StartUp Founders: Start Smoking

May 05, 2024 4 mins read
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Dear Reader,

Instead of building a product nobody wants, run a smoke test to rapidly validate market demand before investing in development. If you can’t prove your offering is valuable, nothing else matters. (𝕏 Tweet)

Smoke testing is promoting your Minimum Viable Offering (MVO) to a cold audience and looking for positive signals. It’s a non-technical, marketing-driven approach to testing your riskiest assumptions. Simply put. A website. See who bites.

TLDR; Iterating your MVO through smoke testing is the first step to mitigating product risk, the last step before building and a pathway to product-market fit. (Workbook)


2.7 Ecosystem Mapping: Partnerships to Accelerate Growth


As founders, our job is to mitigate three key product risks – value risk (will people want this?), feasibility risk (can we build this?), and usability risk (can people figure out how to use this?). The MVO smoke test is for the value risk. (Feasibility is solved next with MVP).


MVO: Validates value risk (will people want this?) through a smoke test. It’s a marketing play, not a technical product.

MVP: Validates feasibility risk (can we build this?) as the first usable version built on a validated MVO.

The MVO is non technical, no engineering; the fastest way to work out whether to move forward. A non-tech “proof of concept” – literally a smoke test – you’re sending up a signal to see if anyone notices and reacts ish-positively.

Smoke testing can take many forms, some of the low cost techniques to get your intent signal include:

Coming Soon Page (MVO Smoke Test): Gauge initial interest with a simple landing page capturing email signups.

High Bar Landing Page: Capture emails while collecting valuable “additional” data through a small user task (survey or action).

Pricing Page: Test different pricing tiers to gauge user willingness to pay and which tier resonates.

Fake Door Ad: Create an ad for your product leading to a “Coming Soon” page to measure click-through rates and then conversions.

Sign-Up / Pre-Order Form: Enable the user to signup or simulate a purchase (add to cart) and see if users commit by completing the process.

You won’t be the first:

Dropbox: Created a simple video demonstrating file sync and sharing features that went viral, leading to huge validated demand.

Buffer’s Manual Delivery Smoke Test: The landing page for Buffer enabled users to signup and choose pricing. Founder manually delivered the service to early users.

Zappos: Tested viability of selling shoes online by posting photos of shoes on the website and only purchasing the shoes from the store after receiving orders.

While some founders feel uneasy about “selling” a non-existent product, remember that no customers will be harmed in this experiment. This isn’t about misleading; it’s about testing genuine interest and learning to build relationships.

MVO & Smoke Testing

SU002.8 Minimum Viable Offering aka Smoke Testing by James Sinclair

If You’re Still Here:

The most impactful part of a smoke test is that it forces you to clearly articulate what it is you actually do and for whom. Crafting the headline of your website for the first time is extraordinarily humbling.

6-step Smoke Test process:

  • Define the necessary proof (hypothesis and metrics)
  • Design an experiment without engineers
  • Drive the right traffic to your experiment
  • Measure your predefined metrics
  • Analyze the results and iterate/optimize
  • Make a decision and move forward

Two common smoke test approaches:

  • Intent Test: Build a realistic landing page with a clear CTA and track engagement.
  • Manual Delivery Test: Create an MVO landing page and manually deliver the service to test the full funnel.

This MVO smoke test won’t tell you everything, but it will give you confidence that you’re heading in the right direction.

Your greatest competitive advantage is speed, but don’t sacrifice clarity. The faster you can validate your riskiest assumptions (RAT), the faster you can move to building something people want.

If your smoke test doesn’t work, it’s you, not them. Too broad, too unclear, too something. A failed smoke test is not a failure, something didn’t resonate, try again.

Stop reading and start testing, your v1 smoke test goes live tonight!

If you’re struggling to craft an MVO that resonates, feel free to grab time with me.

— James

(LinkedIn | Tiktok | Twitter)​

StartUp Founders: Ecosystem Map Now. Next: StartUp Founders: Outcome Driven Design
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