How I validated my business idea using Upwork

It’s one of the big existential questions of starting a business: How do you know if the thing you think might be a business is actually a business?

In highfalutin’ business circles, this is called “idea validation.” Here at GrowthLab, we use a different term: pay certainty.We like “pay certainty” because it cuts right to the core of what people are really asking when they ask if their idea is really an idea: will people pay for this product or not?

For some people, qualitative research is enough to answer the question. They immerse themselves in their audience’s mindset, spend time where their audience spends time, compile pages of notes about pain points and frustrations and possible solutions, and come away knowing exactly what they want to build.  

But if you’re like Callum Birch, you need a bit more quantitative heft to really put your mind at ease.  

“I quite easily could have said, ‘This is my hypothetical audience, I think they’re able and willing to pay based on conversations, or things I’ve found online,’” he said. “But for me to really believe it, it helps to actually see people in my audience literally looking for people to pay. It makes it real.”

He started with a broad target market — e-commerce companies — and a broad service he was interested in providing — digital marketing. Three hours later, he had narrowed the field down to three services that…

  1. …he knew his audience was looking for and…
  2. …he knew he could provide

And he did it all with a Google Sheet and a quick visit to Upwork.

Here’s how.

Step 1: Find the watering hole

“I started with my own interests. I’m quite keen on direct response marketing and paid advertising in particular, and I wanted to work with an audience that I knew would value that,without having to sell the value of the work itself,”Callum explained. “And I had an interest in dogs and dog training, but I didn’t want to build a productized business for the time being, and so thinking of the kinds of pet companies that might need digital marketing services, supply companies seemed like the most likely candidate.”

The next question Callum needed to answer was what kinds of digital marketing services were e-commerce companies interested in paying for? For that, he went to Upwork.

Thousands of people use Upwork to find people they can pay to provide professional services every day. All Callum had to do was find the job posts that were coming from his target audience, and determine whatservices they were looking for.

To do that, he followed these steps:

  1. Go to
  2. Search “e-commerce”
  3. Go through the first 100 jobs
  4. Skip jobs that aren’t actually posted by your target market
  5. Save the relevant jobs, so you can refer back to them later if needed
  6. Write down the broad service the company is looking for
  7. List results in descending order

Once Callum was done, he had a chart that looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018 03 16 at 3.10.13 PM

Right away, he saw that there was a pretty major drop-off after the first five entries on that list, so he zoomed in on those:

ServiceNumber of job posts
Facebook advertising36
Email marketing — campaign design, autoresponders, etc.21
AdWords/Bing — campaign design/management/optimisation17
Social media content/management13

What this did is take the guesswork out of the pay certainty equation. There are two questions the technique focuses on:

  1. Are people willingto pay for the service?
  2. Are they ableto pay for it?

Of course these people are willing and able to pay for these services — they’re on Upwork looking for people they can pay!  

Not only did this exercise help Callum quantify the interest his target audience had in different services — it surfaced possible services he could offer that he hadn’t thought about yet. Going in, he’d had a sense that AdWords might be one service he could offer. But when he listed the hits from most requests to least, three services actually ranked higher than AdWords: Facebook advertising, SEO, and email marketing. And he had the numbers to prove it.

Maybe your potential customer isn’t on Upwork. The important thing: find your target audience’s “watering hole” — the place they go when they need something. Then, find out what they’re looking for, and see if what you’re interested in offering meets that need. More on that in a minute.

Step 2: Are you willing to run this business?

Once Callum had honed in on the services e-commerce customers were willing and able to pay for, the next step was to check in with himself and ask: was he willing and able to supply those services?

To work through that piece of the puzzle, he created another table, which came out looking like this:

ServiceIs the market able to pay?Is the market willing to pay?Am I able to supply the service?Am I willing to supply the service?
Facebook AdvertisingYesYesMaybeYes
Email MarketingYesYesYesYes
AdWords/Bing SEMYesYesYesYes
Social media managementYesYesYesNo

It may sound simple, but this step is important. When you see those “yeses” filling in the “willing and able to pay” boxes, it can be tempting to think, “Sure I can talk myself into wanting to provide that.

Resist that urge at all costs.

Trying to talk yourself into doing something you don’t want to do — or aren’t really able to do — is a pretty good way to waste time and drive yourself crazy. Be honest with yourself about the services you are and are not willing and able to provide. You’ll build a better business that way.

Step 3: Pick the winners

We’re getting close. Last step: find the rows where the “yeses” line up like cherries on a slot machine and BOOM. You have your product — or at least, a few possibilities that warrant further exploration.

Here’s where Callum’s “yeses” were:

ServiceIs the market able to pay?Is the market willing to pay?Am I able to supply the service?Am I willing to supply the service?
Facebook AdvertisingYesYesMaybeYes
Email MarketingYesYesYesYes
AdWords/Bing SEMYesYesYesYes
Social media managementYesYesYesNo

Step 4: It’s go time. Or not.

By the time you’re done with this process for yourself, you’ll be facing one of a few outcomes:

Outcome #1: Red light

Stop. There’s no business here. People don’t want this, or they’re not willing to pay for it. Or you’re just not all that interested in doing it, even if customers are interested in paying for it. So it’s back to the drawing board: find another idea, and run the exercise again from the top.

Outcome #2: Yellow light

Proceed with caution. There may be something here, but you need more info to really be sure that it’s worth pursuing. Or you’re on the fence on whether it’s of interest to you. Dig deeper by speaking to potential customers.

Outcome #3: Green light

It’s go time. This is a strong candidate to be a business. Your customers are interested in buying it, you’re interested in providing it. Time to formulate some next steps.

Callum is moving on to his next steps now. Some things he’s working on:

  • Developing an outreach strategy to get in front of people at companies he’s interested in working with. 
  • Crafting an “offer” for the conversation that will allow him to provide value while he’s asking for input from potential clients. 
  • Compiling a list of 25 “dream clients” that he’s most interested in working with, and doing more in-depth research on those specific companies. 


You might be thinking, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work.” But it’s work Callum is ready to do, and time he’s willing to invest, because he ran the idea through his pay certainty framework first, and got the confidence he needed that he was headed in the right direction.