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Should You Give Up on your Startup Idea?



All great startups start off with an idea followed by years of hard work. So how do you evaluate quickly and efficiently whether the idea merits further investment of your time and money? The following article describes the process that we have seen play out with great success for the companies we have been working with over the last 2.5 years.


Steps to evaluating your startup idea

Over the last 2.5 years we have worked with a number of founders who have all had a startup idea and needed help in turning it into a valuable business over the 12 months we worked with them. We have refined the first few months into a process that is fairly consistent in its approach (especially for ecommerce and marketplace businesses) and it has proven really effective in assessing whether the idea is going to fly or not over the rest of the year.

1. Stay objective.

All founders fall foul of “Confirmation Bias” to a greater or lesser degree, but it’s really important to understand that in this super early phase you need to be super flexible deciding if this idea is worth pursuing. The worst situation is to end up investing a lot time building a product for a weak idea. Once you move into a phase of execution it becomes harder and harder to change direction so it is far better to be open minded now and alter the idea if a bigger truth comes along in this evaluation phase.

2. Use the Lean Canvas to identify your assumptions

Before we invest in any idea stage companies we ask the founders to create a Lean Canvas (similar to a business model canvas but more designed for startups).  Below is an example of a lean canvas when we first were evaluating Lexoo an online legal marketplace (thanks to the Lexoo team for letting us share this).

Lean Canvas

3. Identify your assumptions

Now that you have filled out the canvas as best as you can, go and find some friends (preferably with some business/startup experience) and on a whiteboard  and draw the following chart.

Assumptions chart

Spend 15 minutes on each of the 9 sections of the canvas and ask yourself what assumptions you have made about the business. Write down all the assumptions and how you would test them on post-it notes and categorise them by how easy they are to test and how critical they are to the business succeeding. Below is an example of a few of Lexoo’s post-it notes on the chart as an example.

Assumptions example

This exercise will give you an ordered list of assumptions and ways you can test them based on importance and ease. We have found that assumptions around whether users want this service or product are usually the most important and can be easily tested through speaking to users to understand their needs. The hardest assumptions to test are often to do with how the business will perform at scale (where market sizing and looking at parallels can help).

4. Test your assumptions around the problem, customers, and existing solutions

All startups are trying to solve a problem/aspiration of some kind. Some problems are clearly felt but for others your potential users may never articulate them clearly (because they didn’t know it was possible to improve on how they are currently doing things).

“Don’t ask your potential users what they want. It’s your job as a founder to figure that out based on your deep understanding of their unmet needs and your knowledge of what is possible”

However, through interviews and observations you should be able to see strong evidence of them struggling to solve their problem or solving it in a way that you know you can significantly improve upon. We recommend interviewing at least 20-40 users of different types in order to do some early validation around the problem, your customers and existing solutions. It is also a great idea to observe people as they try to solve these problems and also to try to solve it yourself using existing solutions. Not only does the process of interviews and observations give you a sense of whether you are onto a good idea and validate your key assumptions around the problem to be solved, but it also will give you a wealth of more nuanced information that will inform your product solution.

“Sometimes I work with founders that are reluctant to invest any time in learning about their potential users before building their product. They usually have a hard time.”

If you don’t see a strong need through this process then you should really think about whether it is a good idea.

5. Testing your unique value proposition and solution

Once you are confident that you are solving a problem the usual next set of assumptions you want to test are whether your target market will respond to your unique value proposition and solution. How you go about testing this depends on the product and business type. For consumer companies we usually create a homepage with a call to action that requires some commitment from the user (however big or small that is) and for more complicated products (Saas or mobile) we have built prototypes and observed users interact with them to understand if we are providing value. For hardware products a lot of companies will run a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to prove need (and get funding for the first production run). Dropbox (a very complicated product) famously used a video to explain what they did to prove their solution was what people wanted. If you are building a homepage test then it is important that it clearly describes what you are offering and that is beautifully presented. Users expectations of consumer products in terms of design are always increasing, so if your product isn’t doesn’t look professional then your users may not engage and you may come to the wrong conclusion. With tools like Strikingly or QuickMVP or a few days from a designer and front-end developer you should have something that looks and feels professional. Below is an example of the homepage that we used with Lexoo that also had a simple form for the users to fill out with what they wanted the lawyer to help them with.

Lexoo homepage test

6. Testing marketing channels

Great startups are created through great products and a relentless focus on growth (and good good unit economics for the most part!). For consumer companies, paid marketing is probably going to be part of the mix so it is important to drive some users to your service to test your proposition to get a baseline of cost and volumes that you can expect from channels like search, facebook or twitter. We usually see CAC to be way higher in the beginning but also see it reduce quite rapidly over the 12 months through campaign and product optimisations. Obviously if it is extremely high then that is a warning signal you should pay attention as your unit economics might not work. Volume is also important as it helps you understand how quickly you will need to invest in offline marketing channels and PR in the early stages. By driving users to your homepage test you will be able to see whether users engage and start to test some assumptions about your marketing strategies.

7a Test value  and revenue in an unscaleable way through a concierge service

Using a concierge style service on top of a thin product is a great way to test the real value you want to provide quickly. You can use manual effort to fill out the steps you one day hope to automate. Not only will you have very happy customers from day one but you will also get a deeper understanding of what you need to build to keep them happy. Marketplaces and ecommerce lend themselves very well to this technique, as do a lot of startups that use intelligent systems to offer a personalised service. Lexoo did this by manually matching lawyers to jobs and sent lawyer profiles to customers via email. Over time they built more product to automate some of the process to get it to scale while keeping the same level of personal service.

“Use the concierge service not only to test you are offering value but also to have more face to face conversations with your users and deepen your understanding of their needs.”

7b Test value using prototypes

For SaaS and more complicated products you will generally need to build more product before you can know if you are providing value. In these cases we prefer testing that value through prototypes. It is not as powerful as the concierge service but you can still learn a lot quickly before committing to building something. Running design sprints is a great way to rapidly test out a product or feature and is a great way for the whole team and customers to provide input.

8 Keep learning more about your customers at all times

This last one really isn’t a specific step in the process but is the underlying principle to what you should be doing while evaluating your idea. In the 4-8 weeks you may spend on this (depending on how well everything goes) you will continue to understand more and more about your users. Be sure to email every customer, give them phone numbers to call you, add live chat on the site and organise user tests (online and in person). It is only through a really deep understanding of your customers that you can then move onto the next phase of building a product that really resonates.


About the Author

This article was written by  of the Path Forward. The Path Forward was developed by Forward Partners, a VC platform that invests in the best ideas and brilliant people. Forward Partners devised The Path Forward to help their founders validate their ideas, build a product, achieve traction, hire a team and raise follow on funding all in the space of 12 months. The Path Forward is a fantastic startup framework for you to utilise as an early stage founder or operator. The framework clearly defines startup creation as being comprised of three steps. The first step of this framework involves understanding customer’s needs.Nic is Head of PR & communications at Forward Partners. Over the course of a 10 year career in communications, he has working with global brands including Orange, Warner Bros., BBC, and


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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