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  5.4. The Smoke Test (6 min.)

For some entrepreneurs, depending on the nature of their idea, finding lists of potential customers can be extremely difficult. If searching through trade magazines or looking at online discussion forums doesn't yield the kind of results you need, it may be time to get really creative. Instead of finding a sample, you will have to somehow create one. The smoke test is a great way to create your own list of potential customers. Smoke tests are often used in engineering, software, and other fields to test whether the basics of a system work. Smoke testing allows you to reveal simple failures before you invest more time and money into the next phase of building. Startups can also use smoke tests to generate lists of potential customers and to better understand customer pains and needs.

A smoke test can take a variety of shapes. For example, one version of the smoke test for an internet startup could be to spend a few dollars creating a website landing page for your product or service (which you haven't built yet). Then you spend a few more dollars posting a digital advertisement about that product or service. When interested individuals click on the ad and arrive at your landing page, they are offered the chance to be first in line to try the product or service when it is launched if they provide their contact information. A great representation of this type of smoke test is shown below for a fictional startup called "Brew'd." As you can see, it is nothing more than a landing page that simply describes what the business does and provides a space for customers to enter their contact information. Other versions of the smoke test could look like an advertisement on a social media platform (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) or a classified ads website (local news website, craigslist, etc.). In the ad, you could simply invite interested individuals to call or email you for more information.


Whatever the smoke test looks like, it must include some information regarding the assumed customer pain and the solution you promise to provide. Without them, you won't attract potential customers that are relevant to your business. Take another look at the Brew'd landing page. Can you identify the customer pain they have targeted and the customers they are looking for? Just look at the text on the page: "Brew'd helps you find your favorite brew wherever you are." From there, we can conclude that Brew'd is probably looking for potential customers who are experiencing the following pain: "when I'm traveling in a foreign place, I don't know in which pubs or bars my favorite beers are served."

Hopefully, your smoke test will generate enough interest to provide a list of potential customers with whom you could talk. If you don't generate enough phone numbers or email addresses, however, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Few responses and little interest suggest that the customer pain you've identified is not as strong as you had initially assumed, and that you may want to create a new Monetizable Pain Hypothesis.

(See Nail It Then Scale It, pgs. 78-80)