Tiny Startup Camp

A tiny camp for making tiny startups.

November 10-11, 2012
Portland, Oregon

Filtering for Tiny

If you’re going to have a Tiny Startup, you have to be ready to filter through hundreds of ideas. You want ideas coming to you at all times. You want to wake up at night with an idea so strong you can’t fall asleep. You want to have to talk through ideas when you’re driving to your in-laws with your wife. You want ideas dripping off of you and leaving a puddle everywhere you go.

But remember to not be an idea guy (I’ll cover this in an upcoming post).

So once you have all these ideas, how do you decide which ones to work on? How do you know if there’s money to be made, or if success is even possible?

Well, I do it by creating a set of filters that I check all ideas through. If they pass, they go into a bucket I’ll consider testing. If they don’t, I may throw them away, or I may keep them for later (depending on why they failed. Some ideas can gain new life at a different time). I recommend keeping an Evernote folder of all the ideas you come up with. Sometimes, reading through those a year later can spark new ones, or you can find solutions to older problems that weren’t possible then.

So, what are these filters? I have a bunch. And they’re highly relevant to my idea of success. I have a clear idea of what success is, and therefor all my filters point to that. Your goals may be different, and thus, your filters may be different.

Enough talk. On to my filters:

The Pager Test

If ┬ásome unforeseen circumstances should cause my entire project to burst in flames/cause my server go down/make payment gateways fail, I don’t want to care enough to be woken up at night. This means, I can’t have a service that my customers REALLY COUNT ON to be up at all times. Paleo Plan can go down for a day at a time, and my customers may be annoyed, but they’ll still find a way to eat. If Gmail goes down, there is blood in the streets. I won’t build a product that people rely on like they do Gmail.

Launch Quickly

It has to be an idea┬ásmall enough that I can launch it in 3-4 weeks. I’m not interested in huge ideas that take months to launch, only to find out the idea failed to get traction. I want to launch fast, and fail fast. Or, hopefully, learn that there’s traction and quickly improve the product and start really killing it. Paleo Plan and Bac’n were both started in 3 weeks and for under $1000 each (with the exception of the Bac’n domain which was a bit more expensive).

Profitable on Day 1

It has to make money on day one. PERIOD. I’m not interested in a “build a million users and make it up in volume.” I’m interested in solving a problem people want solved and are willing to pay for. It’s really easy to know if the idea will be successful when you can look at money out vs. money in and see that you’re cash-flow positive after a month (Paleo Plan was in the black after 2 months). Ideas that need crazy volume to hopefully be profitable are dangerous because you can keep pouring money into them, all the while believing that someday they’ll turn around. Not for me. On launch day I should have at least one sale that causes real cash to go into my account. If that doesn’t happen, it’s not a product I’ll launch.


I have to be able to do everything the product needs. I once paid a developer $3000 to build a WordPress plugin, and was going to monetize it. However, every time there was a problem, I had to call the developer to fix it. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to outsource, but I didn’t have the skills to manage our only product. This left me at the mercy of an hourly contractor to keep my product alive. From then on, I’ll only work on a project that I or a co-founder can execute on completely. If I choose to outsource to make things easier, awesome, but I’m not beholden to anyone else to make sure the idea doesn’t crash.

Avoid Spammy Niches

Don’t touch what is already controlled by expert shitty online marketers. Do a search for “Baby Names.” The first few pages of the results are crappy sites littered with ads. This means the pros have figured out how to make money in those areas, and have invested in SEO. This means it’ll be really hard to compete in this niche. Just find a different area. Don’t make your job any harder than it has to be by competing with people who have already sucked out all the easy money.

Know What Success Means

Have a clear idea of success. With Jason on Cars, my idea of success was to get to test drive new cars. And it worked. I only made a few hundred dollars a month on the site, but money wasn’t my goal. My goal was to get to test drive new cars, and for two years, I had a brand new car hand delivered to my office, while the old car was taken away. Success!

Know What Success I Don’t Want

There are several startups in town that are constantly written about in the papers. They get coverage on all the tech blogs. Everyone thinks they’re awesome, and so do I. But I’d be miserable if any of my ideas became that successful. I don’t want to run a business with 90 people. I don’t want to fly every week to talk to investors and close deals. Personally, I like hanging out with my son and wife, riding my bike when it’s sunny, and visiting with friends when they come into town. Now, I try and work really hard, but I’m not at the mercy of a company I created. I have freedom to work when, and how, and with whom I want. If you have 90 people’s lives and families counting on you, it’s irresponsible to go snowboarding just because there’s good powder on Tuesday. So, I’d only take on a project with that kind of growth potential if I knew I could sell it quickly, or bring in another CEO just in time.

These are just a few of my filters. There are more, and depending on the idea, the filters change. But I know that if an idea passes through them, it’s worth moving into the testing stage (More on that later). So think about these and be ready to filter your ideas come Tiny Startup Camp.


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