So you’ve got a pheomenal idea (at least that’s what you think) and you’ve now decided to go all in and make it happen. During the last 12 months I’ve designed, built, launched and marketed five different startups/products/websites (including this blog). Three of them with a collegue and two on my own. Not all of them were successes and some no longer exist. I think I’ve learned something valuable that I’d like to share with you.
Here are the 5 most important steps that I would recommend you to go through to maximize your chances of success.
Step 1: Before anything else, validate your idea
I can’t emphasize this enough. This is where I have failed too. Why do you believe that someone is interested in your idea? Have you asked people? You should.
Before wasting your time on something that nobody wants you should validate your idea. And believe me, it can be really, really hard, especially with B2B products. But unless you can figure out a way to do it you’re not going to succeed. Why? Because you’re going to face this exact same problem when you’ll be marketing your product. You need to find your potential customers and talk to them sooner or later. Do it sooner and you might save yourself months of work and get precious feedback from the beginning.
This step is so easy to skip because as software developers we have a tendency to jump right into the development and stay in our comfort zones. My advice is, don’t do it. If you’re having trouble validating your idea, you’re going to have trouble marketing it later on. And yes, you should try to do this validation before building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). You might want to create a landing page but remember that a landing page is not the same as validation. Most importantly you should talk to people and join related conversations on relevant forums.
Step 2: Watch out! Your MVP might be too large
Once you’ve got some initial validation for your idea you’ll probably want to build a minimum viable product. A minimum viable product can be defined in a lot of ways. Generally it’s defined as “the product with the highest return on investment versus risk”. And depending on the case, the minimum might turn out to be several months or even a year. You might disagree here and argue that just about anything can be made small by stripping down the features. While that’s true you’ll need to consider your competition and your idea. If you’re ever going to have a chance of survival you can’t build a stripped down version of the products your biggest competitors are offering.
To keep the MVP small you’ll need to have something quite different compared to your competitors so people won’t be missing all the features that your MVP doesn’t have. You need to diffrentiate enough, provide something unique that no one else is offering and make sure that it’s valuable enough for people to choose your product over the others. When we built Applicant.io, an Applicant Tracking System, that’s exactly what we struggled with.
I would rather like to think of an MVP as a prototype that you can build in a month and throw out to the public to see how well it performs in the real world. Actually, my advice would be to keep refining your idea until you’re confident that it can be built in a month and you can honestly reason about people choosing your product over your competitors’. It won’t guarantee you success of course but it’s a good starting point. In the next step I’ll give you a few tips to hit that goal of one month.
Step 3: Choose the right tools for the job
Okay, to build a product from scratch to launch in just a month you’ll need to give up on many of the best practices of software development. I’m talking about things like unit testing, abstractions, logging, continuous integration etc. While all that is very important for a live stable product it’s just going to slow you down in the beginning. As developers we tend to be very worried about those things, which is natural, but the thing you should worry most about is… does anybody care about [insert your idea here]. If after the launch you find out that they do, then great, go ahead and add all the fancy stuff to your product - it’s not that diffcult.
What comes to choosing the frameworks that you’ll be building your product with, I would recommend you to stick with what’s most familiar for you (unless it’s very outdated). Think of what you’re most productive with. While learning the latest and coolest technologies out there is important without a doubt there should be nothing more important than getting your product out to the wild. Remember, your MVP is small so it’s not difficult to switch to another framework later on if you need to.
Most of the products we launched during the last 12 months were single-page apps based on DurandalJS. You’ve probably never heard of it before although you may know its successor called Aurelia. We could have picked Angular as that was pretty much the standard but as we weren’t familiar with it, and the learing curve of Angular is pretty steep, we decided to go with Durandal and never looked back.
On the other hand I lately decided to rebuild an old Finnish used camera gear search portal as it was outdated. I had read about React and thought it would make complete sense for a project that lives out of SEO (React has awesome server rendering capabilities, read my tutorial) so I decided it was worth the effort to learn React. I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. So in the end it’s about finding the right balance between the requirements and your current skills.
What’s even more important than choosing the right frameworks is spending time where you’re most productive and outsource everything else. If you’re not a graphic designer simply buy a layout and modify it to your needs. Go to 99designs or Fiverr and get yourself a logo. Grab a cloud environment (VM, Azure Website etc.) that allows you to get your site up and running in the shortest time possible. Don’t think about the cost too much at this point - if you’re about to launch a startup you shouldn’t bother too much about spending a few hundred bucks to get your idea validated and the product launched.
Step 4: Just launch it
Launching as early as possible should have been your ultimate goal from day one. Everything you’ve done until this point has been to make this happen. Again, you’re going to feel tempted to “add just one more feature” and “improve that thing”… don’t. Just launch it. Then let your users tell you which features they want. Before that though, you’ll need to figure out how people are going to find their way to your website. No traffic = no feedback and that’s not what you want.
Step 5: Get people to use your product
This is by far the toughest step of them all. The web is full of startups that are competing for people’s attention and it’s extremely difficult to convince people to come to your website, signup and start using your product. But it’s not impossible.
If you’ve created a landing page early on and used that in validating your idea you’re going to have an easier start. I hope you’ve gathered the emails of visitors that were interested in your idea so you can just go ahead and shoot them with an invitation to try out your product. If you’ve done your homework then at least you should know by now how to reach out to your potential customers.
There are a few other things you can do too. One of them is submitting your startup to sites like BetaList that will give you a considerable amount of traffic for a while if your idea is interesting enough. The catch here is that you should be prepared to squeeze out the email addresses of as many visitors as possible. How well you can utilize the mailing list you build here will have a big impact on your success later on. This is whole another topic so I won’t go into the details here. I strongly suggest you to read more about optimizing your conversion rates though.
Also, don’t be afraid to try out a lot of different marketing strategies, even unconventional ones. There is no one strategy that fits all and you’ll have to figure out the ones that work best for you. When we launched a B2B product we did a lot of cold email marketing and got our first paying customers in a matter of days.
Good luck, get out of your comfort zone and just do it! I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun and learn incredibly much no matter what.