Q: I have an idea for a product, but am not sure how to get started in making the idea a reality. What are some next steps that I can take as a hopeful entrepreneur?
A: If you are still in the idea stage with your product, I think it is useful to begin moving forward in a couple of stages, with the mind-set of keeping risk low until you have figured out the exact problem you are solving, for whom you are solving it and the solution that best fits the need.
Remember that as you move forward, you are not trying to validate your solution; instead, you should challenge your assumptions about why your solution is attractive to understand if you are on the right track.
The first stage is problem vetting. In this stage, rather than telling your expected customers about your solution, you want to ask them about the problem you think you are solving.
Think about this as exploration. "What are the main problems you experience when you try to X? How do you solve these problems now?" Listen for whether they get emotional about the problem and how satisfied they are with their current solution.
What you are looking for in the problem-vetting stage is whether a solution to the problem will be a "must have" or a "nice to have." "Must haves" are solutions that relieve serious headaches or save time/money or prevent potential harm.
If you do find a compelling problem, then you can move on to solution vetting. In this stage, you want to put together a rough, inexpensive prototype of your solution that you can put in front of potential customers.
Make sure they know that it isn't a final solution and that you are looking for their input rather than their approval. Using their reactions, keep iterating and testing your prototype until you have a "must have."
Then you can begin vetting the right way to get your product to the market.
The best thing to keep in mind as you begin to move forward is that the solution you have in mind now is likely to change significantly as you go through this process. So, let go of whether your idea is good or bad and simply approach it as a journey to find the right solution to the right problem.
Jay Ebben is an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.