What makes someone an entrepreneur is still a topic of debate: perhaps they are born with an innate streak of business brilliance; perhaps they are honed in an enterprise education classroom; or perhaps it’s a bit of both. How an entrepreneurial soul begins to go about the business of actually being an entrepreneur, however, seems fairly clear: it’s the ‘lightbulb’ moment. That great idea of a product, service or concept that will have real impact on the world.

But how can you tell whether that ‘lightbulb’ is operating at megawatt capacity, or whether it’s merely producing a dull flicker? What separates a true entrepreneur from the rest isn’t just a fantastic idea or an enormous amount of confidence in said idea; it’s the knowledge that this product or service will work. And though some ventures succeed based on the instincts of the creator alone, most will require intensive testing and tweaking before they’re ready for the general public – and, perhaps more importantly, financial backers.

Feedback needn’t cost a fortune, though. Here are some simple, cost-effective ways to test your product:

Get feedback from your own networks

This doesn’t mean simply asking your friends and family (!) but – thanks to the power of the internet and social media – a wide range of extended networks is available to you. Collate a variety of questions and ask your friends to ask their acquaintances. Keep the source of the questions – and the product these are based around – anonymous. This way, you’re likely to receive honest and varied feedback, which is the aim of the exercise. You don’t want to run the risk of people submitting answers that are distorted by emotional bias.

Pull some focus groups together

The first thing to do is to try and identify your ideal customer(s). What demographic are you targeting? What are their interests, buying habits, etc.? Once you’ve created a customer profile or two, you should then try and tap into the right networks. Find someone who fits the profile and ask if they can pull together a group of like-minded friends (around five to eight people would be ideal). You don’t need to offer payment for this, but some kind of incentive would be a nice gesture (a few bottles of wine, for instance).

The thing to remember is that the aim of the exercise is not to receive unanimous praise; what you’re trying to do is fine tune your offering. Ask as many specific questions as you can – from packaging to price point – and gage reaction from there. And don’t be disheartened if strong views are expressed; indeed, a strongly negative viewpoint is more useful than a mild or neutral response. It would be far more valuable, for example, to come across a focus group containing four people who adored your product and four people who hated it. Honest feedback from those with strong opinions will help you improve your offering: you can find out what people love about your product, and focus on this in your marketing; conversely, you can discern what people dislike, and then refine your product or service accordingly. If there are some people who absolutely love your idea, they are more likely to buy it than a room full of people who express mild interest in it – so that’s a good sign!

Consider quantitative research

Focus groups qualify as qualitative research, which is most helpful for product or service development. Quantitative research, by contrast, can be useful later on in the process, when your product has been developed and informed by feedback but you need to identify your target market more definitively. If a quarter of your test groups included people who loved the product, and you’ve honed it based on their recommendations, now’s the time to focus in on them: what consumer niche does this 25% represent in the real world? Conducting a simple survey via telephone, email, or online can help you to build on these early numbers and identify how to target them (where they are, how you might reach them, etc.)

Test in a simulated environment

A crowdfunding campaign can offer one of the most effective and efficient methods of market testing: it gives you the opportunity to put your product in front of a huge audience, costs very little, and is likely to give you a real picture of your product’s efficacy very quickly.

That said, jumping straight into a crowdfunding campaign has its risks: consumers have fairly long memories, as do investors, and associating your brand with an unvarnished product could have a negative impact.

The Sandpit tool provided by Crowdfund Campus offers the perfect halfway house: a simulated marketplace, designed for students, that allows budding entrepreneurs the chance to gage consumer response, put sales and investment strategies into practice, and learn more about their potential consumer base – but all without actually making the campaign ‘live’. Mapped to the QAA guidance on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, Sandpit gives students a safe medium by which to take risks, and can be applied easy to any course.

At Crowdfund Campus, we provide full support to students and universities who wish to embrace entrepreneurship and crowdfunding. If you think that our Sandpit tool might be of benefit to your university, or if you’d like to learn more about our offering, please email support@crowdfundcampus.com – we’ll be delighted to help.