You have the perfect idea for a billion-dollar startup. You’re gung-ho, ready to get started building your dream. What do you do next?

Focus on the Right Thing

If you’re sure you have the perfect idea, you need to start by refocusing. Your idea is not the key to success. It’s the problem you’re trying to solve. Everything you do should center around that.

You don’t realize it right now, but your idea is built on a shaky foundations of assumptions about the problem and the best way to solve it. Some of those will end up being right, but most of them will be wrong. Your chances of success scale along with your willingness to change or even kill your precious, perfect idea. It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s way more pleaseant than spending thousands of dollars trying to force a flawed solution onto the world.

Love the Problem

Fall in love with the problem not the solution, and the rest will follow. Uri Levine

Co-founder, Waze

Who are you trying to help? Whose problem are you solving? You need to find these people and find out if the problem is really a problem, and, perhaps more importantly, if it’s one they’d pay to solve. This process of talking with your customers to figure out the problem your startup will target is called customer development. (StartupGeist has a great guide to customer development if you want to read about it in more depth.)

You have to be really careful here. If you propose your hypothesized problem and your solution, most people are going to tell you it’s a great idea because they want you to like them. If you’re careful in the way you talk to them, you can get to the real truth. Don’t lead them into either your problem or your solution.

If your proposed problem is not a problem, that’s fine. Keep talking and find out what the problems are. Everyone has some sort of problem they need solved. The first step in building a startup is finding one of those you can solve.

Measure the Cost

If you can quantify the cost of the problem, that makes your job moving forward much easier (although the task itself can be extremely difficult). Here’s what that might look like:

Dave is in the widget manufacturing business. You know modern widget production has a problem: a significant percentage of finished widgets coming off the assembly line are defective. By talking to Dave, you learn that number is roughly 10% of the total widgets produced. Each widget makes $10 of profit for Dave’s company, and they produce 1,000 per day. Now, you can understand, in terms of cost, how painful this problem is.

If 10% of the widgets are defective, Dave is losing 100 widgets per day. Since he’s making $10 on each widget, Dave is losing $1,000 per day.

Find a Solution

This is still part of your customer development process. You’re still working with the customer to find a solution. What have they tried? How are they working around it? Instead of pitching your ideas, get them talking.

Rinse, Repeat

Once you’ve done this with one customer, you’re ready to start building! Oh, wait. Actually, that isn’t right. Once you’ve done this with one customer, you’re just getting started!

You want to sell to lots of customers, so you should talk to lots of them. You don’t want your startup to fail because you got a single false positive. You also don’t want to fail because you got a genuine positive… but it was the only positive and you could only sell to that one customer. As you talk to different customers, you’ll learn new things that will help you build the best solution to help the most people.

Start Building!

Only now that you’ve talked to many customers and validated both your problem and your solution are you ready to jump in and start building.