In this episode of the #GoFarFastShow, Joshua Bicknell from Validate talks all about business planning, building confidence in your idea, and Validate, the one-stop tool for imagining, testing, creating and pitching any business or start-up!
Whether you want to watch the show, read the transcript or listen to the podcast, you can access all of that right here. So grab a cuppa, and a notebook, and get ready to #GoFarFast!
Hello and welcome to our #GoFarFast Show! Our small business talk show that gets you, our amazing small business community, the answers to the burning questions you have as fast as possible.
Another brilliant episode coming up for you today guys! Don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe as you come through. Let us know what you want to know, and Aaron and I will jump to it.
Hi Aaron, how are you doing?
Brilliant, thank you Merlie! Thank you very much.
Well, the name of the show is #GoFarFast, and that’s exactly what we have for you today. We have the amazing Joshua Bicknell, who is here to tell us all about Validate; an online platform to help you plan, test, and pitch any startup or innovation idea. We’re ready to interrogate Josh and ask him all about what Validate does, and we’ll find out if you can use Validate for anything else. Then we’ll pick his brains on the benefits of having a co-founder and how to handle pressure from competition in the market.
Then Merlie, we’re going to move to the most important part of the show, which as you've already mentioned, is the community questions! Let me tell you Merlie, the community have gone and delivered today. You guys have asked some amazing questions as always, and we have stories to match the questions as well. No spoilers for this one, but it's definitely something that you do not want to miss. Remember this show is all about your questions, so make sure you follow Farillio’s social channels to get your questions read live on air. Right Merlie, let's fight the fight and #LeaveNoSmallBusinessBehind, how does this all work?
It's fantastic, I think you've stolen every word that I wanted to tell the audience, Aaron! We're going to interrogate Joshua Bicknell. I love this tool guys, this is something that we discovered, and we want you all to know about it, so Joshua is going to give you all the details. Aaron and I will ask him a few questions about Validate. As Aaron said, we're going to ask him how it works, how he set it up, what he's doing with it, and what the future holds. Then we're going to get straight into the important section, which is what can you do with it, and how can it solve your burning questions of today.
Drumroll Aaron... Shall we drag Joshua onto the show and start the interrogation?
Joshua, go on then, the stage is all yours. Tell us all about Validate and what it does.
Thanks for having me and for interrogating me so early in the morning, I'm looking forward to this!
You covered a lot of it already but think of Validate as a one stop shop to imagine, test, create, and pitch any business idea or startup. We’ve basically gone out and read all the books and watched all the videos. We looked at all the content around how to run great businesses and how to innovate. We’ve tried to put it all into one simple step-by-step, interactive journey, to make it as easy for you as possible, so that you can focus on the things that really add value and not worry about all the rest.
I think this tool is so powerful and I really like it. Josh, as you say, you can use it for project planning and you don't have to be starting up a business to use this tool. It takes users on a journey to create something out of the idea that they’ve got. This is about bringing the dream to life and getting it down in an easy and quite inspiring way on paper, and then being able to take it further and test it. It's a soup to nuts solution and that's what I really like.
I wanted to talk to you, Joshua, about universities because this is where you guys started out. You were working with university business students and entrepreneurial students to bring Validate to life, and to really solve quite a big pain point for those students. What was the experience of working with universities like? I know that a lot of startups would love to work with universities, how did you find it?
Validate is our second business with my co-founder, Doug, who we’ll talk a little bit about later. In our original business, which we’re still running, we’d worked with thousands of entrepreneurs around the world delivering entrepreneurship programmes from Kenya to Philippines to Chile. As a part of that we were asked by a few universities to come in and run some startup courses for them, so we ran some sessions at places like Birkbeck and LSE – people really loved the content. We realised that there's probably a market here, there's probably a need for students to get access to really good quality entrepreneurship education. Obviously, there's only one of me and one of Doug, so we thought that maybe we could put this online and create a solution to that.
Universities, for a startup, I think can be a difficult market to work with. They are all different and they have different priorities. With any big institution that you're trying to work with there are lots of different decision makers. A decision we took early on was to partner with an organisation in the UK, called SimVenture (https://simventure.com/) to distribute our product to universities. They already had a fantastic network and were doing something similar. They had all the contacts and the way into these different institutions, so for us that was a fantastic way to get into the market. It saved us a lot of time and allowed us to focus on the things that we wanted to do, which was building Validate and trying to make it as good as possible.
That’s excellent. I think the whole idea of moving directly and focusing on universities is really a good stepping stone, wasn’t it? If you think about what you're offering, it's going to really relate to the students and it's going to give them the tools they need to start making their university choice. Whatever course they've gone for, it's going to be something that's worthwhile to them and you’re going to give them those tools. I think that's brilliant, and I think that's a great attribute to it. Just moving away from the university side of things and the tool itself, can you use Validate for any other planning activities too? I'm thinking about things like business planning projects or testing out a pivot. There have been loads of us transforming and changing our businesses recently, can Validate help there too?
Yes definitely. I think the thing about the startup process is that it's very similar to innovating within a business. Whether you're starting something from scratch, or you've already got something that exists, you have to come up with the new idea and then there are going to be a lot of ways that you can develop and launch that idea. You need to think about it and plan those different ways that it could really come to life. Once you’ve got those different plans and ideas, the next step is to think ‘what are my biggest assumptions here’? Are people really going to want this? Am I targeting the right group? So, for any startup or innovation idea, the next stage is to get out there. We call it testing, but really, it's getting it in front of customers and learning as quickly and as cheaply as possible whether what you've got is right.
In most cases you don't get it right the first time, which is totally normal and it's what's expected. Then you go through that cycle of iterating and developing. Finally, on Validate, you have a portfolio which you can see as a pitch or an interactive business plan, which is something to present. In a startup, you might be presenting that to get investment, to a bank, to a co-founder, or to customers and I think it's the same in any company. You might be trying to get investment from the board, you could be trying to sell it to your co-founders, or again it could be to your customers. You've always got to try and present and win people over to this new idea. We haven't created Validate for university students, that was the first group that he went after, but we wanted to try to create a platform that works for any entrepreneur anywhere in the world. It creates a simple process for them to follow and to make it as easy and as quick as possible to get an idea that works and hopefully is successful.
I think that's where the magic of this tool lies as well doesn't it, Aaron? If you think about how long it can take to get something from ideation into a plan and then to create a road map to that plan, including actionable points that you can take. Josh, I think one of the things you just said there is that it's all very well to have a plan, but you've got to test it and you've got to know how it's going to behave in the wild. You've got to be able to take confidence from what you learn in that test phase and from talking to your customers and then be able to promote that to others, whether that's customers, investors, or the people you want to recruit. It sounds so simple when you look at this in business books; this is the process you go through and there is a formula, but there is so much bound up in the thinking of that, in the testing of that, and in the emotion of that. How do I feel if I’ve put something down and I don't think it's quite right? This is what I really love about your tool, it takes a lot of the angst and lot of the process – people pay thousands of pounds to be supported through this process – and your tool effectively guides people very gently through to an end proposition that they can have real confidence in. I think this is quite unique, I've not seen anything like it and certainly we're starting to use it with people that we support too. Being part of the Birkbeck community I know how well it's valued by them too. It really does take a lot of that early-stage angst out of the project or a new business idea, and it just gets you concretely on the ground. I think it's very impressive what you’ve built.
Of course, it's not just what you've built, you do have a co-founder don't you? We mentioned Doug earlier, how have you found the experience of having a co-founder? Do you think it was essential for you guys to get to market? Has it helped you?
I think the bit of entrepreneurship that people often overlook is the emotional side of it. You're creating a business, but really that business is you. You're putting your life and your soul into it. It's very hard when someone critiques an idea not to take that personally, because you created it. I can't imagine going on this journey without a co-founder. Having said that, I think you need to pick the right person. My wife was saying that, probably over the last eight years, I've seen Doug more than I've seen her. You're spending probably 10 hours talking and working together for five days a week. You need to make sure you have that balance there. It doesn't need to be two, it could be three people. It's not to say that you can't do this by yourself, I just think it's important to have someone in your life that you can really share this journey with – all the highs and the inevitable lows. There's so much going on in your mind and in your brain, so just having someone that you can talk things through and get to the point with, has been incredibly valuable.
Yes, I think that's important advice isn't it, especially talking about the benefits of having that extra co-founder and that extra person to bounce ideas off. Like you said, highs and lows, and being able to go through those bits for you. I think putting it out there and explaining how you've benefited from it is going to be beneficial to people. I think also with that, because there's two of you, you get the chance to be less than 100% focused on the business. Sometimes you find with new startups that they’re so focused on what they're building, they don't get the chance to look outside of that box and at what else is going on.
From a competition point of view, when you were deciding to build Validate, did you have any competitors, and did you worry about them? If you did have any, did you have to make any changes over time or adapt? Can you give us some insight into competitors and how they fit with you, and how you've had to deal with them over time?
I think the thing about competition, is that some competition is good. It shows that there's a problem there and that people are trying to solve it. There are some ideas in the world that are so breakthrough that maybe there are no competitors, but I think generally if there's no one doing this it's probably something to look carefully at and think ‘is there a market for this’?
I think the second thing is that people often think about competition very narrowly. They just think about who else is paying money for this solution, but really, they should be thinking about it much more broadly and thinking about how people are currently solving this problem? That is the competition. How do people spend their time and their money right now – that’s what you're trying to shift.
In terms of startup entrepreneurship there's loads of competition. We're competing with YouTube, books, blogs, and podcasts, as well as other technology that you can get into. I think within that, you also want to try to find a niche. Very few businesses as I said are doing something totally new, so actually you're just trying to find a problem and find a piece of it that you think you can do slightly better. That's what we did, and we’ll talk a bit more about it, but a large part of Validate is a business model canvas and there were already people with digital business model canvases. For a lot of them it was just about putting Post-its on the screen, it didn't really dive deeper. We didn't feel that there was anyone helping you with that journey. Certainly, there are platforms to help you to do testing, but that wasn't combined, and we didn't think it was as simple as it could be.
I think competition is good, but I think with every startup or any innovation idea you should be thinking ‘what's the thing that I can do differently?’. Whether it's a massive thing or just a small thing that can add value and means that customers pick me over what their existing solutions are, or are at the moment.
I love that answer. Competition is good in many ways if you've got something to differentiate yourself. I think that's a point very well made. It always worries me when you hear people coming to you with pitches, and I watch a lot of people pitch these days, and they boldly stride out and say, ‘there is no competition, I'm unique’. It almost invariably undermines their credibility right from the outset. What Validate has is really differentiated and I think you're right, there's lots of advice out there about how to business plan and how to do things, but when it comes down to having to do these things and I know this from personal experience it's a very different experience. The practical side of applying the theory is, I think, where we all struggle a bit so that's where Validate neatly creeps in.
It is time, Aaron, for the community questions. Thank you guys, we're going to dive straight in now. Josh is going to wear a different hat and become our community agony aunt for some of these amazing questions. Thank you guys, as always, for the questions you have been sending in.
So, the first question Joshua, if you ready, is: How long does it take to plan a business using your tool? I've got some thoughts already, but I find the planning process overwhelming. There's so much stuff I'm not sure about and I'm not great at putting things in writing. I don’t know where to start.
I think the thing about a plan is that it's such a big word and there's very different kinds of plans. You can have a plan on a single piece of paper, and you can have a 30-page plan. I think the key in any business idea is that plan needs to be proportionate to how far along and how developed you really are. If you're at an early stage and you’ve got an idea, your plan shouldn't take more than 15 minutes, and on Validate you can do that. We use an amazing tool called the business model canvas, which I think has probably revolutionised startup entrepreneurship. Previously, startup programmes were teaching how to write a business plan, the problem is as soon as you launch it all goes out the window because none of it's true. What the business model canvas did was put that onto a single piece of paper so that you can visualise and quickly plot your idea.
I think at that first stage, on Validate, you can run through an idea. You can think about your customers, what value you’re offering, how you get to market, your operations, your finances, and you can do that in 15 or 20 minutes. That's the first stage, but then it's about going deeper. Once you got that idea, you then need to start talking to people and testing it to come up with a more developed plan. You need to think about if this is going to work and that will obviously take longer, and it depends on how long it takes you to find something that really fits. Having a final fully developed plan might take you much longer.
I think the key thing about a business plan, and where Validate comes in, is that it shouldn't just be this document that you create for your launch which then sits in a cupboard and you never look at it. It should be iterative because every week or month you're learning and you're honing your idea. I really recommend going back into Validate and updating bits of your canvas, updating your tests and your plan, so that it really relates to real life. That's what we've tried to do here. Rather than having an old-fashioned business plan which is a document, we’ve tried to create something that is alive, interactive, something that you can change and update quickly, and isn't a chore. We've written a few business plans that are probably 5 ,000 or 10,000 words long and that we've never looked at again. I think the key thing is that more words don’t translate into having more success. With Validate we've tried to pick key questions in each box of the business model canvas and focus, so that you don't write loads of words you just write the key things, and it gets you to think about the key questions that you have when starting your business.
I love that, and I love that what you've effectively done is make the journey of making a business plan bearable and manageable. I think that's the first major step isn't it, the whole fear factor of ‘Oh my God I’ve got to sit down and write all of this information – I've got to sit there and put all this stuff down’. Making it manageable and making it something that is going to be doable gives confidence to people to get their head down and get those important bits done.
I love the idea of referring to it on a more regular basis. We’ve seen through our clients that it’s something that hasn't been done to its best extent sometimes. You can see where they've slightly gone off course or they've taken their foot off the gas but, if they were more focused, they would have been able to get over those issues quicker and sooner. I love the idea and I think that's something that I can see a lot of businesses out there getting benefits from as well.
Just referring back to the community questions though, and again we've got a great question. It actually reflects back to what we were talking about before. One of the members has asked: can your tool tell me if there’s competition and what it looks like? I've tried to start two businesses before, and I thought they hadn't been done before – but both times it turned out that they had. It made me too anxious to go ahead with them. Does Validate give them any kind of incentive or look into anything like that? Can it help in this sort of situation?
I think going back to the earlier question and answer, the fact that this person has found some competitors is a good thing. You shouldn't be scared by that, as we said it shows that there's a demand and a market for this. It's thinking about what they can add here. What can they do that's a little bit special, a little bit different to create value for customers?
Unfortunately Validate can't tell you magically whether you have competitors, but what it can do is take you on a simple journey to help you find the answers to that. So, in the testing section we give you ideas for different ways that you could test, one of which is doing research. We give you tools for that, things like looking at Google trends and looking at what people are searching for example, to see what's current in the market. There are tools for doing interviews with customers, which I think would be the most powerful way of really understanding if there's competition. The best question for that is asking do people have this problem and how do they currently solve it? How they're currently solving it is exactly the competition that you need to try and work against and add more value, so that they come to you instead. I think the answer to this will always be try and talk to customers. Try to figure out who they are and just have a good conversation with them. Listen and understand: Do they have this problem? Do they have this frustration? What are they doing right now? Then think about how you can solve that better. If you can solve it better, it doesn't really matter what all the other competitors are doing because they're going to prefer your product or service and come to you.
I think that's great insight. I've been working with a business recently where they go out ask their target customers ‘what do you not like about our rivals? What do you not like about the competition? What part of the experience isn't working for you? It's been quite extraordinary what insights that they've got out of that. They're not pitching and they're not saying ‘buy our new product that's going to try and change your behaviour’. They've gone right the way back to ‘what do you not like’? ‘Is there any way that you would enjoy the experience if it was changed a bit?’. They've got some really lovely tweaks to a fairly competitive product market that they're just changing a few things in. It looks like it’s really going to be in demand, so great advice there.
Next question Josh, you’re doing well!
Once I’ve got my plan to start, how do I test it? What's your advice, Josh? How much can Validate actually help with that? - So, the testing aspects of the tool.
I think testing probably the thing that we've seen entrepreneurs struggle most with. The assumption as an entrepreneur is that ‘I've got this idea, it's great, of course people are going to love it, let's launch’. Unfortunately, customers don't do exactly what you think they're going to do, so you need to come to testing. Again, what we've done in Validate is that we've tried to take something that maybe is complicated and break it into simple steps.
So, the first thing is that in any startup or innovation idea, there's are a load of assumptions. There could be 50 or 100 assumptions like who are your customers? What are your channels to get to them? How much do I charge? How should I charge? What are my costs? Who am I going to work with? All of this stuff is overwhelming, but the thing is that out of those 50 or 100 assumptions there's probably only two or three that are critical.
Generally, they revolve around who are your customers? Do they have this problem, and can you create value for them? So, the first step in Validate is helping you to work out what those critical assumptions are. The next stage is ‘okay I've got these assumptions, how do I test it?’. What we've tried to do is to create six buckets of tests that you can select from and then we give you tools to use in them. They range from the easiest and quickest to do, to more advanced and more difficult. The first one is that you can build a homepage on Validate in a minute. There are some different templates where you throw in some images and you write what your idea is. You have a link and you send it out to people and they can comment immediately on it. That's to really break it down and get you doing it fast.
The next thing I think is research. There are lots of powerful tools and you can look at how others are already solving this. After that you've got surveys, which is about speaking with customers digitally or with paper – so asking them different questions. There are different kinds of surveys that we give examples of, from discovery surveys to A/B testing and thinking about ‘which product’? Then you've got interviewing, which is speaking with customers again. There are different kinds of interviews you can run. You can have focus groups where you can focus on the problem and the solution.
After that we have prototyping. Prototype is kind of a fancy word, but it's basically how can you put something physical in front of your customers. That could be a fully-fledged website, it could be a short, animated video, it could be cardboard mock-up of your product.
The final thing is selling. Selling is obviously a transaction or exchange where people are giving you either a commitment of money or they're paying for this. As I said, it's a scale from the easiest and the quickest to selling – which is the hardest. At each of those stages you have different quality of evidence. It's much easier for someone to say in a survey ‘I love this’, rather than someone actually giving you their money – that's the hardest thing. There are lots of different ways to test from easy to more difficult, and different qualities of evidence along the way. What we do is we break that journey down, so you can do all of that testing on Validate. We give you examples, tips and tools so it doesn't have to be this overwhelming thing. You can just focus on the best way of doing it and start quickly. As I said, build a homepage in two minutes and send it out. Put the link on Facebook, send it to your friends and start getting feedback immediately. You're already on your way!
That's a sensational idea, isn't it? Just that idea of making it simple at the very beginning just to get something out there. Just to get that initial response and get something that's going to validate what your concerns or your issues are going to be. It means that when you start looking at more complicated bits, you can use the stuff you've learned and dive into the bits that are going to be important. I think that's a really innovative way of thinking about it. Again, it's about making it simple, isn't it? It's about making it accessible and giving opportunities for businesses out there to understand and figure out what's going on – without it being overwhelming. I think that's a fantastic tool and, to me, I think that's one of the best parts about it so far. I think that's absolutely brilliant.
I know we're running short on time here, but we've hopefully got time for a couple more questions, and definitely this question. I think this is going to be important, because we're talking about the journey now, aren't we? We've talked about how Validate can really help to bring together those initial ideas; to get those ideas off the ground and drive innovation. We talked about those buckets and everything that goes with it – I think that's fantastic, but what about the flip side of that? What if they've got all that information or done all that prep work and it's just not gone to plan? Probably due to factors out of their control – COVID has been a huge factor at the moment, hasn't it? There are fantastic ideas and the timing's not been on their side. What's your advice when the plan doesn't work? This question is directly from the community – they started a business last year, great timing obviously, and it's not worked out. Nobody seems to be interested: I don't know what to do and whether to give up. Have we got any advice for them?
Someone described entrepreneurship in a way I really liked – they called it ‘enlightened trial and error’. Basically, you're trying stuff, you're learning from it and you're progressing. You start with a vision and I think you have to be true to that vision but within that vision there are different ways of solving that problem.
To this community member I’d say if you're trying to sell something and it's not working, go back to what we were talking about earlier. Try speaking with customers about how they are currently solving this problem that they have. Maybe you find that you're not quite on the right problem or you've got the right problem, but the solution isn't quite there. I think it's about finding that niche and trying to have as many conversations as possible and learning. You're not going to be able to solve this within a room or within a box, you're only going to be able to do it through really listening – I think that's the key bit about entrepreneurship.
About whether to continue or not, I think that's obviously a very personal decision that we all come to. We've run with some ideas that haven't worked and we've moved on from them. I think that's only really a decision that only you can make. I think in entrepreneurship the way to achieve success is to work on something that you're passionate about. Of course, it's a job but it makes it enjoyable, easy to do and fun to do. As you're thinking about how you can change and develop your idea don't move so far that you end up working on something that you're not passionate about or you don't love doing. I've also seen that with businesses and we've done it ourselves sometimes – you're probably never going to make it work in the long run because you're going to lose that passion for it and that hard work. Adapt, iterate, listen to people but also stay true to what it is that you really want to do and what really inspires you.
I think that's superb advice. The thing I would say is that if you wake up in the morning and suddenly you're just not feeling it anymore – you're exhausted and you don’t care if anybody else launches that idea – then it might be time to have a serious conversation with yourself about is this right for me. Aaron, you and I have conversations with people who are potentially at that point all the time don't we? Conversely, you might wake up and you can't imagine anybody else doing this. If you've still got the bit between your teeth and you just know that this is one of those tough periods where you may have to tweak a few things, then you’ll probably feel the drive to keep going. It’s a question we get asked all the time and I think that was a cracking answer, thank you.
I think we're up on questions, aren’t we Aaron?
Yes, unfortunately. We could go all day on this topic! You've already explained about the simplicity of Validate and I think that's the key here. Merlie and I see people all the time who are coming up with amazing ideas. They're so passionate, they're so excited and they're full of energy. Everything's going in the right direction but, when you sit down with them and talk to them about the nitty-gritty parts of it, then that's where sometimes it can fall apart.
For keeping it simple, for keeping the right tools on hand – I think this solution here is perfect. It's something that we're going to be pushing forward. A tool like this is one of the ways that we can make sure that businesses are not just going to survive but thrive.
Totally! Thank you, Aaron.
Josh, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Folks we do have a few more of your questions that I know that we haven't managed to get to on the show today. We will make sure that we interrogate Joshua behind the scenes!
If you check out the ‘Dear Farillio Expert’ section on Farillio’s blog site, you will find the answers to all the community questions that we've interrogated all our guests on. Don’t worry if we haven't managed to get to your question today, we will get the answer and we will put it up there so that we're not leaving you in the lurch.
Again, please like, comment, and subscribe to the channel. Let us know what else you would like to know, and we'll go out and we'll find brilliant guests like Josh to answer your questions. In the meantime, Aaron I think that’s us for another show.
Thanks Josh, it's been absolutely brilliant.
Have a great week and #GoFarFast.
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