself, why this person? Do they feel the pain of the problem I am looking to solve with my business?

Maybe the student doesn’t realize the problem you are looking to solve is even a problem for them. Maybe the people that will understand the difficulties of relocating during the transition from student-to-career is the career placement staff at the school. When I get to this point in defining my customer, I know I can find that person’s name at a specific school and call them and talk to them about my idea.

Let us know what your cool app idea is! — Twisted Pair Labs