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How to Know You Have a Good Startup Idea: 5 Questions

A design expert talks about the very first steps of his product design process.
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You've thought up this hazy, partially-defined, intangible thing, that might or might not be a real product one day. So how do you know if you're onto something?  

"Fundamentally, we are in that business of working alongside leaders to help them figure out what's worth pursuing from a design perspective," Matt Rolandson, a partner at the San Francisco-based design studio, Ammunition, said. 

Rolandson -- who's worked with both small startups and large organizations like Apple, Skype and Square -- specializes in user experience design. He also works with business leaders on design strategy. In other words, he helps them to determine what to make and why it makes sense within the context of their business. 

"Design really is a part of the long-term process of figuring out what to do in the first place, conceptualizing it, implementing it, optimizing it," Rolandson said. That's why he recommends that startups establish a leadership role for a designer from the outset.

But if you're not quite there yet -- and so far all you've got is yourself and your idea -- there are a few questions you can use to channel a designer's mind. This can either help you to crystallize your idea, or decide to toss it. Here are the questions that Rolandson starts with before he takes on any project, whether for an established company or fledgling one. 

1. Of all of the things you could do, why this? 

Entrepreneurs could be doing anything with their time, so they should have a clear answer as to why they've chosen to spend it one way. "It's important because I think it really gives the whole business, and ultimately the product and service, an emotional charge," Rolandson said. 

If a leader one day decides to pursue design because he thinks it will improve the product and eventually yield a greater profit, that's a smart business decision,  Rolandson said. "But it may not be providing the most interesting terrain for doing something that really feels amazing." 

Though it might seem touchy-feely, define the true emotional reason for your business' existence. For many health care startups, their mission is born out of a need to help themselves or help a loved one. In the case of cookware company Williams Sonoma, which Ammunition has worked with, it's about inciting people to convene in the kitchen. 

"That company's intentions really do come from this place of helping to bring people together around food," Rolandson said. "And that's a pretty motivating way to start working on something." 

2. What isn't negotiable?  

This question will help you to make some initial decisions about which design features are in and out. Another way to think about this question is: what features would you still care about, even if you knew you were going to get punished for caring about them?  

"This can serve as a guidance system for making business decisions, but it's also really useful fodder for designing the product or designing the experience," Rolandson explained. 

3. What does the world look like with your product in it? 

Rolandson said he's never met a leader that doesn't want to address this question. However envisioning this future scene clearly is difficult because first you need to have a good idea of who you're trying to affect. And that's the next question. 

4. Who are you trying to take care of?

What is their daily life like? What do they struggle with? What motivates them? What things make them feel good?

"Personifying and empathizing with all of the actors that are going to go into making this business come together is really critical," Rolandson said. 

5. What does your company stand for? 

This isn't an elevator pitch. This is a two-second definition of your company.

Got it? Now, go. 

IMAGE: IMAGE: THE TIRE ZOO/FLICKR
Last updated: Apr 9, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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