Two business people at work

Founders, have you done the 90-day Test?

Action Research tools can provide a robust method of developing and validating early phase ideas before you or others pour cash into a project. The key is to turn an interesting idea into a 3D Concept. 

Founders and entrepreneurs continually struggle with the age old problem of how to test out an idea before it’s even been built. How do you know if an idea is good enough to channel your energies and pour in your boot-strapped cash? It only exists in your head and so potential consumers can’t even click anything, let alone taste it, drive it or wear it.  

Gaining insights from consumer experience might be years away, and you can’t afford expensive market research to identify unknown consumer needs. Your mum thinks your ideas is brilliant, and so do your besties/mates. But how do you really know the honest truth?  

The 90 Day Test is a rigorous yet flexible way of researching and developing your idea before you put your own money into it, or take on start up loans, or have to hand over a chunk of equity to an early phase investor.  It keeps your options open and puts you in control of the next step. 

How it works

Research The Field 

Scan the field in which your idea is situated and identify the key figures who could really make a difference to your venture. Think about gatekeepers, bridges, connectors, helpers, who could be useful to you in some way. 

Also consider potential blockers, sceptics and even rivals. Imagine how strong your idea must be to attract a rival to join you in your venture! 

Identify Twelve Enablers

Identify a specific list of up to twelve people outside your immediate family and friends who could potentially support your venture in some way. This might be in provide industry advice, helpful contacts, pre-sales, early leads or even small amounts start up capital.  

The starting assumption is that while most people are moderately helpful to people staring out, they don’t want to be overly committed or distracted by people they don’t know well. 

You therefore are going to have to be smart and focused in what you ask of them. And as will become clear, this is not just about about money at this stage.  

Plan Your Interview Schedule 

Think about the right sequence of 12 interviews, one per week, over 12 weeks. The temptation is to burn and interview them all at once. But there’s a good reason why you want to take each interview in time, one by one, allowing you to think through and incorporate the views of each member of your network.  

You’ll find the first interview will be a discussion about a start up idea you have that is still hazy, and vague. Your contact might have difficulty understanding it. They might seem puzzled, sceptical and even dismissive. That’s ok. Notice their reactions. What did they have difficulty with? Where did you peak their interest?  

If after this first interview you have an opportunity to go back to them later to have a follow up discussion, once your idea is more fully evolved, then you’re winning.  

Write these thoughts down. Start making notes, and also preparing your thoughts for the next interview. You’re starting to create a journal, which will be your most valuable resource as a founder.  

In your second interview, you might be a bit clearer in your explanation of your idea. You might even be able to share any feedback and scepticism from your first interview. “I spoke to a contact in the retail sector, who raised a concern about X. What do you think?”.  

Set Key indicators 

Try to define specific behaviours from each person that might indicate to you that they are onside and that they see merit in your idea. What would tell you that they are being more than simply encouraging, or polite. 

For example, a local store owner might provisionally agree to set aside some space for you to market your range when it’s ready. A website owner might be open to linking to your site when it’s up and running.  Alternatively, they might suggest someone you to talk to, or invite you to give a talk. They might agree to write a piece for your blog. They might offer useful technical advice, or insider knowledge how. They might offer to mentor you, or to refer a potential co-founder, or a top developer. They might open doors to potential investors who 

Know your industry

There’s so many ways in which your initial twelve  enablers can provide non-cash benefits to founders.  

Frame Your Question 

The key to all the interviews is to be clear and focused in what you’re asking for. A question like “what do you think of my idea?” is likely to be too vague and open ended on this early phase. They might not fully understand the idea and would have no yardstick to compare it with. It is far better to ask what we might term an action response question. This is a question that results on the contact giving you something, along the lines described above. For example,  

  • “Have you any suggestions on how I might develop this idea further?”
  • “May I send you a draft of my outline design when it’s ready?” 
  • “Would you be kind enough to connect me with X?” 

Their readiness to act, and their fulfilment of their commitment to you, is an early indication that your idea has some value, even if it may not be as robust as it needs to be.  In isolation, this might not mean much. but as an accumulation of small acts of goodwill, this starts to form into a pattern. A wave, even. 

Iterate Your Idea 

The secret to the 90 Day Test is to research your idea while you’re developing it. For instance, you might have to develop different options, add some detail, use examples, incorporate some data, put the idea down into a drawing or diagram, develop a tagline and “elevator pitch”. All of this emerges through dialogue with your enablers, enabling you to progressively turn your idea into a 3D Concept. This is something that looks like it can fit into the real world. It’s an idea that can be drawn, that has a narrative, even a story-board to accompany it, describing the user journey.  

Each contact can be interviewed more than once. So you can return to people and share the developments you’ve incorporated. People love seeing their advice acted on. If you face initial scepticism from an early contact, imagine going back to them and showing them how you listened to them and incorporated their idea. Cycle back and make new requests, seeing how they react this time.  Have you turned a sceptical response into a neutral one? 

Research on the go 

Managing your list of enablers becomes a kind of research project, in which you are gathering data points, experimenting with micro-changes, observing reactions, pruning back ideas or variations that don’t seem to work, introducing innovations and seeing what effect they have.  

You’re like a microbiologist creating a new organism in a petri-dish.  

Make Big Demands

By the time you’re approaching your 10th, 11th, 12th contact, your idea should he looking like it has legs. This is because it’s not only your idea. What you’ve done is effectively crowd-source insights and knowledge from you cohort of enablers.  

The goal for the last 4 weeks is to secure a significant public affirmation that your concept or model can move into the next phase of development, by being tested in a particular setting, tried out by a group of people, or publicised by an article which might include a quotation from an industry leader and industry influencer.  

If you’ve planned well and timed it right, you can finish week twelve by closing on a big request.  Yes, it’s just like selling. You’re releasing many of the same competencies that you will use in deal-making and generating sales. 

Think and reflect of what this means 

Like any good scientist, you now need to consider what all this data means. Even though you might have overcome early scepticism an secure helpful contributions from your enablers, does this tell you enough to move ahead with the project. Only you can decide.  

It’s at this point that you commonly find out that your project will take three times as long to develop, cost twice as much, and discover that you’re not actually the first to think of the idea! Yes, you have competition.  It’s good you know this now, rather than finding out having mortgaged your parents house! 

This intelligence is vital. You can now decide what investment and resources you need.  

  1. Do you continue to bootstrap, pushing for early sales and retaining 100% ownership and control?

  2. Do you seek investment to build a long term viable solution, meaning equity dilution and a potential for loss of control?

  3. Do you attract a team of co-founders to share the burden and diversify the expertise?

  4. Do you raise a loan to help fund the venture, with risk to your long term financial health?

Completing the 90 Day test will put you in a better position to decide on these options.  

Stay Cool

All too often, founders fall in love with their idea and filter out unwelcome feedback and data. They exaggerate the importance of encouraging feedback. I recall a founder once saying to me “well, my mentor said it was great”. When I question the mentor, the founder had said they had a new version of their idea to share. “Oh great!” the mentor replied encouragingly. The founder just recalled hearing “great”. 

For this reason, I try to remain strictly neutral, cool even, when discussing new ideas with founders. Encouragement like “go for it”, “wow, that’s awesome” can be taken to mean “carry on with this really bad idea that will cause you to waste three years of your life.  

This article was written after seeing years of broken friendships and family schisms brought about by founders “bootstrapping” bad ideas that go no-where. I’ve seen too many people waste  youthful years pursuing fantasies that could never work in practice, and who should have been told this much earlier.  

Know When The Mice Are Dead 

I recall in an earlier part of my career having to go into the lab of a research scientist who hadn’t left his lab in 48 hours. Putting my arm on his shoulder, I said “Geoff, the mice are dead. It’s over. Time to go home and get a shower”. Founders can too often be like Geoff, clinging on to failed experiments.  

Action Research offers a methodology for minimising these risks. Rather than researching something after the fact, once we’ve built it, we research while we’re building it, incorporating the findings as we go.  

The methodology is derived from the original work done by Kurt Lewin on Field Theory. 

Rather then getting lost in elaborate planning and grandiose ideas that take too long to put into action, the 90 Day Test provides a pragmatic technique to develop your idea from its earliest phase to something more workable, incorporating the insights and know-how  of your enabling network as you go. It preserves your options, and it avoids a too early commitment to any irreversible course of action, such as taking out a loan, sharing equity with a co-founder or selling equity to an investor.  

To find out more about Pivomo’s action research toolkit for founders, click here.  

You may also be interested in our online course, Dynamiqe Startup, which incorporates these tools as part of a structured curriculum, live zoom classes and certification. Click here for more information.  

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