External validation is not real market validation

Jan 31, 2023  ·  10 min read

When building startups, only listen to people that HAVE ALREADY PAID for your product. All the rest is noise, and it’s dangerous.

If you’ve built something minimally useful, you will attract some eyeballs (especially after launching), and you may get bombarded by a wide variety of characters shouting a wide variety of messages at you. You may mistake this sudden interest in your product for market validation, but IT’S NOT. It’s 100% pure noise, and it’s –most of the time– utter bullshit.

The only validation that matters is money in your bank account. Follow the money trail and you’ll find market validation. The rest are red herrings.

You may attract a lot of attention with your startup, and yet that won’t necessarily mean market validation. A product that is good at getting attention is not necessarily a product people are willing to pay for. You might go viral and still have a failing startup:

In addition to these obvious sources of external validation you might get (going viral, getting lots of traffic from popular websites, people commenting on your idea, etc.), here are some other examples of things that are NOT market validation. All of the following look like validation, but are not. They’re just distractions. I’ve fell for each one of them at least once, and I’ve been reached out dozens of times more for each category:

  • Investors wanting to set up calls to invest in your company. They sound like they’re really interested in your startup.

    Why is this not market validation?

    The reality is they’re just exploratory calls, this is the very first step of their funnel. They’ll do this with any startup. They do this with thousands of startups, in fact. They probably haven’t even read your landing page (not until 5 minutes before the actual call, at least), and they’re obviously not ready to invest in you.

    Many times they’re just bullshitting altogether, and they would only invest in you (if any) if you are already raising a round (translated: if others have already taken the risk of investing in you before them)

    These calls will almost always make you lose your time, you’ll get absolutely nothing of value out of them, and both the call and required preparation (deck, pitch, etc.) will kill your productivity for the day.

    You may be tempted to take these calls because they namedrop some big VC or some big startup they’ve invested in, or because they’ll say things like “we’re reaching out from our VC office in San Francisco” and you want to feel like a cool kid taking calls from investors in SF. An almost guaranteed way of losing productive hours of actual work.

    If you’re already actively raising a round, though, you may want to act differently.
  • Advisors: people wanting to sit on your board or become external advisors for your company. They often introduce themselves as senior executives, retired executives or otherwise experts, having a lot of experience in corporate or in your industry. They reach out to give you free advice on your company and “explore collaboration opportunities”.

    Why is this not market validation?

    What they really want is stock in your company – for free, essentially. They’ll ask for something between 1% to 20% of your company, sometimes even more: and yes, you read that right, for absolutely no money in return. They propose this to dozens of companies until one falls for it and they get free equity. If the startup works out, it’s free money for them.

    They’ll try to justify their play with things like: “I have experience in this industry and can advise you on how to do things right”; or the one I personally like the most: “I know many people that would be interested in this and I could open you many doors and get you customers”. If you hear that one, use this trick: switch the message on them and say “oh, you can introduce me to potential customers interested in my product? Sure, sounds good, but instead of equity I’ll give you 20% of every sale you close for me” – and look how fast they run away 😉

    You would be surprised at how many people want a stake in your company in exchange for essentially nothing. Fuck those people. I’ve never seen anyone getting anything of value out of people like this. They’re nothing but leeches.
  • FAANG companies: from time to time, a big name company might reach out asking about your startup. You’ll see the email address ending in @faang.com and you’ll be like “Holy shit, I’m getting contacted by <FAANG>!” You’ll think you’ve made it: you’ll sell your startup to them for billions and retire and swim in your money like Uncle Scrooge.

    Why is this not market validation?

    I’m sorry to break your dreams, but this is not what’s probably going to happen. Unless you’ve done something absolutely remarkable, like getting A LOT of attention (think millions of users), a technically impossible feat of engineering, or have done something equally extraordinary, this is not likely why they’re contacting you.

    Why then? It may be multiple things. Some of these big companies run marketing campaigns specifically targeted to startups – they try to catch early startups right after they’ve raised a big chunk of money from investors, and will try to get some of their VC dollars. Their emails often sound like “Congratulations! We’ve just pre-selected your startup for this exclusive opportunity. We’ve assigned you a dedicated account manager and would love to have a call to kick things off”. What that actually means is “we’re trying to get you to use our advertising platform – at first for free, then paid of course”.

    It may also be them trying to get you to join one of their startup programs. Some of those are actually useful (they give away computing credits that would cost actual money, or they give you any other valuable resource like office space for free) – but they’re rare, and it’s highly unlikely they reach out to you instead of the other way around.

    Some other programs for startups are more bullshit-y, you’ll need to tread with caution.

    TL;DR: don’t get captivated by the big names and examine carefully what they’re saying, it’s likely not as valuable as you think it is.
  • Potential cofounders: people reaching out because they’ve seen your startup and want to join the team no matter what.

    Why is this not market validation?

    The kind of people that send these messages are usually wannabees incapable of building a business by themselves, looking to tag along in an already working project as their only and last hope to get into startups. They usually lack any actual skills (hence their inability to build a business by themselves) and will most likely bring nothing of value to the table. It’s not that they’re not technical or don’t know how to code (non-technical founders are valuable, too) – it’s that they are literally skilled in nothing that will help you build a profitable business.

    Sometimes you may get tricked because they have an impeccable-looking corporate career in something like a big consultancy company, but don’t be fooled: their only skill is wasting their day taking meaningless meetings and confusing customers with twisted rhetoric and undecipherable corporate bullshit.

    I’ve never met anyone who has met a valuable cofounder this way – on the contrary, I’ve heard true horror stories of people who fell for this trap. Bullshit cofounders that joined the company and once inside proved themselves to be absolutely useless, causing thousands of dollars worth of lawsuits and compensations to get everything fixed and back to what it was.

    If you need a cofounder, you’d likely be better off scouting for one yourself, probably someone already close to your social circles, and not just taking in the first random guy that writes to you on the internet.

    The most dangerous variation of the cofounder thing is when they approach you because they want you to join them instead. They’ll say something like “I was already working on something related and I think we should join forces”. In reality, they expect you to drop your project and join theirs. It usually means they’re looking for a free developer – someone that will code their thing for free. They’re often non-technical people that have failed attracting technical cofounders in the past, they don’t have the money to pay for development either, and have resorted to reaching out to those who actually get stuff out there to try and convince them to drop their promising project in order to work on their crap.

    I say block and run away as fast as you can.
  • Partners: people wanting to partner up with you. Instead of being cofounders, they may offer you something more transactional, like being a distributor of your product, integrating with your product or becoming providers.

    Why is this not market validation?

    These are usually non-serious offers.

    One option is they’re just straight out salesmen trying to get you to purchase their service. Examine them on a case-by-case basis, but as always… it’s highly unlikely that something of value knocks on your door instead of the other way around.

    As for people that want to distribute your products, they’re often discount/deals websites and what they get you is terrible: they’ll sell your product, but they’ll take most of the revenue (80-90%) and they’ll only bring low-quality customers that will complain about everything and will double your customer support workload.

    Another option is getting messages from people proposing you to become their provider: they might be interested in purchasing your product at scale or with a deeper integration, but they’ll claim it needs some modifications before it’s useful for them. Once things are changed so your product works with their existing systems –they say– they’ll use you as a provider.

    This is a trap. To prove it, put them through the credit card test: if they’re so serious about you becoming a big provider of theirs, they might as well spend just $100-$500 on doing a pilot project to finance a small-scale test to try things out. You’d be surprised at how many people back off after suggesting a small upfront payment. I’d say I’ve never seen anyone accepting it. Meaning: no one was really serious about partnering up – they just wanted someone that would develop free features for them (and sending emails is also free, so they might as well try it)
  • Journalists, blog owners and PR agencies: watch out! Some legit journalists from big media outlets may definitely reach out, make sure to look them up and do your research first!

    Why is this not market validation?

    Many of the emails you’ll get will be “fake” journalists. They’ll identify themselves as running “big websites” with lots of traffic, and they’ll offer you the “opportunity” to get a piece written about your startup on their website or blog, for a fee.

    The reality is: no one reads their blog. No one relevant to your business, anyways. If it was a relevant blog or website for your industry, you’d already have heard of it.

    As a general rule of thumb, don’t pay for people to write about you. If what you’ve built is good enough, they’ll gladly write about it for free. If they don’t, maybe what you’ve built is not good enough.

    There are also PR agencies that will claim they can get you featured on extremely well-known media outlets, magazines, and websites. It’s yet another trap: they cost a lot of money and don’t work as well as they promise. You might get one feature out of it, but I doubt it’d be worth the money.

    Then there’s also the shady fuckers. I remember one email, he introduced himself as a journalist for some TV channel, he said they wanted to run a piece about my startup on national TV. I had just had a very successful launch and I had actually been the whole day on the phone with actual legit journalists that worked for legit media, so I just assumed this guy was also good as well, and scheduled a call with him later that day. He not only forgot about the call and only called me back after I shot him an email, but when I picked up he started rambling on and on for (I kid you not) 20 straight minutes before he even let me get a word in. In reality he was no journalist, he didn’t even work for a TV channel. He had an online show no one ever heard of and he was asking something like $20k for me to get featured on it. Absolutely delusional.

Nothing of the above is market validation. Not even legit messages.

No amount of emails in your inbox will make up for lack of money in your bank account. Emails are not a substitute for revenue. A business is money in, not emails in.

Some of these messages might end up leading you to something marginally valuable, but 99% of the time you’ll waste your time. They’re nothing but a distraction. You’d be better off muting all these emails and just talking with actual customers. Nothing speaks louder than people giving you money – or lack thereof.

If you’ve just launched something and you’re all getting hyped up because emails are piling in and everyone seems to be noticing you and you think you’ve finally made it, look at your startup’s bank account. If your bank account is still at 0, you don’t have market validation. You just have a bunch of leechers annoying you, making you waste time and stopping you from actually building something you can charge for.


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