Start on the Sidelines: Test Your Business Idea Before Committing

    By Laura Sherman | Small Business

    It takes a lot of courage to take the plunge into the entrepreneurial waters away from the regular nine-to-five. Many people dream of owning their own business, setting their own schedules and rules. However, the ones who do, and who are successful, often test the market with their idea, before fully committing.

    There is a fine line between being courageous and being irresponsible when it comes to starting up a new business. Poor planning causes instant failure with new entrepreneurs. Test your concept before leaning too heavily on a fledgling business for steady income.

    While you’re in test mode, continue to do all the things that you’ve always done to make money. Don’t quit anything!

    Never count on a new business to bring in any income for the first year. That way you won’t be caught off guard. If things go well and you do make money, put the extra dollars in a separate bank account, which can be used to build your business later or give you a cushion of safety.

    Brad Sugars, an entrepreneur and business coach, who has operated more than two dozen companies including the successful ActionCOACH, said, “Having solid information about what your customers want to buy – rather than what you want to sell them – can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as peace of mind and sanity.”

    To that end, he suggests that you test your ideas inexpensively before you fully commit. There are many ways to do this. Here are a few ideas:

    Use the internet

    Try out your product or service via a website as a trial before committing to more expensive brick-and-mortar. One of the key advantages of the internet is its amazing reach.

    Keep in mind that you just can’t plop a website on the web and expect instant success. It doesn’t work that way. You need to direct people to the site through social media, blogging and even judicious advertising. Then you can see how they respond.

    This strategy will work with some businesses and not others. Local plumbers probably wouldn’t gain many customers this way, but if you’re planning to sell handmade scarves, this technique might be helpful.

    When you blog and guest blog, don’t try to sell your products in the articles. Instead, answer questions potential customers might have. You need to walk in their shoes and understand their concerns, helping them in some way.

    Someone who does this well is Carol Kicinski, founder of Simply…Gluten-Free. When she discovered she was intolerant to gluten, complete with migraine headaches and severe exhaustion, she couldn't find good gluten-free recipes. She remedied that by developing her own line of recipes, creating a magazine, writing books and generally carving a whole new niche in this culinary market.

    If you visit her blog, it is chock full of recipes and advice for others who share this dietary problem. Any question one might have about gluten intolerance is answered. Her focus is on giving, not taking, and as a result her website and products are very popular.

    You can also test your concept through your favorite social media site. Publish your blog articles there, survey people, ask for advice, and reach out to folks one on one. If you ask for feedback, people are usually very willing to provide it.

    Start small and keep things manageable

    If you have the option to start your business within another store front, it can be a good way to try out your idea. I’ve known several entrepreneurs who have started that way.

    I remember running into a young man who sold his hand-made beaded earrings at a mom and pop hair salon in Clearwater, FL. It was an inventive way to test his product before opening his own store front. There are a number of established entrepreneurs out there, who are happy to help out a new business owner.

    Some entrepreneurs band together and share a space, taking turns running the shop and sharing in the costs. Starting up is easier, as is closing down if the test doesn’t go well.

    One very successful example of this is New York City’s General Assembly. This 20,000 square foot space holds two hundred people, giving various entrepreneurs a chance to share overhead (and notes) with other business owners. The cost for participating is very reasonable, partly because the founders were given a grant from the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

    There are countless ways to try out your business, which don’t require a huge start up expense. Try flea markets, trade shows, and farmer’s markets in your area. The information you’ll collect will be invaluable in helping you start a successful full-time business.

    Word of Mouth

    One of the most overlooked and inexpensive methods of testing a business is to try to create simple old fashioned word of mouth. If it works, no matter what your business might be, you can always benefit from the referrals and testimonials you collect from happy clients if you choose to move forward.

    Although it’s possible that people might reach out to you, on their own, asking for your product or service, it’s unlikely. Usually good fortune is achieved through hard work. You really do create your own luck.

    The tricky part of this plan is getting word of mouth without prior momentum. You usually need to have a successful business before people starting talking you up to their friends. Still, there are ways to spark interest.

    The first step is to talk to as many people as you can, explaining what you do. As you share your concept, notice their reaction and spot what words resonate with them. Those are the words to use with others to describe your business.

    When you’re just starting, you might try offering your product or service at a discount until your business is fully launched. If they liked what you did for them, ask them to refer you to their friends. Or ask them to give you a review on one of the various online referral tools like Yelp, Tripadvisor or These can be instrumental in helping you build a strong reputation.

    Remember, people trust what other people say about you more than what you say about yourself.

    Once you’ve tested your business idea, you’ll know if you should pour more energy, time and resources into it. Most likely you’ll need to tweak your initial model, using the feedback you receive. And if you discover that your plan wasn’t viable, thank your lucky stars that you didn’t throw yourself head first into the deep end before you dipped your big toe into the pool.

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