Ever since I was 13 I used to work in freelance doing everything clients on Odesk (the old Upwork) needed, from design to web and mobile dev to make some cash to finance my studies.

Eventually, some of those clients who needed websites or mobile apps started asking me if I knew my way around Facebook ads, affiliates, and SEO. So being the opportunistic lil’ guy that I was, I decided to learn all of that to upsell my clients and help them with marketing their newly created products.

Skip forward a couple of years, I decided to drop out of college to embark on my entrepreneurial journey. Having learned most of the stuff that I knew from random people online, I decided to work on something that could bring me closer to changing the university system and making the learning experience in college resemble that of the online world. Which such big hopes, I was bound to be disappointed, but as the title indicates, this is not the story of how I failed my first startup (that’s a story for another time). This article will focus instead on how I used mainly free tools to validate my market before investing time and money into a developing an actual product.

My big idea for revolutionizing college education was creating a Peer-to-Peer knowledge sharing platform. I wanted to create a platform that would connect people who were in need of information or clarification on a specific topic with other people who could help them. Contrary to forums, the interaction was done via a video call. Think of it as a Quora on steroids (or at least that’s how I would start pitching it to investors later on).

Being the scrappy founder that I was, and having spent years consulting companies on their marketing I decided that I would have to find the cheapest way to deliver the value that I was offering to my clients and focus most of my time and money on distribution.

Consequently, I gave myself a challenge: to validate my idea with as close to $0 as possible!

The next day, I woke up with a serious hangover and a gigantic appetite for work.

I spent the first 15 minutes of my morning drawing out the minimal experience that a client would expect from such a service if it was all done by humans:

1. They would need to tell someone their need.

2. That person would then go and look for someone who had expertise in the field that that first person needed help with.

3. One of the people who fit the profile needed to agree to help the person that made the request.

4. The middleman would then need to find a way to facilitate communication between these two.

This intellectual exercise might seem useless to some of you, but I have come to learn that it was useful in ridding me of unfounded assumptions that I had about most of my endeavors.

Having drawn out the low tech and fully human operated user experience of a potential user of the platform, I started thinking about how I can automate that process as efficiently as possible.

I started by thinking about the easiest way to get the requests of the “users” that needed help. The answer was obvious, email!

Email was an evident choice mainly because it was used by almost everyone; but also, because I’ve just read an article by Ryan Hoover about the launch of Product Hunt where he was advocating for the use of email to test out startup ideas whenever it was possible. (Here is the article for those of you who are interested )

Having decided that I was going to use email to receive user request, I needed to figure out how I’ll deal with the second step of the process: Identifying the people who could answer this request.

Again, I didn’t really put much effort into finding a solution. I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of users at first, so I presumed that a Google Sheet where users would be listed as well as their fields of specialty would suffice.

After identifying the right people to contact, I needed to make sure that they got the request.

Email was my go-to solution. This time I decided to add a free extension to track opens; I decided to opt for Mailtrack. I also just assumed that people who would want to respond in the positive would just answer the email.

Now, once I was able to find someone willing to answer the initial user’s request, I needed a way to put the two together. Google would prove helpful again thanks to Google Hangout.

Finally, I needed a way for people to join this labyrinthine system of value delivery. I decided to create a simple Landing page using Meteor.Js (back when Meteor.Js used to offer free hosting to Meteor projects), that had two paragraphs explaining the concept and three input fields that asked people for their name, their email and their field of expertise.

Form submission would then be sent to me via email and then added to a Google Sheet via Zapier.

So, to reiterate, this how I ended up “automating” the previously described human operated process:

1.  I had a landing page where people could sign up and declare their field of expertise.

2.  I would then receive an email notification that contained these people’s information.

3.  Zapier would then automatically add their information to a Google Sheet.

4.  Whenever someone had a request they sent it via email.

5.  I would then manually look for people who could answer their request on the google sheets and email them manually using Gmail.

6.  Whenever one of the users that I emailed accepted a request, I would generate a new Google Hangout link manually and send it to them as well as the user that initially made the request.

The process was chaotic and involved a lot of manual work, but it allowed me to test my idea for $3 (the cost of the domain name). I also didn’t expect to have many users, so I thought that the task would be manageable.

Little did I know that I would end up having more than 3500 users using that messy system and more than 200 paying customers.

If you want to learn more about how you can test your idea for close to $0 I recommend you read Ryan Hoover’s Article "Email-first startups" and The Startup School’s the "Wizard of Oz approach".

If you are interested in learning about how I got users to sign up and pay for my less-than-sophisticated system, don’t forget to upvote this article!

I also want to know how you would have tested the idea if this was your startup!