There’s a lot to the title of this blog post. To get anywhere near bootstrapping, first you need an idea. And there is no shortage of ideas. Recently it’s become apparent that a lot of smart people are happy to post their ideas for new businesses on popular sites like Hacker News. I grew up thinking that a good idea is precious, and that it must be kept hidden from others at all costs, until it’s ready to be launched to the world. But as the debate about ‘idea versus execution’ rages in small circles of would-be entrepreneurs, I’ve come around in my thinking… to where I believe a good idea is important, but the execution of that idea is what’s truly precious.

Finding an idea that you believe in… that is the hard part. How do you assess the quality of an idea? What makes something worth ‘believing in’?

Does the idea have to relate to something you’re familiar with? I’d answer ‘no’ to that, as Page 99 Test was presented as an idea to me on a Thursday morning this past July… by my partner, Joanna. I am a Web site conversion expert working for Intuit – and Joanna is an experienced marketing copywriter (also at Intuit!) who is well on her way to completing her first novel in the young adult fiction genre. We were brainstorming some ideas for a simple start-up, and I went straight to familiar territory: some kind of new Web site survey tool for obtaining visitor feedback; or a new way to perform Web A/B tests. These were ideas in my comfort zone. I wanted to believe in them, but they did not get me terribly excited.

So after listening to me wax poetic about the next big Web feedback widget, Joanna suggested that perhaps we should look at the publishing industry… to look for ways to help enthusiastic readers discover new writers before they’re published – and to help up-and-coming writers get noticed. Joanna had recently navigated her way through the traditional and time-consuming process of establishing a relationship with a literary agent. It’s a complex (and sometimes rejection-filled) process, especially for a first-time novelist, largely because there is no set of standards for submitting a manuscript. Each agency has a series of steps to complete for new submissions. The writer must closely follow the instructions, submit a synopsis of their manuscript, and wait for a response. No response? The writer moves on to the next agency.

Literary agents – especially the good ones – are typically swamped with submissions, so getting noticed can be tricky. And even if your submission is accepted, there is still this one person (the agent) who holds the success of a writer’s hard (or life’s) work in his hands. Without even getting into the astonishingly low ratio of published books to submitted manuscripts, Joanna didn’t have to work hard to convince me of the opportunities for improving the traditional process and creating some efficiency for both writer and agent.

So an idea worth believing in was born. It was not familiar territory for either of us, but Joanna’s real-life experience – and the opportunity to change the negative parts – was something that excited us both.

The basic premise of Page 99 Test is to introduce consumers into the process of evaluating a writer’s work, instead of excluding them right up until the book hits store shelves. Experienced agents may have a good sense for what sells, but with an average sales volume of 4,000 units for a published book, it’s pretty clear that agents can’t necessarily predict success (after all, how many agents passed on J.K. Rowling’s first novel?). More specifically, Page 99 Test borrows from a nearly 100 year-old quote from Ford Madox Ford, “Open the book to page ninety-nine, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” The abridged version? First impressions count. And the ‘page ninety-nine test’ takes place in book stores all around the world… it’s how many people make a purchase decision.

Page 99 Test enables a writer to submit one page (surely we don’t have to elaborate on which one) from their manuscript and have readers rate and give their initial impressions on that page. The writer may choose to take that feedback and revise the page (or surrounding pages) for a subsequent review by the site’s readers. Should a page 99 receive glowing feedback, the writer will be invited to submit an entire chapter from their manuscript for review on the site. So in its simplest form, Page 99 Test acts like a filter for identifying great writers, based on a quantitatively meaningful sample of readers who love to buy books. We have a long term vision for the site that extends beyond ‘filtering’, but I’ll save that for another post.

So there you have it. A great idea… one with great potential… and something that excites us every time we discuss it. Deciding to ‘bootstrap’ our little endeavour was actually pretty easy once the other two parts (Idea + Believing) fell into place. For us, bootstrapping is absolutely a necessity because we don’t have a network of potential investors. Instead, we have some savings that we’re willing to commit in order to explore the potential for this to become a real business.